There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About…

Paperback | October 28, 2014

byLudmilla PetrushevskayaTranslated byAnna SummersIntroduction byAnna Summers

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The masterly novellas that established Ludmilla Petrushevskaya as one of the greatest living Russian writers—including a new translation of the modern classic The Time Is Night 

“Love them,­ they’ll torture you; don’t love them, ­they’ll leave you anyway.”

After her work was suppressed for many years, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya won wide recognition for capturing the experiences of everyday Russians with profound pathos and mordant wit. Among her most famous and controversial works, these three novellas—The Time Is Night, Chocolates with Liqueur (inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”), and Among Friends—are modern classics that breathe new life into Tolstoy’s famous dictum, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Together they confirm the genius of an author with a gift for turning adversity into art.

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From the Publisher

The masterly novellas that established Ludmilla Petrushevskaya as one of the greatest living Russian writers—including a new translation of the modern classic The Time Is Night “Love them,­ they’ll torture you; don’t love them, ­they’ll leave you anyway.” After her work was suppressed for many years, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya won wide re...

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya 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 bestseller There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, which won a World Fantasy Award and was one of New York magazine’s Ten Best Books ...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:208 pages, 7.75 × 5 × 0.5 inPublished:October 28, 2014Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143121669

ISBN - 13:9780143121664

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IntroductionRussian is a story-swapping culture. Bring your children to a playground, sit yourself down on a bench next to other sunflower-seed-crunching moms, and in ten minutes you’ll know whose husband drinks, whose younger sister got pregnant by an unknown party, and who was insulted, again, by her mother-in-law, because they all live together, and so on. But some stories a stranger won’t hear. Shameful stories—shameful by Russian standards; stories that mix violence, insanity, and jail. What they call extremal in Russian—stories too extreme for casual tale-swapping, suitable only for furtive whispering.For example, a family of five, say, is living in a three-room apartment in Moscow in the mideighties. They have just enough. Mother and father work, the roof doesn’t leak, there are staples in the cupboards, an occasional delicacy in the fridge. There are even two crystal vases on the shelves. One day, while the grandmother and the children are out at a New Year’s pageant, the mother tries to kill the father with an ax. That’s it. The father disappears to the ER; the mother disappears to a hospital for the insane, to await trial; the crystal vases get sold to pay for the mother’s defense; six months later the mother comes home to a wasteland. With her remaining strength she tries to raise the children, while the grandmother grows more and more demented; finally the mother gets cancer. The end.This would make a typical Ludmilla Petrushevskaya story. But it also happened in my house, to my family, many years ago. We didn’t know at the time there were stories written for us, about us; in the Soviet Union, as the narrator in Among Friends notes wryly, everyone lived as though on a desert island, and especially families like mine, families traumatized—and stigmatized—by extremal. Petrushevskaya’s work was suppressed for decades; only later, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, did we find out that all those years when we knew only shame and neglect, in the same city a woman exactly my mother’s age, also a mother, was composing story after story and play after play about families like ours—ordinary families who had suffered a tragedy.•   •   •The three novellas in this volume tell extreme stories that couldn’t be heard for many years—censorship wouldn’t allow it. Petrushevskaya was unable to publish Among Friends for seventeen years; it existed as samizdat. The Time Is Night was published in Germany in translation before it came out in Russia. When Among Friends and The Time Is Night finally appeared, they weren’t alone: a whole wave of previously suppressed works was released at the same time. It turned out that a number of brilliant writers had been trying to tell their own extreme tales about life in the Soviet Union, which was so opaque, so completely shrouded from both the West and its own citizens, that it was impossible to tell what was happening next door, let alone in Siberia. Fedor Abramov wrote about the devastation in the Russian countryside, the sufferings of the millions of peasants; Chinghiz Aitmatov about the government corruption and environmental disasters in Central Asia; Sergei Dovlatov about the horrors of army life; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov about arrests, interrogations, political prisons, and