What happens when political catastrophe sends your life hurtling off its projected course? If you are old enough to feel the shock of the derailment, you may panic, despair, weep, and curse your fate. But if you are too young to know any other existence, and if you are unusually resilient and imaginative, you may find a way to recast the nightmare as fairy tale in your mind; not only surviving it but transcending it. The Russian author and playwright Lyudmilla Petrushevskaya, seventy-eight, has been pulling off this extraordinary feat her entire life.
Petrushevskaya came to attention in the West in 2009 with the publication of her story collection There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, which became a bestseller here. But in Russia, she was well known long before, in part because of a classic animated Soviet children's film from 1979, Skazka Skazok (The Tale of Tales), which wove her bleak childhood experience into a hauntingly tender pictorial collage of collective Soviet wartime memory, relayed by a shaggy gray cartoon wolf cub, and a magical bard, hovering over a glowing, empty page. The film plays on Russian television every May on Victory Day the anniversary of Nazi Germany's surrender to Russia in the Second World War. Such a film might seem unlikely to enchant children, unless you recall that its storyline, like Petrushevskaya's own history, embodies a core archetype of fable: threatened child overcomes adversity. Her memoir, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, translated by Anna Summers, fills in the detailed personal back-story that infuses that bittersweet, dreamlike children's film, but in words, not pictures. Devastating, unjudgmental, and curiously uplifting, the memoir is a profound testament to the power of the creative, loving human spirit to vanquish brutal circumstance. Petrushevskaya was born in 1938 in Moscow's grand, wedding- cakey Hotel Metropol, a neo-classical palace across from the Bolshoi. The Metropol served at the time as the Second House of Soviets, housing prominent Party leaders and revolutionaries (including Petrushevskaya's great-grandfather, Ilya Veger, an Old Bolshevik war hero). Her grandfather, Nikolai Yakovlev, was a famous linguistics scholar (her grandmother married him after turning down the proposal of the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky); and one of her great-uncles helped organize the 1905 uprising that led to the 1917 October Revolution. With such connections, you might think that Petrushevskaya would have grown up as Communist royalty not wealthy, perhaps, but privileged, and heir to the choicest circles of the Soviet social hierarchy. But in 1937, in the late years of Stalin's purges, three of her uncles and aunts were designated "Enemies of the People," along with their spouses, and arrested. Sentenced to "ten years hard labor, without the right to correspondence" which was, Petrushevskaya writes, "a euphemism for the firing squad" five of the six were never seen again. The stigma of their despised status passed to Petrushevskaya's mother, grandmother, and aunt (but not to her surviving male relatives), and when the little girl was born, it marked her, too. Soon, cast out of the Metropol, the family traveled by frigid boxcar 500 miles east to the city of Kuibyshev (now Samara), finding lodgings in a communal apartment. As Enemies of the People, Petrushevskaya explains, they were shunned by their neighbors, banned from the communal kitchen and bath, and forced to scavenge potato peels, fish bones, and trodden discarded cabbage leaves to feed themselves. "We were enemies to everyone: to our neighbors, to the police, to the janitors, to the passersby, to every resident of our courtyard of any age," Petrushevskaya recalls. "It was a miracle," she writes, when, in 1943, her mother received a letter of acceptance from a college in Moscow, which allowed her to sneak back into a marginally sustainable path in the Soviet structure. Wheedling her way onto a train, Petrushevkskaya's mother persuaded the drivers to let her cling to the outside of the engine for the 500-mile trip (they wouldn't let her inside the cabin), and off she went to Moscow, where she slept under the dinner table of her father's communal apartment on Chekhov Street while she completed her degree, coaxing child support from Petrushevskaya's father (the couple divorced soon after their daughter was born) to send back to Kuibyshev. Ludmilla would not see her mother again for four years. She writes, "She used to tell me again and again that it was for me, for my sake, that she left, that she couldn't have supported us without a college degree. For the rest of her life my poor mother justified herself." Yet the stories she tells of her motherless days in Kuibyshev are not cast down; they show a girl of unerodable pride and defiant character, intent on finding joy. Once, she scaled an outer ladder of the local opera house, crept into a balcony, and drank in a performance of Rossini's Barber of Seville. "My whole life I remembered that duet between Rosina and Count Almaviva," she writes. In the cramped dwelling she shared with her relatives, her grandmother captivated her with literature, conjuring a rich, borderless fictional world. In the wintertime, the two of them nestled together in bed for warmth: "We covered ourselves with every rag we owned, and for days on end she recited classics from memory, primarily Gogol Dead Souls, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka." In 1945, as a child of seven plucky but too poor even to own a pair