Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's "The Story of a Painter," translated from the Russian by Anna Summers, was originally published in the January 18, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.

January 18, 2016I still remember reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “A Withered Branch” back in 2011 when it was published in The New Yorker. It was after midnight and I’d just gotten off work and was making the commute home. It was haunting, and while I was definitely affected by it on that late-night ride I also know (because I wrote about it here) that I didn’t particularly appreciate it at the time. Apparently, it felt slight. However, because I really like Petrushevskaya’s work, such as “The Fountain House,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2009 (briefly touched upon here), since that first late-night encounter I’ve given “A Withered Branch” another try and it has deepened considerably.

“The Story of a Painter” doesn’t look nearly as strange as the two the magazine has published before, but I’m sure we’ve got something a bit unsettling in store.

I’m looking forward to the discussion below!

Here’re Adrienne’s initial thoughts to start us off!

How wonderful to read a story that is merely a fairy tale, a story intended to amuse, to entertain, to hold the recepient’s interest from beginning to end! And though this piece is elementary, it is also fun, current, touching, universal, and all with timeless themes and characterizations. Fairy tales remind us that some things — some thoughts and emotions, some of life’s circumstances — never seem to change.

No Big Bad Wolf, no little gnome of a man, and no princess to be found here. But amid echoes of Dickens and Tolstoy we find a poor, abused painter; a young woman with a withered leg; a melodramatic swindler; and magic paints, brushes, canvases. There are “strangers in a strange land” and there is “no room in the inn” for a woman giving birth. And guilt! Oh, the guilt that runs throughout this piece: a thread weaving together the fuzzy differences between wants and needs!

As in any fairy tale, there are positive events that suddenly lead to negative turns and a moment when all seems lost. Despair looms and threatens the thinnest fabric of humanity and hope. But then there is a moment when what is real overcomes what is magic, in the end, and the hero comes through triumphant, and legally and lawfully wed.

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By |2016-01-11T18:18:47+00:00January 11th, 2016|Categories: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Harri T January 12, 2016 at 11:44 am

    It was disarming to know that it is possible to read the story merely as intended to amuse and entertain.

    Maybe my indoctrination has carried me the wrong way, to me it is a grim story. Fairy tales many times are, in spite of a happy ending and the amusing and entertaining.
    To me the story illustrates what the transition from the Soviet days to a new generation of different kind of crooks to torment the ordinary Russians.

    It is very political, with black humor, part of a long tradition of Russian and Soviet stories which at one time only could be published as fairy tales, so readable and apprehensible in Russia.

    The story is also an allegory, referring to the author´s dissident days as a Soviet writer, not getting anything published. The artist in “modern” Russia has to settle doing one-day street paintings.

    Grim reality to the gullible soul, evicted, swindled by a crook, endless lawsuits, that happened when there was an almost overnight transition from communism to capitalism. It is all there, the tricks of making the most of the old building, demolishing it and building again, and there is always the risk of fake money with under-the-table transactions. This fairy tale is almost documentary.

    There is the hyperbole of rooms expanding and accommodating more and more people. The rooms in Russia after perestroika did in a way have to expand, kommunalkas grew bigger and also families had to adapt to sharing their apartment, even one room with relatives who were driven out with no possibility to pay what was needed, housing problems turning back in to the early days of communist regime.

    The artist learning to do magic wonders brings to mind the Potemkin Village and the power that different kinds of setups have had in Russia and Soviet Union.
    The Potemkin setups were done when Russia took over Crimea and part of Ukraine, at that time kit was from the Ottomans in 1787. The story´s topicality is increased, would be interesting to know when it was written.

  2. Adrienne January 12, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    Harri – thank you for calling me out on my poor sentence structure and thought organization. It was certainly a concern of mine in composing my thoughts yesterday.