camps; Andrey Platonov about the civil war and the Bolshevik revolution.And Petrushevskaya? She described in minute detail how ordinary people, Muscovites, lived from day to day in their identical cramped apartments: how they loved, how they dreamed, how they raised their children, how they took care of their elders, and how they died. She spoke for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence, the way Solzhenitsyn spoke for the countless nameless political prisoners. To write about, say, the woman next door who worked for the post office, some bedraggled Aunt Masha who was left by her husband to raise three children on a salary of ninety rubles when a pair of shoes cost twenty, if you could find them, and who had to care for her paralyzed mother while her teenage son wreaked havoc (all details from Petrushevskaya’s stories), took as much art and as much courage as describing one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. The difference was that Petrushevskaya’s subjects were closer to home—they weren’t exiled out of our sight, out of our mind. They lived across the hall; they shared the room with us; they were my mother and grandmother.As both her critics and admirers agree, reading Petrushevskaya is an unforgettable experience. This testifies to the exceptional power of her art, because her characters, by their own admission, don’t make particularly fascinating subjects. In this volume, 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? Such women are boring even to themselves. Anna, the heroine of The Time Is Night, complains that no one wants to know how she lives: not her former friends or colleagues, not the state, not her neighbors—she herself can barely stand it. No one wants to know, except for Petrushevskaya. She takes it upon herself to describe her drab characters in such a way that we can’t put the book down, and when we finish reading we are overwhelmed by the most profound empathy.Nowhere does Petrushevskaya accomplish this feat of imagination more completely than in The Time Is Night (1992), with her portrait of Anna (who, like Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich, doesn’t have a last name, only a patronymic), an unemployed and unpublished poet on the cusp of old age, living in a cramped two-room apartment with her little grandson. Her mother is in a hospital for the insane; her two grown-up children constantly threaten to move in with her—one of them does so, at the very end, depriving Anna of the last vestiges of privacy.A brief prologue indicates she’s talking to us from beyond the grave, but leaves us to wonder how and when she died. Some commentators have assumed from the overwhelming pressure conveyed in Anna’s monologue that her death was a suicide. Petrushevskaya denies this interpretation. In a sense, though, the manner of death hardly matters. Whether she died the next day or stumbled around for several more years fulfilling her duties, the part of herself that mattered most to her fades away after the last sentence, where she bids good-bye to “all the living” who have left her. The Time Is Night is, indeed, the story of two Annas. One is a tall woman with an exhausted face, poorly dressed, with neglected teeth, whose hands smell of cooking oil, and who can’t walk past you without making an uninvited comment. She torments her poor daughter but allows her worthless son to manipulate her and rob her. She commits tactless blunders and downright cruelties. This is Anna the hag. But there is another Anna, the one who is telling us all these unattractive facts about herself with such objectivity and humor, and whose sad but rich inner life envelops us the moment we start reading her posthumous diary. This is Anna the poet. It is this Anna that dies at the end of the diary, leaving the hag behind to stumble around a bit longer. Duality is also contained in the heroine’s name, and her occupation. Petrushevskaya named her after the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who had suffered similar tragedies, yet endured for a very long time. The other poet mentioned is Marina Tsvetaeva, who did in fact kill herself. Petrushevskaya saw her Anna vacillating between Akhmatova’s stoic endurance and Tsvetaeva’s ultimate self-destruction. Anna’s life is objectively extremely hard—life during Stagnation (1964–82) was hard for everyone who wasn’t the ruling elite, and the divorced, unemployed Anna belongs to the most vulnerable and marginalized part of the population. Her tragedies are marked by extremal: her son has been to jail for a violent crime; her mother is dying from schizophrenia; her daughter is homeless. Still, the reader can’t fail to notice that some of her problems are self-induced and that despite everything there are many joys available to her. There is her adored grandson; there is her daughter who could be her friend; there are her books, her walks; and, finally, there is her poetry. The famous line by Akhmatova, “If only people knew from what muck poetry grows,” comes to mind throughout the novella. Anna has a gift, as did Akhmatova, as did Tsvetaeva, as do all talented poets, to translate the filth and muck of reality into harmonious verse. This gift, we are convinced, might have saved her had it been nourished.