of shoes or underpants, displaying the matchstick legs and distended belly of starving children the world over she spent her days begging and scrounging breadcrumbs in the courtyards of Kuibyshev. Sometimes she recited a Gogol story to earn her coins or sang popular songs like that other street urchin, Edith Piaf, but in Russian "cheesy, lowbrow numbers beloved by washerwomen and lumpen proletarians." Once, a shy boy was so awed by her recitation that he took her to see his mother. The woman, moved to tears by the little girl's talent and misfortune, gave her a green cardigan. Petrushevskaya never returned to that lucky courtyard. "We avoid places where we've endured pain, but the opposite is true, too," she writes. "Extreme kindness can be repaid only with ingratitude," she writes. "What if the miracle won't repeat itself and life's greatest consolation remembering the kindness shown to you disappears?" In 1947, Petrushevskaya's mother at last was able to come to Kuibyshev and collect her, but when the girl arrived in Moscow, she could not conform to civilized manners. "I had become an unmanageable, wild child, a real Mowgli," she writes. "At the age of nine I was unfamiliar with shoes, with handkerchiefs, with combs; I didn't know what school or discipline was, I couldn't sit still." Her mother, struggling to keep them both afloat and unable to watch her wildling daughter during the day, sent her to a succession of summer camps and boarding schools to socialize her; but mostly, they lived together in Moscow, sleeping under her grandfather's table on Chekhov Street, despite the protests of his "evil stepmother" of a wife, "a wizened hag of forty-five" who regularly dragged Petrushkevaya's mother to court, trying to kick the refugees out of her home. Mother and daughter clung to that hostile shelter for seven years, until they could find more congenial quarters, by which time the girl had improved her rough manners and mastered her survival strategy. It was at a summer camp, when she was ten, that Petrushevskaya first hit upon this strategy: imagination would be her ticket to acceptance. Having failed to earn the respect of her disdainful fellow campers through good grades, singing, or dancing, she buttressed her status by reciting tales that fascinated them, like the Gogol story that won her the green sweater in Kuibyshev. It worked. "My reputation rested on one skill," she writes. "After lights-out I told 'scary' stories." One day, she would make her name with the wider public by writing them down and not only scary stories but funny stories, sad stories, true stories. First though, she had to reclaim the life narrative that a turbulent era had wrested from her. She went to college, became a journalist, then a playwright and novelist. Stalin died: Petrushevskaya lived on. A Moscow court "rehabilitated" Petrushevskaya's family long ago; but her memoir moots the original charges, indicting nothing but history. The bard has filled in the glowing page. Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based writer and translator. Her Penguin Classics translation of The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas Fils, appeared in the summer of 2013. In the fall, her illustrated book of neologisms, Wordbirds, was published by Simon & Schuster.
Reviewer: Liesl Schillinger
The Barnes & Noble Review
Like a stained-glass Chagall window, Petrushevskaya's Soviet-era memoir creates a larger panorama out of tiny, vivid chapters, shattered fragments of different color and shape. She throws the misery of her daily life into relief through the use of fairy-tale metaphors familiar to fans of her fiction: At the end of a chapter about being mistreated by other children at the sanitarium, she writes: "The circle of animal faces had never crushed the girl; it remained behind, among the tall trees of the park, in the enchanted kingdom of wild berries." Ultimately, the girl emerges not only uncrushed but one of Russia's best, and most beloved, contemporary authors, which brings to mind Auden's famous words about Yeats: "Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry." This memoir shows us how Soviet life hurt Ludmilla Petrushevskaya into crystalline prose.
The New York Times Book Review - Ilya Kaminsky
In this memoir, acclaimed novelist Petrushevskaya (There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby) recounts her impoverished Moscow childhood with a blend of dark humor and clipped, piercing realism. She was born in 1938 to a family of Bolshevik intellectuals who lived in Moscow’s preeminent Metropol Hotel. Petrushevskaya, along with her mother, aunt, and grandmother, soon had to flee the city for Kuibyshev in 1941, when the family was deemed “enemies of the people.” Leaving Moscow on a cattle car at the start of the war was downright luxurious compared to the near-starvation that Petrushevskaya and her family suffered for years to come, with Petrushevskaya taking to begging on the street, often pretending to be an orphan or disabled. But despite the hardships she endured, her impish spirit flourished and she ran around the streets, shoeless but never beaten down. After returning to Moscow at age nine, a wild child, she was sent to a series of summer camps in an effort to civilize her (they were not entirely successful); despite mediocre grades in college, she still managed to squeak by with a degree in journalism. The definition of incorrigible and indomitable, both on the page and in her life, Petrushevskaya shows that even in the harshest of circumstances, spirited determination can prevail. (Feb.)
