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Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: “A Withered Branch”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “A Withered Branch” was first published in The New Yorker‘s April 18, 2011, issue.

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Back in 2009, Petrushevskaya published “The Fountain House” in The New Yorker (Aug. 31, 2009).  What a strange story about a bus crash, a death, a body stolen from a morgue, and a ressurrection.  I didn’t understand that tale well, but I enjoyed reading it.  I can say again with “A Withered Brach” that I didn’t understand it very well — only this time, I didn’t particularly enjoy it.  It’s not that I disliked it.  I enjoyed the writing — the way Petrushevskaya leaves much unsaid — and the emotion is felt.  It’s just that when I closed it, I was left wanting more, and not in a good way.  Of course, I would appreciate anyone’s efforts to help me get more out of it.

The story takes place in 1973.  The narrator has just strolled into Vilnius, a city in Lithuania which was at the time in the USSR.  The first paragraph has the narrator gasping in relief when she gets there: “I was alive.  I almost cried with joy.”

She had made her way to Vilnius by hitchiking. 

We ate.  They drank all the vodka.  I told them I was on the wagon.  Then the thug (my driver was peeing behind a tree) asked me whom I was going to sleep with that night.  I said, “With Alexei” — my driver — “of course.”  The thug didn’t argue: I was Alexei’s passenger.  When Alexei came back and we got in the truck, he asked me a question.  I told him that I couldn’t, that I was sorry; he didn’t insist — he was tired and drunk.

The remainder of the story shows the narrator making her way with no real home, depending on the kindness of strangers.  One in particular is her “twin soul,” brought up in the very first sentence.  I don’t want to go into details about how they’re twin souls, but they share tragedy.  By the end, the twin soul is “a withered branch on a dead tree.”

I find it interesting that I like how Petrushevskaya leaves much unsaid, refers to emotional hot points in asides, and at the same time I felt that the story was lacking something.  It’s short enough I’ll reread it, but on a first impression, I’m a bit disappointed.

5 thoughts on “Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: “A Withered Branch””

  1. Betsy says:

    At first read, Petrushevskaya’s story feels slight to me, Trevor. But as part of a larger body of work, I am wondering if there is a gathering sense of power from the whole. And, I am wondering if it is important that the story is, in fact, slight, perhaps as an allegory can be slight.

    What feels significant to me is that the story is defined by what it is not. Set in Lithania in 1973, the backdrop is both the looming Soviet political monolith and also the long history of the Soviet attempt to control art for its own purposes. But this story is not monumental, it isn’t propaganda, and it doesn’t whitewash of poverty. At the same time, in a period of religious repression, it has not only the audacity to think in terms of the human soul, but it also has the nerve to think in mystical terms of conjoined souls, and to think of a child as a “savior”. This is an author who does not kneel in paralysis to the monolith. Feels like Dostoevsky to me. Well, and Chekhov in the moodiness of the setting, the woodsmoke, the poverty, and the dusky Baltic sunsets. Curiously, the narrator is a writer who is making a pilgrimage to Thomas Mann’s Lithuanian retreat. Mann’s not my man, though, so I don’t know what to do with that. But Chekhov? One of his stories, “A Nervous Breakdown”, details how a law student spirals into an attack of becoming acutely conscious of the souls of others, how he “could reflect in his soul the sufferings of others”. It is especially painful to him, however, because he is disgusted by these others – prostitutes. This attack is solved (ironically) with bromide and morphia. Petrushevskaya does have her writer-narrator do just that – reflect in her soul the suffering of another. But in contrast to Chekhov’s law student, the writer takes no morphia, does not dull herself to the experience; instead, she takes the memory of her “twin soul” with her as she returns to Russia. There is an admiration for both of her female characters and an admiration for the moment in which they connect (in which their souls connect). It resonates for me, and leaves me thinking. But I’m a woman, and susceptible to the idea of souls and their potential for mystical conjunction.

    What I love about these New Yorker stories from foreign lands is that they are so clearly not American, thus off-footing me every time. And I think, Trevor, there’s an unusual strand of feminism here that adds an extra beat. So, slight? Maybe. But I enjoyed the trip: Petrushevskaya, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and feminism, not to mention the “deafening freedom” of everyday life that Petrushevskaya celebrates.

  2. Trevor says:

    Great points, Betsy. And I am finding that it is getting better with time as the ideas float around a bit. Not one of my favorites, though I like the contrasts.

  3. Larry says:

    I just read the story and liked it in the way I like a Ishiguro story. However I obsessed on the tense change in the conversation. Hmm.

  4. Aaron says:

    I don’t really think there’s all that much to the story. It’s a simple picture of two souls marred by tragedy, but whereas the one has seen her entire family tree burn to the ground and thereby has no hope for the future, the other has a son — sick, but alive — in whom she can see a better future, and isn’t that what we always do in tough times? Hope for better days to follow, if not for us, then for our children?

    Too slight for me, though, and the less-said descriptions threw me a little when it came to what may be cultural mores of the time and place: why is it that Jadviga is unable to share her tragedy with others? Why is it that she was shunned in Panevezys? It it simply that there is so much suffering that nobody wants a visible reminder (survivor) like her wailing around?

    Then again, take my comments with a grain of salt — I haven’t liked any of the New Yorker stories lately, “Goo Story” and “Atria” included (though I see that you all had some nice discussions about them). They just all seem rather slight, either in the sense that they’re excerpts or in the way that they edge back from doing the hard work of developing the ideas that they merely hint at, choosing to settle instead for the scantest shred of something publishable. (This is more a condemnation of the current fiction editor; I don’t really blame a writer for trying to make money and to build up a portfolio.)

  5. Ken says:

    I also found this slight. Perhaps it’s another excerpt from a larger work. It actually feels almost like one of the brief memoirs publised elsewhere in the issue and hardly even like fiction but more reportage. I couldn’t find much artistry here either. It did have moving elements but anyone would be moved by reports of such tragedy. Interesting in terms of setting.

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