•   •   •The other monologue in this collection, Among Friends (1988), is Petrushevskaya’s best-known and most controversial work. The story it tells is so extreme—by peculiar Russian standards—that it wouldn’t be shared even in a whisper. Many critics and readers interpret it as an attack on Russia’s two revered institutions: friendship and motherhood. To this day Petrushevskaya gets criticized at public appearances for her heroine’s behavior.The novella’s heroine, who narrates the story, believes herself to be dying. She lives with an estranged husband, who finally files for divorce, and a young son. Her parents are dead; all she has by way of family is a group of old friends who have known one another since college. It is their custom to convene every Friday in a little apartment that belongs to a married couple, the nucleus of their club. Throughout Russia’s imperial and Soviet history, such unofficial networks were a beloved recourse among intelligentsia, allowing them to speak their minds freely—something they couldn’t do anywhere else in a censored society. Petrushevskaya’s “friends,” however, are deeply apolitical and don’t seem to take notice of anything outside their club, including the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Behind their cynicism and snobbishness they think themselves invulnerable, yet when a patrolman pays them a visit they are too terrified to even use the bathroom. In the end, all illusions and pretenses come undone, and cozy gatherings turn into a snake pit. In the notorious closing scene that still sends readers into a fury, the desperate narrator performs an act of violence toward her son, because she believes it to be the only way to ensure that her so-called friends don’t abandon him after her death.•   •   •The more recent Chocolates with Liqueur (2002) was conceived as a homage to Petrushevskaya’s favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe. This is the first time it appears in English. Its subject is violence against a woman and her children that’s committed daily, inside an ordinary home, in view of the numerous neighbors. One of Petrushevskaya’s scariest stories, Chocolates is narrated in a light, conversational manner, which makes the novella all the more frightening.The heroine is Lelia, a young mother of two who is trying to protect herself and her children from a murderous, psychotic husband. Unfortunately the husband owns the apartment they live in, so Lelia has nowhere to go. The abuse carries on for years, unobserved by anyone. Only the neighbor’s pet, a German shepherd, senses Lelia’s fear, and in the end it is the dog that saves Lelia and her children. Why Lelia agreed to marry her husband in the first place is part of the novella’s mystery. She could have been pregnant by another (we are given to understand), or else she, an orphan without family or friends, could have been flattered by the young man’s persistent attention. The chief instrument of his seduction is chocolate filled with sweet liqueur—impoverished Lelia’s favorite treat. The chocolate is an allusion to the Poe story “The Cask of Amontillado,” on which this novella is based. In it the perpetrator similarly lures his victim into a mortal trap using the victim’s love of sweet wine; in both stories the crime is committed inside a respectable residential building. Out of fear for her children’s lives, Lelia is unable even to call for help during the final attack and is prepared to suffer death in silence, another mute victim of domestic tragedy.•   •   •What makes reading Petrushevskaya so disturbing yet so compelling, so depressing yet so exalting? Partly it is her exceptional eye for (often painful) detail. Partly it is the mordantly witty asides of her narrators, both sympathetic and unsympathetic. Perhaps most of all it is what we might call the courage of genius, the willingness to attempt to turn even the extremities of suffering and degradation into lucid, compassionate art. Family and friendship are inescapable and natural, and yet they are also, under these circumstances, hellish and ugly. Those who endure this extreme misery are usually mute. Petrushevskaya endured it, too, but by a kind of miracle was somehow endowed with a power of perception or sympathy, which didn’t exempt her from the misery but at least allowed her to record it. All that immense quantity of suffering and squalor would be lost, would disappear into a historical void, if it hadn’t found a laureate in her. Suffering is bad enough, but permanent invisibility is even worse. It mitigates the horror, in some mysterious way, when it is witnessed, recorded, transfigured.ANNA SUMMERSThe Time Is Night Awoman called me, a stranger. “My mother”—she paused—“has left some papers. She was a poet. Can I send them to you? No? I understand.” Two weeks later I received a folder full of scrap paper, pages torn from school notebooks, even telegram blanks. There was no address or last name. The handwriting on the folder read, Notes from the Edge of the Table. Here they are.