I am coming down with something bad. I could feel the cement hardening in the cracks in my skull all day, and now my brain is both solid and lacy with an underwater stupidity. I had started reading some trash fiction this morning, as usually illness sends me crawling to comforting junk, but it didn’t suit this time. It turned out my misery wanted miserable company, which made There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya more or less the perfect companion.
Sometimes short stories can be really constructed things, like a spring-loaded trap that snaps down hard on form or concept or what have you. These short stories are instead morbid and wry anecdotes, told with a sort of uniformity of structure, in a uniformity of locales. Which isn’t exactly true: when I could tell the time period, these stories ranged around from just post-War Soviet state to the now Russian Republic grumbling about New Russians. But poor, miserable, drunken, bureaucratic assholes are a time-transcendent fixture, as are the drear cabbage-redolent apartments and disconnective, though central, family structures. At a point, the whole collection started feeling like an extended rake joke, and I kept stepping and stepping on the tines that would aim the handle straight for my cement-filled head. Whether this will work for other readers is, as usual, up in the air, and it’s possible my single-sitting reading of this work helped my sense of the dark humor.
One of the best set of classes I ever took was a Russian Literature and History two-fer in high school, and we decided to stage a reading of The Cherry Orchard. We didn’t know much about it, and the teacher (in a very interesting and, ultimately, rewarding choice) didn’t read up on The Cherry Orchard‘s very long history on the stage; she was not directing our impressions. It’s a pretty dire story, in terms of plotting, a family broken up and sold off, dashed hopes, dissolution. And we couldn’t stop laughing as we read, not at all. It got to be a pain in the ass because we couldn’t even get our scenes completed as the giggling took up from on to the other like an infection. Then we would all wonder, why the hell are we laughing at this? Though there are elements of farce, The Cherry Orchardisn’t unserious in its treatment of its characters, not running them as some kind of broad parody.
Turns out, Chekhov intended it as a comedy, but its tragic aspects are inescapable. The laughter it provokes is uncomfortable, the burst of laughter after a startle. Many folk smarter and better’n me at theatre history have droned on about this at length, so let’s have an end to that and get back to Petrushevskaya, who manages to hit a Soviet version of the Chekhovian tragicomedy in a blur of miserable similarity. And who manages to do it turning Tolstoy’s famous aphorism on its head: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Here, this is what happened,” so many of these stories start, and then not quite tragic but nonetheless inconsequential lives continue inconsequentially until they end, or the narrative does.
The whole business reminded me of the Grandma Dory’s ironic anecdotes of her childhood, her Bestamore locked in by a stroke for the last 20 years of her life, left minded by teenage granddaughters who had better business to attend to. Bestamore had a tendency to push herself out of wherever she was propped, rolling down hills and gurgling in a way my Grandma would imitate. I guess she was trying to say something, Grandma would shrug with an old woman’s shoulders, laughing past her childish cruelties. Grandma’s lessons are always subtle. Petrushevskaya has an almost dismissively reductive narrative voice – “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else. The girl was used to it and didn’t get too upset” – but the opening dismissals are almost always belied by strange, glancing connections and the fact that she is focusing on these dismissed lives at all.
I often try, when I’m writing up collected short stories, to sort them individually: this one, this theme; this other, its voice. I’m not going to do that here because I think this functions best as an album, in the old school records-slotted-in-a-cardboard-box sense, but also in the sense of family album, all those nameless and half-remembered ancestors, sitting in a row of schoolchildren or dapper in their military swag or holding armfuls of children destined to die before the age of five. Here are the stories of unremembered lives lived in squabbled over apartments and stupid jobs. Amen.
One of these men is my great-grandfather, on the eve of the Revolution which will send him out of Lithuania. I don’t know which one.
I received my copy from Netgalley.com