    Here is a snip from TNY interview with the author:
    “The story is set, more or less, in contemporary Russia, complete with swindlers, oligarchs, real-estate development, and homelessness. Should we read it as an allegory?” Editor

    “I don’t think it’s an allegory. Everything is called by its proper name. A true fairy tale, it combines reality with magic.” Author

    “Is there a moral to the tale?” Editor

    “Absolutely. When you are low, help those who are even lower; love will save you.” Author
    http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-ludmilla-petrushevskaya-2016-01-18?intcid=mod-latest

    My intent was that the simplicity of a fairy tale was more appreciated by me than a didactic tome on homelessness, the effects of government corruption on the individual, and of course, the poor starving artist stereotype.

    And though the author says this is not an allegory – that she insists it is “merely” a fairy tale – how can we NOT see how it connects to reality! There were indeed wolves in ancient, deep, dark forests, and yet they also could be seen as symbols of sexual assault or greed. A woman rising from the ashes and becoming a princess can be seen with an undercurrent of feminism.

    I agree with you that there is more to a story, almost always, in fact. Universal themes and eternal truths can be seen in every tale. And they are certainly here, as they can also be found in the other authors I mentioned (Dickens and Tolstoy). On the surface, a piece can look like an entertaining and distracting novel. And many times that is what draws us in. And keeps us in, looking at the dark side of reality and championing the good. Otherwise, some things would be too hard to examine, and would never be addressed. We would never welcome the invitation to change.

    A fairy tale can be fluff, mere entertainment. Or it can be literary and softly, gently, invite us to feel compassion and explore a reality we had not yet supposed.

    Again – forgive my roughly put-together thoughts from yesterday. I appreciate your thoughts, and connection and passion for the story.

  3. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel January 14, 2016 at 3:54 am

    I found this one to be an amusing read. I began thinking it is something on the lines of literary fiction. Her imagery was perfect and I was greatly enjoying it. And suddenly when the mood of the story changed, I was even more amused. I greatly enjoyed the story, mixture of good writing, mystery and a little spookiness

  4. Greg January 20, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    Thank you Harri for making this story come alive for me! I read your post three times in order to fully appreciate what the author was expressing.

    Also, thanks Adrienne for helping me see why fairy tales are sometimes used by serious authors: They want to draw us in to address significant concepts.

  5. Sean H January 21, 2016 at 2:39 am

    This one’s not really my cup of tea so there is a subjective aversion. That said, I like some magical realism and the nouveau fairy tale has been done well by Angela Carter or Neil Gaiman, and some of Anya Ulinich’s work, like Petropolis, dabbles in those waters as well, to bring in a Russian comparison. I guess my question would be, to riff on Adrienne’s point, does its status as fairy tale-ish negate its potential for didacticism? Just because something is a bit more whimsical and inventive or allegorical instead of explicit doesn’t necessarily make it any better than a tome on homelessness, or a piece about the effects of government corruption on the individual, or the implementation once again of the poor starving artist stereotype. I’m not saying this is a bad story, I’m just saying it’s a long way from the Gogol, Pushkin, Chekhov and Pasternak.

  6. Greg January 21, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Well said Sean – This story has its place, but it should never be considered in the same realm as Chekhov…….unfortunately, I am getting the idea that the New Yorker is becoming more and more the place where this “third tier” literature is finding a home. Not every piece mind you, but more and more…..hmm………

  7. Adrienne January 21, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    Greg, I, too, find myself frustrated with the quality of the work in TNY at times… But ah, art can be subjective at times, right?

  8. Ken February 1, 2016 at 5:28 am

    Third tier? This piece is lower than that. I’m amazed that some above could find good things to say about this. This sort of thing is obviously not to my taste, but even by the standards of a fairy tale this fails because whereas a good fairy tale has some internal coherence/consistency or “rules,” this writer continues to allow any sort of unrealistic thing to happen when it suits her. Like the game kids play where someone starts a story, this just gets increasingly ridiculous. I also agree that, on top of this, it is also didactic.

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