two “scary fairy tales” from ludmilla petrushevskaya

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya

The Arm

DURING THE WAR, A COLONEL RECEIVED A LETTER FROM HIS wife. She misses him very much, it said, and won’t he come visit because she’s worried she’ll die without having seen him. The colonel applied for leave right away, and as it happened that just a few days earlier he’d been awarded a medal, he was granted three days. He got a plane home, but just an hour before his arrival his wife died. He wept, buried his wife, and got on a train back to his base—and then suddenly discovered he had lost his Party card. He dug through all his things, returned to the train station—all this with great difficulty—but couldn’t find it. Finally he just went home. There he fell asleep and dreamed that he saw his wife, who said that his Party card was in her coffin—it had fallen out when the colonel bent over to kiss her during the funeral. In his dream his wife also told the colonel not to lift the veil from her face.

The colonel did as he was told: he dug up the coffin, opened it, and found his Party card inside. But then he couldn’t resist: he lifted the covering from his wife’s face. She lay there as if still alive, but there was a little worm on her left cheek. The colonel wiped away the worm with his hand, covered up his wife’s face, and reburied the coffin.

Now he had very little time, and he went directly to the airfield. The plane he needed wasn’t there, but then a pilot in a charred jacket pulled him aside and said he was flying to the same place as the colonel and could drop him off. The colonel was surprised that the pilot knew where he was going, but then he saw it was the same pilot who had flown him home.

“Are you all right?” asked the colonel.

“I had a little crash on the way back,” said the pilot, “but it’s all right. I’ll drop you off, it’s on the way.”

They flew at night. The colonel sat on a metal bench running the length of the plane. In truth he was surprised the plane could fly at all. It was in terrible shape: clumps of material hung everywhere, some kind of charred stump kept rolling into the colonel’s feet, and there was a strong odor of burned flesh. They soon landed, and the colonel asked the pilot if he was sure this was the right place. The pilot said he was absolutely sure.

“Why is your plane in such poor shape?” the colonel demanded, and the pilot explained that his navigator usually cleaned up, but he’d just been killed. And right away he started lugging the charred stump off the plane, saying, “There he is, my navigator.”

The plane stood in a field, and all through this field wandered wounded men. There was forest in every direction, a campfire burned in the distance, and among the burned-out cars and artillery, people were lying and sitting, others were standing, and others were milling about.

“Damn it!” the colonel yelled. “Where have you brought me? This isn’t my base!”

“This is your base now,” said the pilot. “I’ve brought you back to where I picked you up.”

The colonel understood that his division had been surrounded and destroyed, everyone killed or wounded, and he cursed everything on earth, including the pilot, who was still messing with his charred stump, which he insisted on calling his navigator, and pleading with it to get up and go.

“Let’s start evacuating everyone,” ordered the colonel. “We’ll begin with the military files, then the coats of arms and the heavily wounded.”

“This plane won’t fly anymore,” the pilot noted.

The colonel drew his pistol and promised to shoot the pilot then and there for disobeying an order. But the pilot ignored him and went on trying to stand the stump on the ground, first one way, then another, saying over and over, “Come on, let’s go.”

The colonel fired his pistol, but he must have missed because the pilot kept mumbling, “Come on, come on,” to his navigator, and in the meantime the roar of vehicles could be heard, and suddenly the field was filled with a mechanized column of German infantry.

The colonel took cover in the grass as the trucks kept coming and coming, but there was neither shooting nor shouting of orders, nor did the motors stop running. Ten minutes later the column was gone, and the colonel raised his head—the pilot was still fussing with his charred stump, and over by the fire people were still lying down, sitting, walking around. The colonel stood and approached the fire. He didn’t recognize anyone—this wasn’t his division at all. There was infantry here, and artillery, and God knows what else, all in torn uniforms, with open wounds on their arms, legs, stomachs. Only their faces were clean. They talked quietly among themselves. Next to the fire, her back to the colonel, sat a woman in civilian dress with a kerchief on her head.

“Who’s the senior officer here?” demanded the colonel. “I need an immediate report on the situation.”

No one moved, and no one paid any attention to the colonel when he started shooting, although when the pilot finally managed to roll his charred stump over to them, everyone helped him throw his navigator on the flames and thereby put out the fire. It became completely dark.

