“Poor Girl”
by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
translated from the Russian by Anna Friedrich
from the September 24, 2018

I am very ready to go back into the strange world that Petrushevskaya creates in her stories. I still well remember the first few stories I read by her. I didn’t understand them, but they worked their horror into me anyway.

Petrushevskaya is not afraid to look at the darkest recesses of the mind, into the common terrors we all know about but hope are not happening. Her story collections, as a taste: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy TalesThere Once Was a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories, and There Once Was a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family.

This week we get a particularly short story in “Poor Girl,” but I’m expecting it to pack a punch. I don’t know just what it’s about or what’s going on, but I suspect it’s going to be, so let’s look at it’s opening paragraph . . . well: disturbing stuff, indeed.

The wretched mother could easily have lost her sanity watching her husband love their daughter — the way he stroked the child when she was falling asleep or waking up, his blissful expression when they touched, the fact that he bathed her himself, believing it to be his right and his responsibility. His happy laughter when he recounted to his guests how, in the tub, Manya always tried to cover her privates with her hands (leaving the rest exposed, the guests surmised). That was how matters proceeded until the girl turned eight and insisted on bathing alone, and the mother grew even more worried, wondering what might have gone on between the two.

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By |2018-09-17T16:46:57+00:00September 17th, 2018|Categories: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. David September 18, 2018 at 5:19 pm

    The first time I read anything by Petrushevskaya was “The Story of a Painter” a couple of years ago. It was quirky, strange, funny, and just generally odd is a way that made it a very fun read. I liked it so much that I got one of her books and read several other stories. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed by them and did not find any others that were as good as “The Story of a Painter”. I was hoping that this new story might change the trend. It did not. In fact, this story is really quite awful.
    .
    It is not that the writing is so bad – she and her translator are capable of deft prose – but the content of the story is tremendously unsatisfying and ultimately offensive. In the story the mother thinks that perhaps the father is sexually abusing their daughter. She doesn’t really know and her main evidence is the degree of affection shown. And then that element of the story seems to get tossed to the side as if it were entirely inconsequential. Or maybe we are just supposed to have a good laugh at how silly the mother is?
    .
    The author interview offers no help. In fact, Petrushevskaya takes the annoying position that her characters are real people who decide for themselves what happens to them and she would not dare to limit them, and since the story doesn’t say what’s going on there just is no fact of the matter about it. Fabulous. So we just get a little sexual abuse (maybe) thrown in to spice things up?
    .
    Petrushevskaya is the author of the story. She decided to tell us what she told us and to not tell us what she didn’t tell us. To hide behind the nonsense that characters write themselves is to declare that she is not a serious person, or at least not serious about her writing. I had thought that one day I might try her short stories again, as the one I liked I liked a lot and the ones I didn’t like did not really put me off reading her again some time. But I think with this I’ve had enough.

  2. Trevor Berrett September 19, 2018 at 12:11 pm

    We may have been on the opposite sides of last week’s story, David, but here we line up.

    I hope someone comes along who can give a plausible analysis of this story, which to me, right now, looks like just a series of strange events thrown together in fairy tale fashion but with little to dig into.

    Is the wife’s suspicion of her husband interesting and unsettling? Yes. Does it play out in the story in any kind of fruitful way? Not that I can see.

    And while sometimes I’m opposite David in the discussion about what an author means when they say they are just writing real characters who decide for themselves, I agree this time that this laissez-faire approach has led this story in a pointless circle. Sometimes the author needs to jump in and shape.

  3. David September 19, 2018 at 1:34 pm

    I’m wearing you down, Trevor…. Soon you will be … One Of Us … One Of Us … One Of Us ….

    :-)

  4. Reader September 19, 2018 at 4:32 pm

    I just read this. I’m on the same page as you two, David and Trevor. An unfulfilling, unfulfilled story that doesn’t seem to know if it’s a tale or a standard realistic story. Either way it felt pretty pointless. At best it seems like a rather casual (almost rushed) sketch of a dysfunctional marriage that carries on for, well, no real reason, it seems. There’s nothing else to glean from it, really. And this doesn’t appear to be a case in which the lack of clarity translates to moral ambiguity. More like a lack of internal logic. Finally, as you both note, the opening thematic frame of abuse feels almost entirely arbitrary. Very odd.

    Is this intended to be an allegory? Maybe one that’s better understood by a Russian audience? What’s the significance of the mother and daughter’s time in ‘the North’? The capitalization seems to suggest some significance. Unfortunately, I don’t feel equipped to answer these questions and, as such, don’t understand how to connect with the writing.

    Not a great week for New Yorker fiction.

