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Authors: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

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There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself

BOOK: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself
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Praise for Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

“This celebrated Russian author is so disquieting that long after Solzhenitsyn had been published in the Soviet Union, her fiction was banned—even though nothing about it screams ‘political’ or ‘dissident’ or anything else. It just screams.”


“Her suspenseful writing calls to mind the creepiness of Poe and the psychological acuity (and sly irony) of Chekhov.”


“The fact that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is Russia’s premier writer of fiction today proves that the literary tradition that produced Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Babel is alive and well.”

—Taylor Antrim,
The Daily Beast

“Her witchy magic foments an unsettling brew of conscience and consequences.”

The New York Times Book Review

“What distinguishes the author is her compression of language, her use of detail, and her powerful visual sense.”

Time Out New York

“There is no other writer who can blend the absurd and the real in such a scary, amazing, and wonderful way.”

—Lara Vapnyar, author of
There Are Jews in My House

“A master of the Russian short story.”

—Olga Grushin, author of
The Dream Life of Sukhanov


was born in 1938 in Moscow, where she still lives. She is the author of more than fifteen volumes of prose, including the
New York Times
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales
(2009), which won a World Fantasy Award and was one of
New York
magazine’s Ten Best Books of the Year and one of NPR’s Five Best Works of Foreign Fiction. Earlier works include the short novel
The Time: Night
(1992), which was short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize, and “Svoi Krug” (1988; “Among Friends”), a modern classic about the late-Soviet intelligentsia. A singular force in modern Russian fiction, she is also a playwright whose work has been staged by leading theater companies all over the world. In 2002 she received Russia’s most prestigious prize, the Triumph, for lifetime achievement.

is the coeditor and cotranslator of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales
and the literary editor of
The Baffler
. Born and raised in Moscow, she now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.`

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself



Selected and Translated with an Introduction by




Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 707 Collins Street, Melbourne, Victoria 3008, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books, Rosebank Office Park, 181 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parktown North 2193, South Africa • Penguin China, B7 Jaiming Center, 27 East Third Ring Road North, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100020, China

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Copyright © Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, 2013 Translation and introduction copyright © Anna Summers, 2013 All rights reserved

“Milgrom” was translated by Anna Summers and Keith Gessen. It first appeared on the Words Without Borders website.

“Give Her to Me” first appeared in The Baffler; “The Goddess Parka” in Playboy; “Hallelujah, Family” in Zoetrope; and “The Wild Berries” in The Paris Review.

The stories in this collection were published in Russian in Neva, Octyabr, Aurora, Znamya, Novyi mir, and Literaturnaya gazeta.

Publisher’s Note

These selections are works of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


Petrushevskaia, Liudmila. [Short stories. English. Selections. 2013] There once lived a girl who seduced her sister’s husband, and he hanged himself : love stories / Ludmilla Petrushevskaya ; selected and translated with an introduction by Anna Summers. pages ; cm ISBN 978-1-101-60298-0 1. Petrushevskaia, Liudmila—Translations into English. I. Summers, Anna, translator. II. Title. PG3485.E724A2 2013 891.73'44—dc23 2012029559

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

This translation is dedicated to my loving husband, John, and to the memory of my mother, Irina Victorovna Malakhova, who taught me to love Petrushevskaya.


Loving Petrushevskaya

ussians have a word,
, from
, to denote the circumstances of everyday life. In Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s love stories,
means waiting in line for basic goods, from potatoes to winter shoes (“Young Berries”); it means inflation that robs old people of their savings (“A Happy Ending”); it means an ambulance that takes an hour to come to a dying woman (“Two Deities”); it means alcoholism, obsolete ideology, anti-Semitism, poverty, inhumane laws—all the follies and cruelties of late – and post-Soviet society.

Above all,
means a shortage of housing. After the Russian Revolution, thousands of ruined peasants poured into Moscow. The state outlawed private ownership of housing, and so family apartments across the city were turned into rooms, which then were divided and subdivided until, eventually, there remained corners no larger than the size of one prone body, plus one suitcase. Over time these communal apartments were broken up, and families were moved into cramped, ghoulish blocks of apartments. By 1972, when Petrushevskaya published her first story, the city was ringed by concrete buildings made of one-, two-, and three-room apartments that often housed several generations of Russians. It is in these small, overcrowded, uniform, much-coveted units that Petrushevskaya’s love stories take place.

* * *

Born in 1938 in Moscow, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya never knew family life. Evacuated with her mother to Kuibyshev during the war, she was left there in the care of her aunt and grandmother while her mother returned to Moscow to attend college. Members of the family of “an enemy of the people,” they were treated as pariahs—and were slowly starving. At age eight Petrushevskaya began to run away from her temporary home and spend summers as a street beggar. Her mother returned after four years and brought her back to Moscow, where they were officially homeless. As a young girl there, Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her insane grandfather’s room, while occasionally renting cots in nearby communal apartments. It was an unsettled, unhappy childhood, one experienced without the consolation of siblings. And it did not exhaust her misfortunes. For her first husband died young, leaving her a widow struggling to support herself, their son, and her mother all together in one small apartment. She didn’t meet her father until after college.

These seventeen love stories represent the complete arc of Petrushevskaya’s writing life, from her first published story in 1972, “The Story of Clarissa,” to “Like Penélope,” published in a 2008 collection marking her seventieth birthday. The four sections tell of glimpsed romances in their earliest stages (A Murky Fate); of the twisted and accidental circumstances in which families are thrown together (Hallelujah, Family!); of parents struggling to raise children without murdering each other (My Little One); and of mature romances that have run their course or have been realized in a new form (A Happy Ending).