The colonel was shivering from the cold and began cursing again: now it would be impossible to get warm, he said—you can’t light a fire with a log like that.

And without turning around, the woman by the fire said: “Oh why did you look at my face, why did you lift my veil? Now your arm is going to wither.”

It was the voice of the colonel’s wife.

The colonel lost consciousness, and when next he woke up he was in a hospital. He was told that they’d found him in the cemetery, next to his wife’s grave, and that the arm on which he’d been lying was seriously injured, and now might have to be removed.


THERE ONCE LIVED A WOMAN WHO HATED HER NEIGHBOR—A single mother with a small child. As the child grew and learned to crawl, the woman would sometimes leave a pot of boiling water in the corridor, or a container full of bleach, or she’d just spread out a whole box of needles right there in the hall. The poor mother didn’t suspect anything—her little girl hadn’t learned to walk yet, and she didn’t let her out in the corridor during the winter when the floor was cold. But the time was fast approaching when her daughter would be able to leave the room on her own. The mother would say to her neighbor, “Raya, sweetie, you dropped your needles again,” at which point Raya would blame her poor memory. “I’m always forgetting things,” she’d say.

They’d once been friends. Two unmarried women living in a communal apartment, they had a lot in common. They even shared friends who came by, and on their birthdays they gave each other gifts. They told each other everything. But then Zina became pregnant, and Raya found herself consumed with hatred. She couldn’t bear to be in the same apartment as the pregnant woman and began to come home late at night. She couldn’t sleep because she kept hearing a man’s voice coming from Zina’s room; she imagined she heard them talking and moving about, when in fact Zina was living there all by herself.

Zina, on the other hand, grew more and more attached to Raya. She even told her once how wonderful it was to have a neighbor like her, practically an older sister, who would never abandon her in a time of need.

And Raya did in fact help her friend sew clothes in anticipation of the newborn, and she drove Zina to the hospital when the time came. But she didn’t come to pick her up after the birth, so that Zina had to stay in the hospital an extra day and ended up taking the baby home wrapped in a ragged hospital blanket that she promised to return right away. Raya explained that she hadn’t been feeling well. In the weeks that followed she didn’t once go to the store for Zina, or help her bathe the baby, but just sat in her room with warm compresses over her shoulders. She wouldn’t even look at the baby, though Zina often took the girl to the bath or the kitchen or just out for a little walk, and kept the door to her room open all the time, as if to say: Come look.

Before the baby came, Zina learned how to use the sewing machine and began to work from home. She had no family to help her, and as for her once-kind neighbor, well, deep down Zina knew she couldn’t count on anyone but herself—it had been her idea to have a child, and now she had to bear the burden. When the girl was very little, Zina could take finished clothes to the shop while the baby slept, but when the baby got a little bigger and slept less, Zina’s problems began: she had to take the girl with her. Raya continued to complain about her bad joints, and even took time off from work, but Zina wouldn’t dare ask her to babysit.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in 1938 in Moscow, where she still lives. She is the author of more than fifteen collections of prose, including the short novel The Time: Night shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1992, and Svoi Krug, a modern classic about the 1980s Soviet intelligentsia. The progenitor of the women’s fiction movement in modern Russian letters, she is also a playwright whose work has been staged by leading theater companies all over the world. In 2002 she received Russia’s most prestigious prize, The Triumph, for lifetime achievement.

—from Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (translated by Anna Summers), Penguin Books, 2009

nabokov on reading and laughter in the dark

from an interview with vladimir nabokov:


What is the relationship between the work and the reader?

I see him every morning when I shave. The only true reader, the best reader, the model reader, is the author of the book. It is true that sometimes the author is acquainted with people, friends, who he knows are going to understand his book, people for whom writing is worth the effort. I know perhaps a dozen, thirteen people who read my books almost as well as I do. But note that if these charming readers did not exist, I would nevertheless write in complete confidence, cheerfully, for I can always easily invent as many readers as I want.

nabokov as pulp fictioneer!

“detail is always welcome”—the opening of vladimir nabokov’s laughter in the dark, a book which implicitly asks i nits first paragraph why you should bother reading it . . . 


ONCE upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.

This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man’s life, detail is always welcome.

