Collected Works: Literature
by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Every Friday evening, a circle of acquaintances meets at the home of Serge and Marisha. The hosts are the glue that holds the group together; the only other adhesives present seem to be habit, gossip, pity, and a blanket of thinly veiled contempt. One of the couple’s comrades chronicles these gatherings for us, jumping back and forth in time, defying chronology to compile a highlights reel. She peppers her anecdotes with sneers and snipes, unable to withhold her acerbic asides.
Little respect is shown for revered bonds of friendship and family. Relationships disintegrate, parents disparage their children, and the deaths of relatives are accepted with barely a shrug of the shoulders. Violence and disease are an inexplicable inevitability. Marisha’s father ‘uselessly perished under a car at nine thirty, when there is no traffic.’ The protagonist’s mother fell ill after an unnecessary operation, and died with ‘an open wound the size of a fist’.
Our narrator also counts among the suffering: a hereditary condition will soon take her sight. She knows that her son will require a new carer, but nobody is lining up to volunteer. With her child’s best interests at heart, she is driven to an act of irredeemable cruelty. Whether repulsed by her decisions or sympathetic to her twisted reasoning, we are left uncertain whether her choice will have the intended consequence. Yet she retains an air of smug assertiveness: ‘I’m smart, and I know.’
The world that our unnamed anti-heroine describes is one relegated to the underbelly of Russia’s cultural legacy. The author’s twisted tales were not popular with the authorities, who barred the novella’s publication for seventeen years. When it did finally emerge, its shocking conclusion was met with widespread disgust. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya may give a voice to the voiceless, but she rarely allows the hopeless the luxury of hope.
Words by John Wadsworth
More to discover
You can read Among Friends in its entirety, as translated by Anna Summers, on The Baffler. Summers has also written an introduction to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's life and works, which can be read here. William Deresiewicz has written about the author for The Nation, as has Ingrid Norton for Dissent Magazine.
Viv Groskop has interviewed Petrushevskaya for the Financial Times, as have David Garza for Kirkus Reviews, Lori Kozlowski for Los Angeles Times, and Deborah Treisman for The New Yorker. Petrushevskaya's stories 'Our Savior' and 'Tamara's Baby' have been published in Lapham's Quarterly and Prospect Magazine, respectively.