#3 – I Have to Get a Letter to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Books Borrowed from My Ex-Husband #3
THROUGH THE WALL
Mini Modern Classic
By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
67 pp. Penguin Classics
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ull disclosure: I didn’t know Petrshevskaya’s work until I encountered her Mini and her name was cool, which prompted me to review her work second in this merry band of fifty books. I love Russian writers like Russian’s love vodka. I love vodka in much the same way. I could review vodka, but no, Petrushevskaya instead.
Her work is astonishing, and even more astonishing, she’s only partially translated into English. Two of the stories in the Mini are English debuts. Note to Russian language grad students: please put down the Gogol and get us the best of the new Russians.
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is great in a way only few are.
She’s Russia’s sole acknowledged living canonical writer. She also sings cabaret.
I have to get a letter to her.
I rarely read a writer (okay, never) who compels me to actually talk to the book itself: Yes, you get it! You get it, Ludmilla! That’s what matters to me, too, in fiction. But I find myself holding the Mini, shaking it, calling it “Ludmilla.” And not in my head, but aloud, in front of people I generally like to impress with my sanity. On the way to run an errand with my boyfriend that will lend reading time, when looking for the Mini, I hear myself say , I have to find Ludmilla and he says, what in the Hell are you talking about, darling? True story.
I keep looking at the picture on the back of the Mini. Ludmilla, we would be good friends, drinking buddies. I’ll buy. You write how I strive to write. You never once talk down to the reader, and any man or woman on the street could look at your work and be moved – you aren’t trying to outsmart anyone. You don’t’ have anything to prove.
“Through the Wall” stunned me. Its setting in a hospital is uncomfortable, and the matter of fact nature that mortality is omnipresent blankets the work. From the first moment of reading your work there is a reality that people die and endings are sad. But this story spreads open, and grows fantastical. Alexander falls in love with his hospital roommate’s pregnant wife when he learns she has given everything to a healer to save her beloved. The healer cheats her, her husband dies and she’s left pregnant, with nothing. Alexander watches this, hospitalized with a mysterious illness of the heart, and Ludmilla, this is perfect metaphor. His heart is unable to heal until he feels for the destitute widow. You reveal he ended up in the hospital the night after he’d been approached by a child beggar, hungry and freezing, asking how to get to the Metro. Alexander refuses, skeptical of an impending scam.
This skepticism is perfectly skewered without overt judgment by the sentence “easy advice from a well-nourished comfortable adult to a skinny, shivering child.” The boy slinks off into the freezing night and Alexander goes home to a rich meal and then awakens with the chest pains that land him in the hospital where he observes the woman who gives everything away on just a sliver of hope. When he decides to personally donate enough money to save this woman and her baby from destitution, his heart is healed. He sees the woman being discharged from the hospital and realizes he would give everything he had for her. You never need to use the word selfless or sacrifice. What remains unsaid is moving. The final paragraph explains it took a long time, but Alexander gets the girl and her son, four years later, and on bringing them home, even when the boy is rough with the cat, the cat doesn’t object “for cats are wise creatures and know who their friends are.” The whole time I read these words, so simple, I hold my breath, and then the last sentence prompts exhalation. Genius.
In your stories helpless adults care for dead or dying children, try to resurrect them, try to make something too impossibly delicate for this world compatible with it. You write of wizards who are given terrific powers to help everyone in the world, except those they love, as in “Anna and Maria.” A newly minted wizard tries to cheat fate and take a sideways approach to saving his dying wife, who he obviously does love. He struggles in the end desperately undo his own deception and has to yell at himself “I don’t love her! I can help her!” The reader’s heart is in their mouth. Again, the conflict is explored by the character’s actions, and you make no conclusions for your readers.
Because your stories have moved from verite-fiction to something akin to magical realism, and because they start “there once was a woman. . .” or “there once was a father. .” and they are in hospitals and somebody is dying or ill or starving, some say your work is monotonous. Not so at all. There is richness, movement, and depth. Ludmilla, you show the reader to a lake, frozen in winter, but thinly iced. You hand the reader ice skates and give ‘em a good push, and they skate cautiously, and then you suggest to the reader to look down at their skates, knowing full well they will see the thinness of the barrier keeping them from plunging into a frozen lake of abject horror. This is mastery. I can’t get your imagery out of my mind, long after closing the pages.
Researching your work I found a New Yorker story they published in 2009, “The Fountain House.” Your image of a man that eats a human heart sandwich on blood soaked black bread to save his daughter is burned into my brain forever.
You didn’t write until you had your first child, which you say grew your heart larger, at age thirty. You couldn’t publish your first book until you were fifty, because the Soviet’s didn’t like what you had to say. You lived through a time in history of a bleak strangeness, and you experienced the fall of political systems but the persistence of corruption. And so, why write about that, when you could write about a man who loved a selfless woman in a way that says so much more? I get it.
The Soviets said there were no more fairy tales. You write fairy tales. There are no more Soviets. For your seventieth birthday the State threw you a party. Your words endure.
R. L. Kapitan
PS – I mean it about the drink, Ludmilla. The vodka’s on me.