It so happened that one night Albinus had a beautiful idea. True, it was not quite his own, as it had been suggested by a phrase in Conrad (not the famous Pole, but Udo Conrad who wrote the Memoirs of a Forgetful Man and that other thing about the old conjuror who spirited himself away at his farewell performance). In any case, he made it his own by liking it, playing with it, letting it grow upon him, and that goes to make lawful property in the free city of the mind. As an art critic and picture expert he had often amused himself by having this or that Old Master sign landscapes and faces which he, Albinus, came across in real life: it turned his existence into a fine picture gallery—delightful fakes, all of them. Then, one night, as he was giving his learned mind a holiday and writing a little essay (nothing very brilliant, he was not a particularly gifted man) upon the art of the cinema, the beautiful idea came to him.

It had to do with colored animated drawings—which had just begun to appear at the time. How fascinating it would be, he thought, if one could use this method for having some well-known picture, preferably of the Dutch School, perfectly reproduced on the screen in vivid colors and then brought to life-movement and gesture graphically developed in complete harmony with their static state in the picture; say, a pot-house with little people drinking lustily at wooden tables and a sunny glimpse of a courtyard with saddled horses-all suddenly coming to life with that little man in red putting down his tankard, this girl with the tray wrenching herself free, and a hen beginning to peck on the threshold. It could be continued by having the little figures come out and then pass through the landscape of the same painter, with, perhaps, a brown sky and a frozen canal, and people on the quaint skates they used then, sliding about in the old-fashioned curves suggested by the picture; or a wet road in the mist and a couple of riders-finally, returning to the same tavern, little by little bringing the figures and light into the selfsame order, settling them down, so to speak, and ending it all with the first picture. Then, too, you could try the Italians: the blue cone of a hill in the distance, a white looping path, little pilgrims winding their way upward. And even religious subjects perhaps, but only those with small figures. And the designer would not only have to possess a thorough knowledge of the given painter and his period, but be blessed with talent enough to avoid any clash between the movements produced and those fixed by the old master: he would have to work them out from the picture—oh, it could be done. And the colors… they would be sure to be far more sophisticated than those of animated cartoons. What a tale might be told, the tale of an artist’s vision, the happy journey of eye and brush, and a world in that artist’s manner suffused with the tints he himself had found!

After a while he happened to speak of it to a film-producer, but the latter was not in the least excited: he said it would entail a delicacy of work calling for novel improvements in the method of animation, and would cost a whole lot of money; he said such a film, owing to its laborious designing, could not reasonably run longer than several minutes; that even then it would bore most people to death and be a general disappointment.

Then Albinus discussed it with another cinema man, and he too pooh-poohed the whole business. "We could begin by something quite simple," said Albinus, "a stained window coming to life, animated heraldry, a little saint or two."

"I’m afraid it’s no good," said the other. "We can’t risk fancy pictures."

But Albinus still clung to his idea. Eventually he was told of a clever fellow, Axel Rex, who was a wonderful hand at freaks—had, as a matter of fact, designed a Persian fairy tale which had delighted highbrows in Paris and ruined the man who had financed the venture. So Albinus tried to see him, but learned that he had just returned to the States, where he was drawing cartoons for an illustrated paper. After some time
Albinus managed to get in touch with him and Rex seemed interested.

Upon a certain day in March Albinus got a long letter from him, but its arrival coincided with a sudden crisis in Albinus’ private—very private—life, so that the beautiful idea, which otherwise would have lingered on and perhaps found a wall on which to cling and blossom, had strangely faded and shriveled in the course of the last week.

Rex wrote that it was hopeless to go on trying to seduce the Hollywood people and coolly went on to suggest that Albinus, being a man of means, should finance his idea himself; in which case he, Rex, would accept a fee of so much (a startling sum), with half of it payable in advance, for designing say a Breughel film—the "Proverbs" for instance, or anything else Albinus might like to have him set in motion.

"If I were you," remarked Albinus’ brother-in-law Paul, a stout good-natured man with the clasps of two pencils and two fountain pens edging his breast-pocket, "I should risk it. Ordinary films cost more—I mean those with wars and buildings crumpling up."

"Oh, but then you get it all back, and I shouldn’t."

