Continuing to Die: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

There is a tapering at work in Petrushevskaya’s fiction, a diminution in action and character, which explains the often anti-climactic conclusions of each tale. Back-story is virtually nonexistent, but when it does appear it is to help accentuate a character’s loss, what he or she once has and presently lacks. That’s your lot, we seem to be told each time when yearning for more specific topography or a dab of local colour. Her characters accept their fates, yield to their ever-imminent attenuation, and many see life as merely a prelude to death. Her characters accept their fates, yield to their ever- imminent attenuation, and many see life as merely a prelude to death. Indeed, mortality is not only inevitable, it seems to be just around the corner. When the m-d’s mother “in a fit” smashes the family china she screams at her daughter “I’m going to die, all right, but you’ll be left with nothing.” Even the china has a connection to death — they only keep it “in case they’d have to sell it to pay for a funeral.” The Creature pollutes not only the m-d’s living quarters but her entire vicinity: “Death itself is on that stairwell, dressed up in a thin fur coat.” The few characters who are fighters seem to be emboldened by secret sources of resilience, like the R. family and the anonymous girl in “The Black Coat,” but the majority see themselves as foredoomed. In “There’s Someone in the House” even “the cat is preparing to die.” Some characters wish death on others. In “My Love” a man is so fixated by a photo of a woman that “having buried his mother-in-law, he began waiting patiently for his wife to die as well.” Others wish it on themselves, such as the monk in “The Old Monk’s Testament” who walks off to a certain, almost preordained death, and his murderers who later hand themselves in and insist “they be put to death.” Petrushevskaya intensifies the suffering by dwelling on long-drawn-out death throes — to the extent that many of her creations aren’t quite wraiths because they are spending so much time continuing to die. The ending of the m-d’s tale is unique because it is upbeat, but its real uniqueness lies in the specificity of that upbeatness, namely the fact that “she’s decided to live.” Everyone else has decided to die.

In 1991 the critic Mikhail Zolotonosov wrote an article in which he identified ten different literary “subcultures” of contemporary Russian literature. In Literature, History and Identity in Post-Soviet Russia, 1991-2006 (2007), Rosalind Marsh throws light on each of these groups and explains the definition of “underground writer” as “a term used by the critic [Zolotonosov] to denote texts written in the Brezhnev period… which do not achieve publication until after perestroika.” All of the writers contained in each subculture were classed as dissidents. One group comprised famous personages such as Bulgakov and Pasternak, whose “apocalyptic ideas and imagery” were at loggerheads with the party’s decreed policy of Socialist Realism. Doctor Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988, having previously only been available in samizdat form, and Babel, another revived writer “brought out of storage and prisons,” was posthumously pardoned with the publication of his Civil War Diary in 1990. Paired with Petrushevskaya is Yevgeny Popov, a writer who shares her rancorous tone and who is also concerned with the bleak, daily struggle for survival, and with characters who squabble, back-stab and drink themselves to death. However, he is arguably a more clownish writer than Petrushevskaya, whose black comedy in her stories is of a different ilk to the often ribald comedy of her plays. But more importantly, Popov can be read as an activist writer, a more scathing critic of the regime that once bound him. These underground writers were banned for not towing the line, for their flagrant iconoclasm that spoke of dissatisfaction and hinted at revolt. Many of the writers in the nineties were true successors to the heroes of the past, furthering Bulgakov’s stealthy anti-state rhetoric and Solzhenitsyn’s more brazen censuring. Petrushevskaya’s stance was always more quietist, her crime being to continually paint in the grimmest of greys and to favour showcasing the sad and lonely plight of the individual over that of a general, happy, homogeneous society. Equally condemned was her arbitrariness, her decision to stay authorially aloof and punish the good whilst letting the bad off scot free. But this is how my life was, we hear her telling us, and so this is how life is.

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