But the stories collect toward a thematic center in the drama of maternal love—the only kind of love that can survive in extreme spaces, the only kind that
survive if families are to endure. In the ironically titled “Hallelujah, Family!” a fourteen-year-old girl seduces her older sister’s husband. The husband, discovering his sister-in-law is pregnant by him, hangs himself. What follows is a tale in which motherhood burns off the abrasions of experience, or
, only to acquire fresh ones. The girl who seduced her older sister’s husband gives birth to a daughter, and that daughter gives birth to her own daughter. Her mother (the daughter of the girl who seduced her older sister’s husband) loses her mind from the burden of her family’s history and from the fact that her young daughter, now sleeping with older men, gives birth (without a husband) to a daughter, the fourth generation in the story.

Many of these stories portray the redemptive potential of maternal love displaced onto damaged men. In “Ali-Baba,” a childless, abused woman meets an apparently healthy man, a fellow alcoholic, in a bar, and goes with him to his apartment—and to an unwelcome surprise. “Eros’s Way” portrays a prematurely aged woman who has lost her femininity to the hardships of
, who comes to life when an insane, married man appeals to her maternal instinct. The same story shows a successful mother doing herself in, adamant for her child’s undivided affection while poisonously suspicious of ingratitude and betrayal. “A Happy Ending” shows a betrayed wife reconciling with her husband only after he has grown as helpless as a child.

But these are not tidy tales of loss and redemption. The love that her characters are feeling is like dreaming, a passion too complex and mysterious to be named, much less resolved. As with dream interpretation, which thrives in densely settled societies and represents a longing for personal freedom, love’s interpretation in tiny Russian apartments is stacked with too many layers of ambiguity and ambivalence ever to produce a wholly known emotional world.

Petrushevskaya’s genius as a literary artist lies in her ability to make the strangeness of her mothers, her would-be mothers, her once-were mothers, and her other characters worthy of our sympathy in the partial absence of our understanding. The changes she introduces in vocabulary, perspective, rhythm, and intonation sneak up on us, and before we know it we have implicitly forgiven bizarre, bewildering, and often vulgar behaviors and qualities. “Tamara’s Baby” begins with an exposé of a homeless, deranged man who travels to a sanatorium, one of the modest country resorts where urban Russians flocked for a romantic fling, a portion of serendipity, or a private escapade unthinkable back in their cramped apartments. The deranged man encounters a kindly older woman who takes his arm and, surprisingly, takes him in. The woman’s motives for sheltering the stranger are so perverse they cannot be called romantic. Nor does the resolution allow a conventionally sappy reading of two deranged persons united by their common alienation from society. No, the man and the woman can barely understand each other. Petrushevskaya evokes their quiet gratification nonetheless, and leads us to the epiphany hinted at in the story’s title.

“A Murky Fate,” meanwhile, gives us an aging, unmarried, and childless woman who invites into her overcrowded apartment a fat, balding, married coworker for a few undignified moments of sex. Why? The next day, she inspects her feelings and discovers that she cannot live without him, and this discovery, instead of breaking her heart—instead of condemning her to the pain and humiliation of unrequited love—makes her weep with happiness. At first we feel a mix of disdain and exasperation for the pathetic heroine, but by the end we are weeping with her, for her. She believes she has found a semblance of love. Who are we to deny her?

* * *

Petrushevskaya worked as a journalist in radio, television, and trade magazines, but it was as a playwright that she first made her name. Theater companies embraced her dramas, which expressed her miraculous ear for the registers of colloquial speech, from the self-serious, educated speech of the intelligentsia to the hilarity of sputtering alcoholics. As in her plays, so in her stories: Petrushevskaya listened on crowded subway platforms, on playgrounds, in apartments, and in other locales of ordinary life. All the stories in this collection have happened. All these sad and strange characters have real counterparts.

And so Petrushevskaya’s stories had to be suppressed; editors distrusted her pessimism, while official critics accused her of blackening reality. It was not until 1988, when she was fifty, that her first book of prose was permitted to circulate. Her stories contained no scenes of bloody repression, no labor camps, no knocks on the door in the black night—no politics at all. What appeared to be domestic stories of fringe characters, however, conveyed a verdict as brutal as the most overt dissident fiction. In place of the heroic new men and new women, Petrushevskaya offered a cast of pathetic characters barely holding themselves together. Her continual flow of insight into the emotional psychology of late – and post-Soviet society, her collective portrait of imperiled humanity that’s always been the highest object of communist idealism, must have terrified cultural bureaucrats in charge of official reality. For in her love stories, the revolution, having begun with the promise of communal apartments, degenerated and died in those same apartments. The juxtaposition of the fate of her characters and their high expectations for love and respect was unforgiving—and unforgivable.

I grew up in one of the concrete apartment buildings that have surrounded Moscow since the seventies, in the care of a mother who adored Petrushevskaya’s fatalism as lived reality and taught me to read her in the same spirit. 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.

In college during the hopeful nineties I returned to reading her, and what struck me then was the atypicality of her stories. In Russia’s culture the kind of stories shared with strangers on crowded buses and subways are extreme, the stuff of urban legends, myths, and folklore. Later still, when I became a wife and mother, I learned to read her with a smile, to delight in her humor, her irony, her steadfast refusal to save her characters, or her readers, from themselves.

Petrushevskaya waited for many years to see her first book into print, and in spite of official suppression, she never stopped writing. She couldn’t have kept her talent and her spirit alive on the diet of self-pity. No, even her gloomiest stories whisper their moments of humor, irony, and, yes, redemption to those readers willing to listen. She wants us to be strong, and clever, and resourceful, like the Russian people she loves.


BOOK: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself
7.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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