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.
I 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.