“The prison gate was ajar…” @deepvellum #thenewadventuresofhelen


I started off December by reviewing a book by a Russian woman writer and I’m happy to be continuing that trend today. The author in question is Ludmilla Petrushevksaya, whose acquaintance I made earlier this year via her memoir “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel“; and the book is her latest release, “The New Adventures of Helen”, translated by Jane Bugaeva and published by Deep Vellum. Petushevskaya is probably best known for writing fable-like short fictions with quirky titles (“There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby”), and this collection again brings together short works – the book has the subtitle “Magical Tales” so it’s a fair guess that these stories might well be subverting the norm!

“Helen…” contains seven stories, and opens with the title work. Here, Helen of Troy is reborn in an unnamed seaside resort, ready for her beauty to wreak its usual havoc. However, a magician has prepared a trap, in the form of a magic mirror which renders anyone who looks into it invisible. Needless to say, this will have an unexpected effect on Helen who finds she can pass through the world without causing any disruption; which is all well and good until she finds herself attracted to a billionaire who can’t see her…

“Nose Girl” deals with notions of beauty; the title girl is beautiful, but has a nose which spoils this. However, will the perfect nose solve her problems and make the man she loves love her back? Next up is “The Prince with the Golden Hair”, which is probably the story closest to pure fairytale; the titular prince’s hair seems to be literally gold and everyone is after him and his kingdom. His adventures with his mother take in imprisonment by a travelling circus, where the erstwhile queen has to use all her wiles to stay safe and escape. “Queen Lir” is a hoot, with an elderly queen going AWOL and causing trouble wherever she goes. Although this is a very funny story (Lir getting a mohican haircut is hilarious!), there are serious undertones; Petrushevksaya is quite happy to slyly show how those with power and money can’t function on the most basic level when left to their own devices to manage things themselves.

Think about it: the royal quarters were always cleaned when the queen was away, so Lir remained quite clueless. She’d never laid eyes on a broom or dustpan in all her life. Apparently, the poor woman imagined that chambermaids swept with hats. (Come to think of it, many men and children wish it were that way in their homes; they don’t want to see any of the process, just the results. But, like it or not, they end up witnessing it all – the laundry, the ironing, the sweeping, the potato peeling, the pasta boiling – and are sometimes even obliged to help out…)

“Nettle and Raspberry” tellis the story of two sisters who are like chalk and cheese, and kind of live up to their names. Mostly they manage to get along, until love gets in the way and they become rivals. Sisters also feature (obvs) in “Two Sisters” where a sibling pair of old women stumble upon an ointment that makes them physically teenagers, but with their older minds. It will take all of their wisdom to negotiate a hostile world, hold onto their independence, make sure they get their pension payments and not get take into care as if they’re actually orphans.

Housing problems are something the sisters have to deal with (an issue which persists from the very dawn of Soviet times!), and this element is at the centre of the final entry, “The Story of an Artist”. Here, the title character struggles to keep possession of his apartment as well as producing his pictures. As the story develops, however, it seems that his paintings have a strange effect and as he comes to realise this, it seems he may be able to use his unusual and surreal talents to his advantage.

Petrushevkaya’s tales are wonderfully funny, quirky and entertaining, but she’s obviously a dab hand at using her fictions to take swipes at all manner of people and situations when she wants to! As you can see from the quote above, useless royals or men and children who don’t pull their weight are in for short shrift. The virtuous usually win out, which is a relief – well, these *are* magical tales after all – but there are harder truths embedded in the stories, and Petrushevskaya is clear-eyed about the realities of the world and the platitudes people trot out…

Mama died a day after Papa; she lay in bed all day and never woke up. At the funeral, people said they were lucky, that it happened only in fairy tales – a couple living a happy life then dying on the same day. But truth be told, these two supposedly happy people didn’t die at the same moment. One of them had seen death and understood that they were left alone. One of them had cried.

I was sold on Petrushevskaya’s economic yet effective prose after reading her memoir, and I’m pleased to say that her fictions are just as compelling. Whether subverting the norms, reversing fairy tale tropes or having sly digs at those she thinks deserve it, she’s produced an enjoyable and often thought-provoking collection. “The New Adventures of Helen” is my first experience of Petrushevskaya’s fictions but it definitely won’t be my last!!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

“Our wretched lives.” #WITMonth #Petrushevskaya


Having got into a groove with some stories translated from the Russian for #WITMonth, I was a bit tempted to continue in that vein. I’ve had a major reshuffle of the Russian shelves, incorporating all the piles of books lying around the house so they were all in one place (and making careful note of unread titles whilst doing so!) And in the middle of this, I decided that instead of popping “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated by Anna Summers) onto the shelf with her fictions, now would be a good time to start reading her!

Petrushevskaya is probably best known for her collections of short stories, with provocative titles like “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby”; and her reputation has continued to grow in recent years. “Metropol…” however is a memoir; and the subtitle ‘Growing up in Communist Russia’ gives a hint of what can be expected. Although short, this is no light read…

Petrushevksaya was born in Moscow in 1938, in the titular Metropol Hotel, and lived there until 1941. At that point her father, a Bolshevik intellectual, was named as an enemy of the state. Petrushevskaya and her mother fled to Kuibyshev and from then on her childhood was one of suffering and constant change. As un-persons, Ludmilla and her mother lived on the poverty line, and the young girl was shuffled between relatives and homes, scrabbling to survive. Becoming feral, she often survived by scavenging and begging, and later attempts to teach her or ‘civilise’ her met mostly with failure – Petrushevskaya was a real wild child.

