Not long ago I reviewed a short memoir published by Petrushevskaya, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia, in which I mused about rumors of her talent, never having read any of her poetry, stories, or novelettes. Petrushevskaya has a savage humor borne of long deprivation. Her work bears signs of torture of the spirit; she recognizes how to cannily exploit human weakness to stay alive. But she also has a huge umbrella of compassion which she holds over those she loves. Reading her work is a breathtaking experience.
This collection is comprised of a novelette, "The Time is Night," and two shorter stories. The work altogether expresses every feeling of love, desperation, hope, and bitter despair that a mother can feel about her children in any country in any time. It is an epic, deeply funny, excoriating look at how the deprivations in Russian social, political, and economic life have worked loose the traditional bonds of family. It is compulsive reading. The work was published in Germany before it could be published in Russia, having been banned there.
"It all seems like yesterday. I look back on my life—men are like roadsigns, children mark chronology. Not very attractive, I know, but what is, if you look closely?"A proud poet finds herself destitute in late middle age. Her son is in prison for theft (and maybe murder) and her daughter keeps showing up pregnant and wanting more than the poet has to spare. The poet takes her daughter’s first child to care for and continues to suffer ungrateful visits from her children whenever they need something. Anna Summers, translator for this series of stories, tells us in the Introduction that
"…her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies and who see little beyond the question, How to raise a child? How to feed it, clothe it, educate it when there is no strength left and no resources?"When "The Time is Night" was finally published in Russia, it came out at the same time as the third piece, "Among Friends.” "Time…" is a novelette, its length over one hundred pages; "…Friends" is less than thirty pages, outlining a grotesque collection of viperish friends and former spouses, all calculating how and what they can score from knowing someone but paying no attention to the larger world outside their immediate purview. The incestuous theft and jealousy rife within the group is ghetto poverty: no one can break free of the poisonous atmosphere because they need each other. The story is a short quick shard that cleaves the heart, and leaves the reader gasping: it speaks directly to what some feel they must resort to “protect” their children.
The second story, "Chocolates with Liqueur," is the one written the most recently (2002). Summers tells us it was written as a tribute to Edgar Allen Poe. The story itself is broken into five parts; I thought the story was complete after the first part which contains the most horrendous and coruscating engagement scene I have ever encountered, without us knowing it is just a continuation of the theme of how difficult it is to find a place to live. The atmosphere gets thicker, darker, and heavy with motive as befits a Poe tribute, and finishes pointing to "The Cask of Amontillado," thought to be Poe’s best short story. In that story Poe created a family motto suggesting that the family history is filled with acts of revenge: "Nemo me impune lacessit" (No one attacks me with impunity). Find Petrushevskaya's story somewhere and read it. It feels positively ancient, as though this were a story written at the dawn of time.
The twist in the nature of marriage and family comes from the search for a safe place in a society where food, lodging, dignity are in short supply. Petrushevskaya is controlled She has seen it all and still gives us art. I don’t know which of these stories I like the best. She deserves all the awards and all the adulation. She is extraordinary.
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