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I was introduced to a fabulous writer, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya through her anthology, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her SIster’s Husband and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories.* One caveat: I have not read any Soviet-era Russian authors before. For better or for worse, the one  impression I have is that I encountered an utterly alien world. The people who populate Ms. Petrushevskaya’s stories are recognizable. The dramatic tension is in their making do with what they have. Their responses are dramatically logical and realistic in motivation. Their environment is claustrophobic and, if short of dehumanizing, then at least one that continually sandblasts the dignity of its inhabitants. It might be too simplistic a statement, but it is a wonder that the Soviet Union survived for so long, given the lives that Ms. Petrushevskaya portrayed.

*I was asked to review this book by a representative of Penguin Publishing. I received an advanced copy of the book and no other form of compensation.

The stories were translated by Anna Summers, who also penned the introduction. In this text, we learn that Ms. Petrushevskaya, when young, and her mother were without a home. They “lived under a desk in her insane grandfather’s room, while occasionally renting cots in nearby communal apartments.” Later, when she grew older and had a child of her own, she was left a widow and had to care for her mother as well. This is simply the first of many details that astound. The other detail we need to know is that, following the Russian Revolution, cities (re: Moscow) began burgeoning. The response was for the state to outlaw private housing. Once appropriated, the apartments were divided into the tiny rooms, ubiquitous in these stories. Much as one envisions tenements and ghettos in early 20th century New York and European cities, with extended families piled into small rooms, so these Russians lived. It is in this milieu that we encounter Ms. Petrushevskaya’s characters; her experience informs the stories in this collection.

I realize that  short stories depend on stereotypes and a presumptive common experience, so that the writer can convey her ideas with an economy of words. I realize that, whatever reaction I have, for the people to whom Ms. Petrushevskaya wrote, they would have different thoughts. The shock I experienced may not occur to them, as the events may be commonplace for them. Anna Summers, who grew up in Moscow, in those communal apartment buildings that these stories take place in, states as much in the introduction:

When her stories first circulated, the shock of recognition was terrible indeed among my parents’ generation. Petrushevskaya, it turned out, had been writing about their lives; it was their claustrophobic apartments that she described, their ungrateful children, their sick parents, their frustrated marriages.

The brevity of these short stories unfolded in unrelenting fashion, without nonsense. Each sentence hurls the reader forward. The first story, “A Murky Fate”, exemplifies this: a nameless, unmarried woman invites a man to her studio apartment, and so she needs to convince her mother to vacate the premises for the night. The object of her affection is a 42-year old man, married, no career prospects, ill-health. She knows that this is a one-night stand, but she wants more. The following day, she cannot bear the thought of facing her old life and proudly tells her co-worker that she has a man. Except now she realizes that she will be the other woman, pestering his home with phone calls. Despite this, she cannot help but be happy. The story is really not much longer than that (well, I exaggerate), but utterly compelling.

This is one instance of the lives that Ms. Petrushevskaya sketches, but it is illustrative of the whole collection. The feelings her story engendered are complex, and to be outraged at the indignities of life in the Soviet Union would be too simple and besides the point. There is a fair amount of sadness, hopefulness, and some measure of happiness. It is more proper to say that, her characters are simply living, although not striving to transcend their system or institution. It is in this living, despite their circumstances, that makes the stories so moving.

The common thread in all these stories is that life is claustrophobic, an irony given the spacious  geographic area of Soviet Russia. Entire families are crammed into a small space, and familiarity breeds contempt. There is no physical and psychic room to grow; physical boundaries are reflected in the interior lives of Ms. Petrushevskaya’s characters. The men seem infantile, or drunkards, or both. For the most part, the people seem powerless to effect change, so they focus on what is in front of them.  In some cases, they – and usually women –  are certainly aware (such as the nameless woman in “A Murky Fate”, or Pulcheria in “Eros’s Way”), and consciously pursue happiness that is temporary at best and illusory at worst. These characters are missing that spark of daring to accept no less than perfection that comes in a world with almost unlimited potential. Instead, there is just endless gray, and one must simply find the meager allotment of happiness.

I think a similar set of stories, written by an American author about life in the tenements, will have the converse distribution. Those heroes and heroines would likely be striving for the pinnacle of perfection and happiness, and the drama comes in their failing to do so. This is not an indictment of the way we might write the stories in that setting; it simply reflects the approach we might take. I think most characters, Russian or Soviet, or American or otherwise, tends to end up in the same place.

