For a surreal reconstruction of an almost unbearable home life after the revolution, nothing beats the tales of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, one of Russia’s finest living writers. In “The Story of a Painter” an artist loses his Moscow apartment to a swindler who then resells it to another family. These rooms then host an endless parade of displaced characters, struggling to retain their dignity and keep what remnants they have left of better days — a pot, a bowl, a stack of books.
While a lawyer tries to reclaim his property, the painter moves into a janitor’s closet underneath the stairs. Her son falls in love with the pretty daughter of the new tenant and can’t bear to throw her family out. When he finally does regain the deed, the family had moved on and now his living room is filled with a motley group of gypsies and orphans. As an endless stream of homeless keep arriving on his doorstep, carrying pots and pans and mattresses, the artist sets up his easel. For days he concentrates, determined to capture this caravan. Then suddenly everyone begins to disappear and the place is quiet once again.
This is just the kind of weirdness Petrushevskaya is known for. We won’t give away the ending, but we warn you that her stories read like a cross between Borges and the Brothers Grimm and will make you thankful for your bed, your well-stocked kitchen and your easy chair. These tales serve as a warning of how life can go badly wrong, and yet we can endure, and sometimes prevail by using our artful resources.
Petushevskaya is just as unexpected as her plot twists. At 80, she stars in her own cabaret show with a live band. Alexandra Guzeva reviewed a recent performance in Moscow in Russia Beyond: “Her typically fractured fairy tale of a girl who got lost in the woods and was separated from her parents for many years is read with a saccharine smile. Another tale – about an alley cat adopted and brought home, which then proceeds to poop all over the flat and keeps its new owner awake at night – is close to the style of a taut thriller.”
These are bizarre takes on domestic life, noir dramas where families and fortunes are changed in an instant. Lives are dismembered and sometimes magically restored—all within the confines of the parlor. Home is where the heartbreak is—and with food shortages and jobs in short supply, where can things can go from bad to worse.
Scenes from the Author’s Life
It’s easy to see where this dark humor comes from. Petrushevskaya had a less than cheerful upbringing during the Stalin purge. Not long after she was born, in 1938, her father abandoned the family in Moscow and for awhile, she was left in a children’s home. Her mother’s family — old-time Bolshevik intellectuals involved in the revolution — was arrested and some were executed. During World War II a few family members managed to escape to Kuibyshev, on the Volga River. As the German army advanced, this town was declared the temporary capital. In those years, everyone starved. In a group home with other waifs, Petrushevskaya was so frail, she earned the nickname “the Moscow matchstick” for being the skinniest of all.
Storytelling became Petrushevskaya’s first line of defense, a bold in-your-face response to the trauma of repeated loss. She can be howlingly funny and disarming, then reduce you to despair in a single paragraph.
This author treats her characters with a grim compassion while showing them at their very worst. Family members are not “familiar”—these people are ornery, intransigent, bizarre, their lives verging on the absurd. And home is not, as we often say, the place where “they have to take you in.” It’s where you’re “taken in” and disillusioned by the ones you love, yet somehow find a way to laugh and even to forgive.
If you like The Story of a Painter, try There Once Was a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until they Moved Back In. To a middle-class American, that may mean putting your 30 year-old son up in the family room while he finishes his thesis on abstract poetry. To Soviet era mothers who are poets themselves, that meant struggling to support a large, extended family on a pittance, while dealing with a litany of family guilt, self-sabotage and greed.