Powerful . . . Like a stained-glass Chagall window, Petrushevskaya’s Soviet-era memoir creates a larger panorama out of tiny, vivid chapters, shattered fragments of different color and shape. . . . [It] brings to mind Auden’s famous words about Yeats: ‘Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.’ This memoir shows us how Soviet life hurt Ludmilla Petrushevskaya into crystalline prose.” —
The New York Times Book Review “[An] extraordinary memoir . . . Lively, bold, iconoclastic . . . [Petrushevskaya] has succeeded Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as the country’s greatest writer and authentic moral voice.” — Orlando Figes, The New York Review of Books “A gritty, surprisingly disarming portrait of the grim Stalinist era.” — BBC, “Ten Books You Should Read in February” “Devastating, unjudgmental, and curiously uplifting, the memoir is a profound testament to the power of the creative, loving human spirit to vanquish brutal circumstance. . . . The stories she tells . . . show a girl of unerodable pride and defiant character, intent on finding joy.” — The Christian Science Monitor “Petrushevskaya is blessed with good material. . . . [Her] sunny outlook seems all the more remarkable as we learn more details of her childhood, some of which might read as straight out of the Brothers Grimm. . . . A preternaturally nimble and resourceful heroine, she keeps emerging unscathed. . . . Her memoir has the fairy-tale ending its plucky heroine deserves.” — Bookforum “Biting but beautiful, it’s an autobiography that says much about the world both then and now.” — Refinery29 “A well-crafted glimpse into the past of one of Russia’s most intriguing writers . . . Spare, often darkly humorous . . . Many memories have a touch of the magic Petrushevskaya includes in her fiction. . . . Her perspective . . . is decidedly original.” — BookPage “Matter-of-fact and without pity, Petrushevskaya writes of a deprived upbringing in Stalinist Russia, and the tenacity she developed along the way.” — Bustle, “Fifteen Memoirs from Modern Dictatorships That Every American Needs to Read” “Powerful . . . Her vivid memories . . . resonate viscerally. . . . We are given a child and then young woman whose resilience is remarkable.” — PopMatters “A terse, spirited memoir that reads like a picaresque novel . . . Lively, irreverent . . . With spunk and defiance, [Petrushevskaya] survived, and transcended, the privations of her youth.” — Kirkus Reviews “A blend of dark humor and clipped, piercing realism . . . Petrushevskaya is the definition of incorrigible and indomitable, both on the page and in her life.” — “I loved Publishers Weekly The Girl from the Metropol Hotel. Charming and brave with a sense of wonder and mischief, the young Ludmilla Petrushevskaya struck me as nothing less than a Russian Huck Finn.” — Martin Cruz Smith, New York Times bestselling author of Gorky Park and The Girl from Venice Acclaim for Ludmilla Petrushevskaya “We are likely to hear a lot more of this woman. Some October, perhaps, from the Nobel Prize committee.” — The Nation “One of Russia’s best living writers . . . Her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next.” — The New York Times Book Review “Petrushevskaya, now seventy-six and finally attracting the readership she deserves, [has] a ringleader’s calm mastery of the absurd.” — The New Yorker “Petrushevskaya writes instant classics.” — The Daily Beast “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 “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 “Her suspenseful writing calls to mind the creepiness of Poe and the psychological acuity (and sly irony) of Chekhov.” — More “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 “The fact that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is Russia’s premier writer of fiction today proves that the literary tradition that produced Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Babel is alive and well.” — Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast “What distinguishes the author is her compression of language, her use of detail and her powerful visual sense.” — Time Out New York “A master of the Russian short story.” — Olga Grushin, author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov “There is no other writer who can blend the absurd and the real in such a scary, amazing and wonderful way.” — Lara Vapnyar, author of There Are Jews in My House “One of the greatest writers in Russia today and a vital force in contemporary world literature.” — Ken Kalfus, author of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country “A master of the short story form, a kindred spirit to writers like Angela Carter and Yumiko Kurahashi.” — Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble, Magic for Beginners, and Stranger Things Happen “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
Autobiography of an acclaimed Russian writer who grew up "hungrier, dirtier, and colder than everyone else."In a lively, irreverent memoir, journalist and fiction writer Petrushevskaya (There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In, 2014, etc.), known for her subversive fairy tales, recalls a nightmarish childhood. She was born in 1938 in Moscow's Metropol Hotel, the city's "most famed residential building." While she was still an infant, her family members, Bolshevik intellectuals, were deemed "enemies of the people." In 1941, she, her mother, grandmother, and aunt fled Moscow in a cattle car for Kuibyshev, where they were treated as "pariahs, untouchables." In gritty detail, the author depicts their precarious life during the war. Always starving, the author "ate glue in secret because of the rumor that it was flavored with real cherries." The family foraged in neighbors' garbage, and her aunt made soup from cabbage leaves picked up from the ground at the market. Dirty, "shaggy, covered with lice and bedbug bites," for a time she begged in the streets, once pretending to be crippled. After the war, she and her mother were able to return to the Metropol, but by then she was "an unmanageable, wild child" and therefore unwelcome at the hotel. She was sent to a summer camp, which nurtured her "hatred of constant supervision and collectivism of any kind, and at the same time admiration to the point of tears at the sight of a marching squad." Feisty and incorrigible, Petrushevskaya managed to get through high school, despite earning low grades, and she went on to study journalism in college. "We had to read endless tomes on the Communist press, primarily by Lenin," she writes. "We were being trained to become ideologically sound ignoramuses," but she was determined to get a diploma so that she could work as a professional journalist. With spunk and defiance, she survived, and transcended, the privations of her youth. A terse, spirited memoir that reads like a picaresque novel.