About the happiest story, I think, is “Like Penelope.” In this, the heroine does in fact have that bit of daring. Oksana lives with her mother, a woman who has remained kind-hearted and generous, to her daughter’s dismay. The mother takes in her her mother-in-law, Klava, from her first marriage. The older women mean well, but Oksana seems ungrateful (a recurring motif in these stories).  For her part, Klava was a tailor and wished to make Oksana a wonderful dress for her to go out in, as it is New Year’s Eve. While there are no better options, Oksana scoffs at the reworked clothes offered to her by Klava. It is not materialistic selfishness that causes Oksana to act out: it is the simple observation that she will end up like Klava or her mother. Old and alone, without romance or happiness, and toil her only company. She felt no future. But it does sound like a lovely dress, with embroidery that, for shame, will not be noticed. Something moves her, and she puts the dress and make-up on. She is now physically changed. The metamorphosis completes when Klava’s son, Misha shows up to visit (it was his clothes that had been re-worked for Oksana). He is stunned by the now ravishing Oksana. She introduces herself as Xenia (a plainer name that she had wanted) and moves with elegance; she seized the moment, remade herself, and constructed her happiness. The final sentences summed it up:

Mama Nina observed her daughter and wondered where this new slow grace in her movements had come from, the twinkles in her laughing black eyes, the wave in her hair, the gorgeous dress…. Of course: she had made it herself.

That is the lesson that most of Ms. Petrushevskaya’s characters do not learn. To be fair, most of them had been beaten down too much to see that; all that is left is to settle.

My favorites in this collection are “Two Deities” and “Ero’s Way”. The former is about the relatively successful life the heroine, Genya, leads – only to realize that all is for naught as all that she and her partner, Dima, have a son, who seems weak-willed and will likely lead a dissolute life despite his relative advantages. But the way that story unfolded was just stunning. I had said that each one of Ms. Petrushevskaya’s sentences propel the story forward. It was a simple, forward march; an uplifting story, really, to hear about Genya’s obstacles and how she overcame them. And just as we reached the summit, she tumbles us back down as we find out what the future holds for the couple. When I go to the end, it felt like Ms. Petrushevskaya pulled the rug out from under me. It stunned me.

“Eros’s Way” was a bit of the opposite. Most of the story is about a woman navigating the treacherous waters of office politics. She does so successfully; the tension came when she fell in love with the husband of her nemesis. The man seems like a layabout, a mathematician who might be lazy, or exploited, or both. A little bit mad, but who somehow might be finding his way to women who will mother him. Pulcheria, our heroine, could be simply the latest in a long line of surrogate mothers, but it is a role she takes gladly. There is a delicacy of feeling that Ms. Petrushevskaya preserves, along with some sharp observations along the way. The end is a little bit sad, rather tender, and made me sigh with relief that no further depredations await.

I really enjoyed seeing how these Russians lived in the Soviet Union. Anna Summers noted in her introduction that, despite some of the things the characters do in these stories, we tend to sympathize rather than to judge them harshly. I agree. Somehow, these stories are not self-pitying. Sure, some of them are sad, and some definitely would make you catch your breath in their naked, raw desperation. But the characters are memorable, they do their best, and we root for them.

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OK. I should have moved on. I have continued reading, but haven’t posted any reviews. However, this book really stuck with me, and I need to get this off my chest.

I have noted in my review of Little Children that Perotta paints sympathetic portraits of suburbanites. Sure, by merely describing how they act, Perotta hoists the lot of them on their own petards. Again, I need to stress that Perotta does not present a one-sided portrait of these harried fathers and mothers. This is important, as Ruth and Tim, the two protagonists, are on two opposite sides of the debate on sex education and how far private religion should extend into public schooling.

Of the two, Ruth comes across as insouciant and flip. It actually makes it hard to root for her, despite the fact that hers is probably the more realistic point of view: kids will have experiment and have sex. Why ignore this fact and tell them to repress their urges? Sex education becomes damage control, rather than a vaccination. Her nemesis is JoAnn, not surprisingly, an attractive, sexy, but virginal spokeswoman for a conservative Christian organization. Again, Perotta avoids the easy send-up; as portrayed, there are no dissatisfied boyfriends, grumbling fiance, or kinky neuroses (or any hint of “doesn’t-really-count-as-sex” sex). As a matter of fact, JoAnn comes across as rather dignified, given the contrast in Ruth’s divorced, lonely, and somewhat aimless life. However, there is no doubt that Perotta’s sympathy lies with Ruth; the arguments against knowledge of sex usually are spoofed with wild figures, false accounts of disease transmittance or injunctions from the Bible. Ruth at least gives voice to various numbers and facts about STDs and birth control.