•   •   •My little boy doesn’t know how to behave at other people’s homes: he touches everything, asks for seconds at the table; he finds a dusty toy car under a bed and wants to keep it. “Look, Grandma, I found myself a present!” The rightful owner, a tall boy of nine, wants it back, and an argument ensues. I drag my Tima to the bathroom; he is crying inconsolably. We came to borrow a few rubles; next time they won’t let us in. Even tonight my dear Masha took her time at the peephole, and all due to Tima. I carry myself like the Queen of England and refuse Masha’s offer of tea with crackers, but my belly rumbles loudly and I sneak pieces of baguette from my shopping bag. I need to feed Tima: I stuff him with the offered crackers and ask for extra butter—they forgot to hide their butter dish. Oksana, Masha’s daughter, interrogates me about my eternal pain—my Alena—right in front of Tima.“Does Alena ever visit you, Aunt Anna? Tima, do you ever see your mommy?”“No, dear, Alena is home with mastitis.”“Mastitis?” Oksana raises her eyebrows. Whose baby exactly has caused Alena’s mastitis?I grab Tima, plus a few crackers, and we flee to the living room, to the television. Oksana follows on our heels. She tells me I must complain to Alena’s boss that she deserted Tima. So leaving him with me means desertion? I remind Oksana that Alena is not working, that she is at home with a new baby. Finally Oksana asks me about the baby’s father. Is it the same man Alena told her about when she called to borrow for a down payment but they were buying a new car and renovating their dacha? The one who makes her weep with happiness? Him? I tell her I don’t know.The implication is clear: we shouldn’t come around anymore. They used to be friends, Oksana and my Alena. We took a vacation together to the Baltic—me, young and tanned, with my husband and both children, and Masha with her Oksana. Masha was recovering from an especially tumultuous affair with a certain professor of Marxism-Leninism, who, even after Masha had aborted his child, wouldn’t give up his wife and other girlfriends, including a fashion model in Leningrad. I stirred the pot further by telling Masha about another woman of his, famous for her wide hips, whom I once saw running after his car as he tossed her an envelope with some cash—dollars, it turned out, but not very many. In the end Masha stayed with her Oksana, and my husband and I entertained her that summer, and she let us pay for her drinks despite her large sapphire earrings. Even all those years ago, I’m trying to say, even before I was fired, Masha and I occupied different rungs on the social ladder. This will never change.Right now her son-in-law is trying to watch soccer; her grandson, Denis, is bawling, demanding his nightly cartoon—the scene repeats itself every evening, apparently; that’s why everyone’s so tense. Tima, who watches this program at best once a year, appeals to the son-in-law, “Please, I beg you!” and drops to his knees—he is copying me. Alas.The son-in-law dislikes Tima and is clearly tired of Denis. Between you and me, Oksana’s husband is on his way out, which explains Oksana’s venom. He is writing a dissertation on Marxism-Leninism—the subject seems to cling to this family. Masha, true, publishes pretty much anything. She threw me a few crumbs in the past, some odd jobs, although it was I who covered her back when she urgently needed a piece on the bicentennial of the Minsk Tractor Plant. My fee was surprisingly small—I must have had a coauthor, some chief engineer from the plant. That piece, however, was the end of me. The next five years I was told not to show up at that publisher, for someone had made a comment along the lines of, What bicentennial? Have we all lost our minds? Do we really think the first Russian tractor came off the conveyor belt in the eighteenth century?Tonight’s an important soccer game. Denis is on the floor, weeping. Tima rushes to help, pressing buttons with his clumsy fingers, and the screen goes black. The son-in-law runs to the kitchen to complain; Denis quickly restores the screen’s picture, and the two are sitting on the floor watching peacefully, while Tima laughs with strained eagerness.The son-in-law must have threatened divorce, for Masha enters the room with the expression of someone who has done a kindness and now regrets it. The son-in-law is peering over her shoulder. He has a handsome face, a mix of gorilla and Charles Darwin; at the moment gorilla dominates. The women are yelling at Denis; by yelling at Denis they are, of course, yelling at us. Two women yelling—that’s nothing new for my poor boy. He just stands there, his mouth twitching—a nervous tic.My poor little orphan. It was even worse at the house of a distant acquaintance, a former colleague of Alena’s. They were having dinner when we barged in; Tima squawked that he was hungry. I hurried to apologize—the child is hungry from all the walking, we’ll leave in a moment, just wanted to see if there was any news from Alena. But they offered us borscht, thick, meaty borscht, and then the second course. More gratitude on my part—nothing for us, thanks; well, maybe just a little for Tima; Timochka, do you want some meat? At this point a giant German shepherd jumped up from under the table and bit Tima on the elbow. Tima bawled, his mouth stuffed with precious meat. The father of the house, who also looked like Darwin, yelled at the dog, but in fact he was yelling at us, for barging in. An ugly, ugly scene. That’s it, there’s no going back for us. I’ve been saving this house for the rainiest day.Alena, Alena. My faraway daughter, where are you? There is nothing more precious than love. How I loved Alena! How I loved Andrey! Infinitely, absolutely. What have I done except love them both?

