I received There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya for Christmas from Jamie, who said she was drawn to it right away and thought I would be, too. Correct! I’d read about it when it first came out and was completely intrigued.
The story collection is translated from Russian into English by Keith Gessen (n+1) and Anna Summers. Their introduction situates it within a global context–they recount a story in which, in 1973, Petrushevskaya, a young, long-suffering widow, hitchhiked on a pilgrimage to Thomas Mann’s home on the Baltic coast with the intention of also meeting with an editor who may not have known that her writing was banned in Russia (the meeting paid off). They describe how her bleak, dark fiction about the lives of Russian women was transgressive enough to be a threat to the government even though it was never explicitly political. When the USSR fell apart, Petrushevskaya’s work became available and she, in turn, became, as the introduction says, “Russia’s best-known living writer” (ix). This translation makes her work available to readers of English.
So, I was excited to read the book, in part because of its brave, feminist author’s extraordinary career trajectory, but also because the idea of literary “scary fairy tales” was pretty fun.
Unfortunately, those aspects of the book, which were so exciting in theory, did not deliver the best reading experience. The stories and the writing just didn’t do it for me. The language, perhaps because I read it in translation, was unremarkable. There were no beautiful sentences, no surprising juxtopositions of words, no singular images–this was language used as muscle, to do the work of telling a story. If the action of the stories or their characters had gripped me, that the words existed only to service them would have been forgivable. These were fairy tales, though–simple, allegorical, straightforward even in their improbability. Each seemed to have a message–usually involving a cruel, dark twist, or a tiny flicker of redemption–which, although sometimes sort of cool, reminded me of a kind of Guy de Maupassant-style manipulation. Stories were often reduced to one-liners: “But the baby didn’t actually die!” “But that old woman is your wife!” “After all that work, they’re going to get us anyway!” The characters weren’t ever fully drawn people but actors plugged into tales in which they often didn’t have any agency. Without the ability to make choices, they felt flat; there was no reason to be emotionally invested in their lives or the fates that befell them.
That said, read as historical documents, taking their context into consideration, these stories have a lot to say and are truly powerful. Had I been a woman in 1970s-Russia who somehow managed to get her hands on a copy of the story “The New Robinson Crusoes,” Petrushevskaya’s best known story, which is subtitled “A Chronicle of the End of the Twentieth Century,” I have no doubt it would have resonated in ways I can’t even begin to imagine.