That feeling of coziness, of home, when a match strikes and a tiny circle of light appears, always returned when I had to settle in a new place. Never have I been frightened by circumstances. A little warmth, a little bread, my little ones with me, and life begins, happiness begins.

The book follows her life and travels until she finally grows up enough to become educated and get a break on Soviet radio. However, there are times during the story where it’s touch and go if she’ll make it. Yet, despite this grim subject matter, Petrushevksaya tells her story with a light touch, and it’s never less than readable. Told mainly in calm tones and often through a child’s eye, Ludmilla somehow travels through life avoiding the really bad stuff and makes it to adulthood – a true survivor.

As I said, this is grim stuff in places; and at times, when there are particularly threatening events (she finds herself potential prey of boys and men), Petrushevskaya switches to the third person, as if she can only relate her story by considering it as having happened to someone else. However, despite this, the book is incredibly compelling, and Petrushevkaya never indulges in self-pity; whether sleeping under a table in a communal apartment or in the Officers’ Club (where she finds shelter by breaking in), queuing in the bread line and getting served last, or pretending to be an orphan, she’s matter-of-fact and intent on survival. It’s this element, I think, that makes the book and its content less crushing than it could have been in someone else’s hands.

Back in Kuibyshev, her mother and sister accepted her disappearance without much joy. Her name was never mentioned again. On the other hand, so many people had vanished from their lives. At that time it was common – people disappeared without a trace, like the character in Daniil Kharms’s famous poem about a man who walked out of his house and was never seen again. Later the poet himself vanished. (On her mother’s disappearance)

One aspect of the book which was perhaps a little shocking was the willingness of Ludmilla’s mother to leave her with relatives or in homes and just go off; I guess needs must, and I’ve no idea how hard it was to live through the War and then post-War in Soviet Russia. However, it’s clear how much Petrushevskaya misses her mother and I did find this very moving. The daughter did, of course, survive and went on to have a fascinating life and a career, moving into the limelight after Perestroika and the fall of Communist Russia; and she’s now a multi-faceted artist, producing visual art and embarking upon a singing career as well as her writing.

There is nothing more beautiful than the steppe. Nothing. Even the ocean is smaller and ends sooner. For the rest of my days I will remember the sunrise over the steppe: a recently ploughed purple earth and an orange sun trembling over the horizon like an enormous egg yolk.

“Metropol…” is a gripping and enthralling read from start to finish, and the book is enhanced by the images included; some are personal photos from the author, and some photos to illustrate places and times. These add much to the narrative, and as an aside, I was really impressed with the quality of reproduction. I’ve read a number of paperbacks in recent months which have photos inserted into the main body of the narrative, and these are often muddy and of poor quality. I don’t know if it’s because my copy of the book is a US Penguin edition and the paper quality is better, but the images are really clear and well reproduced, which definitely enhanced the reading experience.

So my first experience of reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was a really powerful and memorable one. Her prose is excellent, her experiences unforgettable and her vivid portrait of life in Soviet Russia quite unparalleled. I loved making the acquaintance of Petrushevskaya for #WITMonth and really must get to her fictions soon! 😀


The Book-Finding Fairy makes a reappearance…


I’ve been purposely ignoring the charity shops lately, as it’s not as if the TBR mountain isn’t teetering; plus my reading speed has been surprisingly slow, and I keep getting distracted by cheap crafting supplies (that’s another story…) However, for some reason I felt the call of the Sense charity shop as I passed by it yesterday, and as I hadn’t visited it for a while I decided to drop in – which I was obviously meant to do…

pet dovlatov

The first two finds are particularly exciting as they’re both books that have been on my mental wishlist for a while – so to find them in excellent condition for only £1 each was a treat. They’re really not the usual type of thing that turns up in the Sense shop, so I can’t help thinking they were meant for me…

wandererI took a punt on the Hamsun, as I couldn’t remember if I had this one or not (I have several of his titles) but fortunately I didn’t – so I’m really glad I did pick it up!

The Oxfam hasn’t had quite such brilliant stock recently, and their literature section really isn’t very well curated or organised. Everything is in the wrong category or order (though they haven’t got the howlers Sense has – Anna Karenina shelved by author under K…..) However, this caught my eye:

the russian girl

I’m keen to explore more of Amis senior’s work and so I thought I’d give this a try. I already have a couple of recent postal arrivals by Amis too, it’s just finding the time to read them:

amis x 2

I’ve read good things about both of them, and so I have high hopes!

Finally, I thought I’d share a couple of incoming volumes via my dear friend J. who, noting my interest in Soviet sci-fi, procured them from a book dealer friend of hers.

more soviet sci fi

Since both feature the Strugatsky brothers, I’m rather excited! Now I just need to focus myself on *actually reading*!!!!

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