"I seem to recall," said Paul, puffing at his cigar (they were finishing supper), "that you proposed sacrificing a considerable amount—hardly less than the fee he requires. Why, what’s the matter? You don’t look as enthusiastic as you were a little while ago. You aren’t giving it up, are you?"

"Well, I don’t know. It’s the practical side that rather bothers me; otherwise I do still like my idea."

"What idea?" inquired Elisabeth.

That was a little habit of hers—asking questions about things that had already been exhaustively discussed in her presence. It was sheer nervousness on her part, not obtuseness or lack of attention; and more often than not while still asking her question, sliding helplessly down the sentence, she would herself realize that she knew the answer all the time. Her husband was aware of this little habit and it never annoyed him; on the contrary, it touched and amused him. He would calmly go on with the talk, well knowing (and rather looking forward to it) that presently she would supply the answer to her own question. But on this particular March day Albinus was in such a state of irritation, confusion, misery, that suddenly his nerves gave way.

"Just dropped from the moon?" he inquired toughly, and his wife glanced at her fingernails and said soothingly: "Oh yes, I remember now."

Then turning to eight-year-old Irma who was messily devouring a plateful of chocolate cream, she cried: "Not so fast, dear, please, not so fast."

"I consider," began Paul, puffing at his cigar, "that every new invention—"

Albinus, his queer emotions riding him, thought: "What the devil do I care for this fellow Rex, this idiotic conversation, this chocolate cream…? I’m going mad and nobody knows it. And I can’t stop, it’s hopeless trying, and tomorrow I’ll go there again and sit like a fool in that darkness…. Incredible."

Certainly it was incredible—the more so as in all the nine years of his married life he had curbed himself, had never, never—"As a matter of fact," he thought, "I ought to tell Elisabeth about it; or just go away with her for a little while; or see a psychoanalyst; or else…"

No, you can’t take a pistol and plug a girl you don’t even know, simply because she attracts you.

the opening of platonov’s surrealist masterpiece the foundation pit

Bookseller Photo  


On the day when he reached the thirtieth year of his personal life Voshchev was discharged from the small machine factory where he had earned the means of his existence. The dismissal notice stated that he was being separated from his job because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work . . .

The tavernkeeper was readying his establishment, winds and grasses swayed around Voshchev in the sun when he reluctantly opened his eyes, filled with renewed moist strength. He had to live and eat again; therefore he went to see the trade union committee, to defend his unneeded labor.

The management says that you were standing and thinking in the middle of production," they told him at the trade union committee. "What were you thinking about, Comrade Voshchev?”


"About the plan of life."


"The factory works according to the plan laid down by the Trust. As for your private life, you could plan it out at the club or in the Red Reading Room."


"I was thinking about the general plan of life. I’m not worried about my own life, that’s no secret to me."


"And what could you accomplish?"


"I could have thought up something like happiness, and spiritual meaning would improve productivity."


"Happiness will come from materialism, Comrade Voshchev, and not from meaning. We cannot defend you, you are a politically ignorant man, and we don’t wish to find ourselves at the tail end of the masses.”


Voshchev wanted to ask for some other work, even the feeblest, just so that he would earn enough to eat; and he would do his thinking on his own time. But how can one ask for anything if there’s no respect for a man, and Voshchev saw that those people had no feeling for him.


"You’re scared of being at the tail end of the masses; naturally, a tail’s the hind extremity. So you’ve climbed up on their necks.”


"The government gave you an extra hour for your thinking, Voshchev. You used to work eight hours, and now it’s only seven. You should have lived and kept quiet! If everybody starts thinking all at once, who’ll do the acting?”


"Without thought, there won’t be any sense in the action,” Voshchev said reflectively.


He left the trade union committee without getting help. The path before him lay in the heat of summer. On either side people were building technical improvements and houses where the masses, homeless until now, would live in silence . . .