Tim enters the story as Ruth’s daughter’s soccer coach. After a win, Tim gathers his players, who form a circle to give thanks to God. Ruth is mortified, and so the plot is set; Tim and Ruth fall into their roles as adversaries, although Tim is generally an unwilling participant. Tim comes off as a sincere man, who wandered in his youth and failed as a husband and father. Now divorced, he shares custody of his daughter and tries hard to make amends. He too is somewhat aimless; he desires the past that he has lost and has no idea how to let go or move on. He is prodded into a relationship, and then marriage, with Carrie, a fellow parishioner, by the pastor.

It would be easy to focus on the red state/blue state split, the evangelical authoritarians against the liberal sophisticates. There are no new arguments here. What I carried from this book was an admiration of how well Perotta portrays characters. Even the pastor, the obvious lightning rod for anti-evangelical sentiment, doesn’t fall into that role. Pastor Dennis is a dynamic young man who converted Tim. I think enthusiastic best describes Dennis. Dennis is naturally disgusted with Tim for being so weak now; of course Tim made mistakes with his first wife. But now Tim pursues Ruth, spurning Carrie, and it seems realistic to me that while Dennis may overlook past transgression, he abhors what Tim does.

I think the least sympathetic character in the whole book is Carrie, Tim’s wife. She is dutiful to a fault. When I write these reviews, I have no  idea what the author’s intentions are (unless I’ve read interviews). It seems to me that Perotta’s intention with Carrie is to use her to represent the worse of the Christian authoritarian movement. First, Tim does admit that Carrie is his better. But then Perotta twists the knife a little – against Carrie. Carrie realizes it. Her attempt to provide a stable home is her duty. Her settling down with Tim is her duty. When Carrie buys sexy lingerie to ignite passion in their lives, it’s her duty. Submerging her desires; it’s her duty. Her marriage to Tim is a duty.

Therein lies Perotta’s main point; why are evangelicals so gung-ho about submission? Worse, it isn’t even as if Carrie does her duty for god. It is unclear if her motivation is faith, fear of being alone, or a need to amend her past by starting a life as a chaste wife. It is unclear what emptiness she is trying to fill. I might have mis-read the book, but I thought that all the other characters seem sincere. They generally believed in what they are doing, even if how they go about it turns into a complete mess. We don’t read too much about JoAnn’s life, or Pastor Dennis’s wife. As I had mentioned, it seems that JoAnn has it together.

As for Pastor Dennis, there is an element of pride in his pushing Tim to do the right thing; Tim was an official convert. Again, that is a reasonable portrayal of a very human sin. Tim struggles; he has lusts, and he knows what comes of it. He lost his wife over it. But lust is on the same continuum as a capacity for passion; he lacks that with his current wife. One problem is the biblical injunction to have stability, to have a woman simply to temper the man’s wild urges. Ruth is no stranger to sex; she has even enjoyed some of it. But she has also felt pain at being used, and her adult life seems devoted to addressing the symptoms of promiscuity, the logistics of avoiding pregnancy and disease management, and not so much really helping kids – or herself – find happiness or joy on their own terms. Ruth understands enough that religion is not a salve, and neither is living for the moment. But she isn’t sure how to proceed with living in the moment, to be happy and not merely pleasure-seeking. Carrie, by contrast, seems bitter. She has grown to dislike her past (promiscuous) self, but she doesn’t like her present self either. However, she seized on the fact that being able to suppressing her desires places her on moral ground, and more importantly higher than her husband. Despite her meekness, that’s the game she decides to play, and she certainly knows the score. That makes her the ugliest character in the story.

The strength of this story lies in the complicated characters. Especially Ruth and Tim, who are both aimless but sense they are currently at the nadir of their lives. In the end, Tim of course puts his lot with Ruth; although it should be a big statement against the use of religion, sex, or marriage as a bandaid on dissatisfaction with life, it felt more like a realistic first step these two trying to decide what actually makes them happy. I think this is a sublime ending.

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