  5. Sean H September 21, 2018 at 3:13 am

    I’m with the chorus here. Pointless series of vaguely related events that is some sort of attempt at a metacommentary on how people fall out of love with each other. The opening premise is interesting: ‘A woman’s husband no longer finds her physically/sexually attractive because she is aging. Their daughter prefers the husband to the wife. The wife, receiving no love, affection, or attention from her spouse or child, becomes convinced that the father is molesting the daughter when clearly he is not. Drama ensues!’

    But here drama doesn’t ensue, that opening thread is treated with no more or less seriousness than anything else, and the “story” (I’m not sure it qualifies as one) devolves into, as Trevor said, “a series of strange events thrown together,” and presented in a rather stilted and over-simplified style that may be the writer’s doings or may be the translator’s fault. I must admit that sometimes Russian often doesn’t convey lyricism or poetic qualities when translated to English. I remember reading Pasternak’s poems that appear at the back of Doctor Zhivago and thinking they were just dreadful and then discussing them with a friend who could read Russian and she said they were heartbreakingly beautiful in their native language and that they translated terribly, way worse than the novel itself.

    I tried this author’s previous New Yorker story and remember thinking it too was rather pointless, but this one is clearly worse. That previous one was a third-tier story, this one I would say should have remained unpublished. This is something I’d be disappointed to see in a tiny college lit mag, much less The New Yorker.

  6. Ling September 24, 2018 at 11:56 pm

    I found this story tremendously powerful, in that the husband seemed like a controlling spouse, while the wife had sensed that and tried to get away from him. However, she had something deep in her that could not allow this to accomplish truly completely by herself , so once the husband showed up, without saying a thing, she followed him back. It also showed the underlined characters of the couple, and human nature in general in a degree. I found the last sentence intriguing. If she had an abortion, did it mean that she had another relationship with the absence of the husband for the year? (Forgive the language programmer as English is my second language:))

  7. Reader September 26, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    I’m interested to hear your take, Ling, seeing as how you’re the only poster thus far who enjoyed the piece.

    Regarding the husband, I don’t really see how he could be read as controlling, at least not in any clear way. Aside from the dark shadows he casts in the opening paragraph, he’s largely relegated to the backdrop, more cardboard cutout than character. The only character really fleshed out is Irina. However, her discontent is rendered pretty heavy-handedly (the first half of the story is really just a laundry list of all the ways in which she suffers and is the only person doing anything at all in the entire family–Realistic? Possibly, but not all that convincing when it comes to literature, which demands more dimension for all its characters). The consequence is that, ironically, I actually feel *less* sympathetic toward her character, almost as though the inkling of a ‘sob story’ makes me instinctively repel as a reader.

    I agree that her ultimate return to her broken marriage does feel like a case of acquiescence. She’s certainly unhappy, and hasn’t been for a long time, so it’s sad to know she is returning to her previous life despite achieving a successful break. Yet, why exactly is she returning? It seems like a somewhat unjustified and vague choice, seeing that the father, as far as I can tell, is more of a loafer than a tyrant, and genuinely loved by the daughter (again, the confusing abuse signaling only muddles this, but she seems to overwhelmingly prefer to have him in her life, which isn’t the typical response of a sexual abuse victim).

    I don’t know, though. I’m speaking somewhat extemporaneously, so feel free to disagree.

    PS: Your English is great, so no worries!

  8. Ken September 28, 2018 at 3:05 am

    i found this kind of fascinating because it was so distanced, oblique, enigmatic. So incredibly exterior (i.e. there’s no internal monologue or internal thought processes shown) that we have no clue as to the characters’ motivations much of the time. Instead we watch their misery in an archly comic, nasty fashion. I can’t call this satisfying, but there’s something interesting here nonetheless.

  9. mehbe September 28, 2018 at 4:10 am

    Ken – Your comment reflects some of my feelings about this story quite well.

    To me, it had a certain quality of being a fable or folk tale. I was almost expecting, at the end, to get “And the moral of this story is: ” Right away, at the beginning, the description of the travails of wretched Irina, constantly at work, reminded me of the Cinderella story. I wonder how realistic that was supposed to seem.

    Thinking some more about it, it actually feels like several tales happening simultaneously, in counterpoint. In one way, I saw it as a “test” story, where the husband’s feelings for wife and child are tested by their absence, and as often happens in a fable, he passes the test when he goes to get them back. But it’s also a “journey” story, for the wife, where she goes away in order to find herself, and doing that does the trick.

    I have a strong hunch that this story reads quite differently in Russian, to a literary-minded Russian, than it does to people outside that milieu. The tone of it may be much more decipherable to them, for one thing. I get a kind of acid tinge from the writing, which may be something a Russian would feel more vividly. I also have the idea that the sense of the household itself and how it changed would have some resonance for a Russian that is not readily apparent to others.

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