Andrey Platonovich Platonov (1899-1951) was the son of a railway worker. The eldest of eleven children, he began work at the age of thirteen, first in an office, then in a factory, and finally as an engine driver’s assistant. He began publishing poems and articles in 1918, while studying engineering. Throughout much of the 1920s he worked as a land reclamation expert. Between 1927 and 1932 he wrote his most politically controversial works, some of them first published in the Soviet Union only in the late 1980s. Other stories were published but subjected to vicious criticism. Stalin is reputed to have written "scum" in the margin of the story "For Future Use," and to have said to Aleksandr Fadeev (later secretary of the Writers’ Union), "Give him a good belting—for future use." During the 1930s Platonov made several public confessions of error, but went on writing stories only marginally more acceptable to the authorities. His son was sent to the Gulag in 1938, aged fifteen; he was released three years later, only to die of the tuberculosis he had contracted there. During the war Platonov worked as a war correspondent and published several volumes of stories; after the war, however, he was again almost unable to publish. He died in 1951, of tuberculosis caught from his son . . .



writing advice from doctor chekhov


“it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as the existence of God, pessimism, etc.”



“Witness, Don’t Judge”


Letter to Alexei Suvorin, Sumy, May 30, 1888


In my opinion, it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as the existence of God, pessimism, etc. The job of the artist is only to record who under which circumstances said or thought what about God or pessimism. The artist must not judge his characters or their words; he must only be an impartial witness. I overhear two Russians carry on a muddled, inconclusive discussion on pessimism; I am duty bound to transmit this conversation exactly as I heard it. Evaluating it is a job for the jury, that is, for the reader. My job demands only one thing of me: to be talented, that is, to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant evidence; to illuminate characters, and to speak in their language. Shcheglov-Leontyev criticizes me for ending one of my stories with the sentence, “You can’t really explain why things happen in this world.” In his opinion, the writer who is a psychologist must explain, otherwise he has no right to call himself a psychologist. I disagree. It is high time for writers—and especially for true artists—to admit that it is impossible to explain anything. Socrates acknowledged this long ago, as did Voltaire. Only the crowd thinks it knows and understands everything there is to know and understand. And the more stupid it is, the more open-minded it thinks itself to be. But if an artist whom the crowd trusts admits that he understands nothing of what he sees, this fact alone will make a great contribution to the realm of thought and will mark a great step forward.



—from How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration, Straight From His Own Letters and Work. Edited and introduced by Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek; translated from the Russian and Italian by Lena Lencek. 1st Da Capo Press edition, 2008.




salter on memory and nabokov on life

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future.
James Salter, A Sport and A Pastime
An individual’s life consisted of certain classified things: ‘real things’ which were unfrequent and priceless, simply ‘things’ which formed the routine stuff of life; and ‘ghost things,’ also called ‘fogs,’ such as fever, toothache, dreadful disappointments, and death. Three or more things occurring at the same time formed a ‘tower,’ or, if they came in immediate succession, they made a ‘bridge.’ ‘Real towers’ and ‘real bridges’ were the joys of life, and when the towers came in a series, one experienced supreme rapture; it almost never happened, though. In some circumstances, in a certain light, a neutral ‘thing’ might look or even actually become ‘real’ or else, conversely, it might coagulate into a fetid ‘fog.’ When the joy and the joyless happened to be intermixed, simultaneously or along the ramp of duration, one was confronted with ‘ruined towers’ and ‘broken bridges.’

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

on seeing things anew

Is this the most influential paragraph in modern literary criticism? If Shklovsky wrote nothing else but this essay, he would still be remembered as one of the most important art theorists of the twentieth century. Shklovsky developed the concept of ostranenie or defamiliarization in literature as follows:


And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. "If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been." And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important.


 — Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917)


happiness studies with those depressive russians!

In Maxim Gorky’s memoirs, Count LeoTolstoy is described walking alongside the Crimean sea:

And suddenly, for one mad moment, I felt that he might be about to stand up and wave his arm, and that the sea would grow calm and glassy, and the rocks would move and begin to shout, and everything around would stir and come to life and start talking in different voices about itself, and about him, and against him. I cannot put into words what I felt then; I was filled both with rapture and with horror, and then everything came together in one happy thought:
"I am not an orphan on the earth so long as this man is alive."
Gorky also reports that:
Leo Tolstoy once asked a lizard in a low voice:
"Are you happy, eh?"
The lizard was sunning itself on a rock in the bushes along the road to Diulber, and Tolstoy stood facing it with his hands stuck into his leather belt. And looking around carefully, that great man confessed to the lizard:
"I’m not …"