Editorial Reviews

“Masterly.” —The New York Times “It is hard to resist Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s darkly comic new collection of novellas. . . . Brilliant, piercing . . . Unsparing and unsettling . . . Surprising . . . emotionally resonant . . . Beautifully textured . . . Petrushevskaya’s fiction [offers] a glimpse of what it means to be a human being, living sometimes in bitter misery, sometimes in unexpected grace.” —Jenny Offill, The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice) “To say it stuns is an understatement. . . . Petrushevskaya’s portraits of mothers in extremis will make you reel.” —The Atlantic “Petrushevskaya, now seventy-six and finally attracting the readership she deserves, [has] a ringleader’s calm mastery of the absurd.” —The New Yorker “Dark, fantastic, and utterly startling.” —, “The 8 Best Under-the-Radar Books for Fall”“Petrushevskaya’s short stories are painfully good.” —Kelly Link, The New York Times Book Review “Petrushevskaya is the Tolstoy of the communal kitchen. . . . She is not, like Tolstoy, writing of war, or, like Dostoevsky, writing of criminals on the street, or, like poet Anna Akhmatova or novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, noting the extreme suffering of those sent to the camps. Rather, she is bearing witness to the fight to survive the everyday. . . . [She is] dazzlingly talented and deeply empathetic.” —Slate “Very strong and sad.” —Margaret Atwood, on Reddit   “Frightening, infuriating, unforgettable . . . These novellas . . . flash into your mind, like portraits done in lightning, and then . . . they stay there.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune “Surreal and yet strikingly direct portrayals of family life in modern Moscow . . . Brimming with black humor and bitter sparkle . . . [Petrushevskaya is] subversive and brilliant. . . . English-speaking readers are lucky to have another translation of [her] work at their disposal, and this collection will leave them eager for more.” —Shelf Awareness “Infernal, haunting monologues . . . [A] gimlet-eyed appraisal of humanity . . . Bewitching.” —Kirkus Reviews “An important if disturbing work, one of the few translations available focusing on the domestic life of Soviet Russia and one of the most challenging examples of ‘women’s fiction’ available in English.” —Library Journal “In her best work Petrushevskaya steers a sure course between neutrally recording the degraded life of the Soviet-era urban underclass and ratcheting up the squalor of that life for the mere pleasure of it. She does so by the steadiness of her moral compass and the gaiety of her prose.” —J. M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature   “We are likely to hear a lot more of this woman. Some October, perhaps, from the Nobel Prize committee.” —The Nation   “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.” —Elle   “Petrushevskaya writes instant classics.” —The Daily Beast   “One of Russia’s best living writers . . . Her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next.” —The New York Times Book Review