“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”–Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself”
As the French playwright and thinker Jean Racine once claimed, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” Horace Walpole echoed the sentiment, but put the two clauses in the reverse order. Whatever the order, the sentiment is one that often applies to the way fiction, not to mention drama, works. The unique thing about the work of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is that it produces both feelings at the same time in those who read it, not the usual sense of tragicomedy, but a studied blankness of effect and affect both at the end of each of her short stories in this book, which bears the subtitle “Love Stories.” And this is not a case in which one can blame the translation, which those who know Russian claim is an adept one (by the translator Anna Summers, who has translated others of Petrushevskaya’s works as well).
I say that there is a “studied blankness of effect and affect both” because there is: the blankness of effect is contained in the continual twist which takes place at the end of each short story, where one is expecting a sense of resolution. There is in each case a sense of nothing really being resolved, but a sense of reality, of truth to real life and to the way thing actually happen, of the oftentimes inconclusive result even of big events in life. Just because so many other fictions proceed by well-worn formulas, this lack of final effect produces its own sense of surprise and shock, and often a rueful chuckle at one’s own expectations. The blankness of affect relates to the marked restraint of feeling in the narrator’s exposition of her characters and their situations: she doesn’t feel sorry for them in the conventional sense, doesn’t play sad little violin solos on her creative instrument, and doesn’t encourage the reader to feel sorry for them either.
And yet, one does feel for these characters, when all is said and done. It’s the author’s own sense of balance and discipline in dealing with the sorrowful facts of these character’s lives, with their strange and funny solutions to their predicaments, with their often unmerited suffering and undeserved rewards, which make this book the book it is. It’s as if the author took a whiny, mournful, disgruntled little series of events, and removed the vital connections of characters’ trajectories up and down in feeling and action, and instead put a laugh here, and a poignant remark there, in places where they weren’t before expected. And she doesn’t pull her punches, or bestow or waste any sympathy on her characters; such sympathy as they deserve, they may or may not get from the other characters (and in a final way from the reader, at the end of each story), but they don’t get it from the narrative voice, which is calm and full of detail and fact, but which only supplies these and insists that the reader come to his or her own conclusions. Yet, from this restrained puppeteering, there is tenderness, coming from who can say where? All one knows when reading is that Petrushevskaya is like a canny and watchful parent, who without apparent doting or pride harshly pushes her progeny forth, in such a way that she cunningly wins that doting for them from the audience, who feels for them that they have such a dragon of a progenitor that they surely deserve to be lauded and made much of by their auditors.
Even the title of this book is one which bestows that strict tone of restraint on events: the major events of that story, “there once lived a girl who seduced her sister’s husband, and he hanged himself,” are ones which are taken away from the reader who hopes to follow the path of major events. The title instead insists that there is something else of importance, and it is thus that the reader must enter the story and supply the feeling, the startlement, the connections between event and feeling. This is a book which rewards curiosity and investigation well, and which gives the reader sated by ordinary fictional motifs and sallies the charge of a lifetime. I hope you will read it soon, and discover just how original a talent Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is.
This first week of the New Year, while I was sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike me as to what activity I should start with next, a phrase popped into my head: “infinity in a grain of sand.” As is often the case, I found out after looking it up that I didn’t have it quite right: what William Blake actually said was something more like “To see a world in a grain of sand,” followed up by “infinity in an hour.” But since Einstein, it’s apparently been thought that time and space are not distinct, so I stuck with my own title, with a nod to Blake (and Einstein). This was my first poem of the New Year, 2018:
“Infinity in a Grain of Sand”
Love is an old man who sleeps poorly,
And awakens cranky with his wife in the morning.
Love is a young girl who can’t find one shoe,
And her mother calling repeatedly.
Love is a young man working on a truck
For his friend, who probably won’t pay him.
Love is the Earth going ’round,
With the universe still expanding.
Love is a cat who doesn’t have fleas or ticks
Still scratching herself and bathing methodically.
Love is a mother hen, pecking one chick on the head
And flapping her wings, and trying to crow.
Love is a horse rubbing its rump against the rail
And then trumpeting its voice to the donkey
Two stalls down, who answers.
Love is the Earth going ’round
With the universe still expanding.
Love is the mathematical equation
That the teacher writes on the board
Hoping his students will think him profound.
Love is the gravedigger, on a cold day sitting on a frozen mound
To eat his lunch, and drink the soup
From his thermos, which his wife filled.
Love is the conjunction point where all of them meet
Each in his or her own world, not yet complete.
Love is the Earth going ’round,
With the universe still expanding.
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/2/18
Other than love, probably one of the most tried (or trite) and true subjects for poetry is the change of seasons. There are a few new things to say on the topic, however, sadly enough. Here goes:
A Change of Seasons The fall is come And the days are doing what they call "Drawing in." And I too am drawing in, Shutting down and pulling in My seasonal feelers Like a snail's antennae, Because sounds will be different in winter, When they are muted by the snowfall. My aspirations too Are becoming flat characters, Losing their roundedness, No longer speaking of fully realized possibilities But now only signaling outlines of things Which may or may not come. We have no hope of escaping Without leaving the temperate zone, Though meteorologists are already disputing Inches of white, feet of rain, Days' light, Nights' dark, While what will come will come Whether they argue or not. And it's not especially dread that I feel, For I'm used to it by now. The unsettling element is rather That things are now topsy-turvy, And for certain days of autumn, it's summer, For some days of winter, it's autumn or even July, For some days of spring too, it'll be An early and undue warm season, Then back into a retrograde deep freeze on days When we expect the sun to be smiling. We are even getting used to climate change, The adaptability of humans Being apparently our biggest selling point. But perhaps the question is due to Nature, Or the gods, or Fate, or whatever you may happen To believe in, "How hard is it to change?" What else should we be asking, We, who are at least partly to blame For this untoward state of affairs, Given our ability to adapt, Shouldn't we practice Adapting our selfishness and greed, Instead of trying to figure out how To make the earth spin round in the opposite direction? Even now, experts try to figure out how we can control the weather-- Wouldn't it be easier, and more economical, All things considered, To learn to control ourselves? That would be a change of seasons I could really get into.
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/17/17
This isn’t a particularly “poetic” poem; in fact, it more than borders on the prosaic. Nonetheless I wanted to share the point of view. There may be better poems for other days.
Sometimes, a poem just springs forth into the mind, however good or bad like the springing forth of Athena from the mind of Zeus. This is such a poem, but I’ve thought about it a bit and managed to locate two themes from other works that I suspect contributed to its genesis. The first is the tale of David and Bathsheba in the Old Testament, in which David sent one of his generals, Bathsheba’s husband, into battle so that he would be killed and David could have Bathsheba. My favorite contemporary song, “Hallelujah,” mentions this episode briefly as well. The second work is the tale “Billy Budd” by Herman Melville. In it, a naïve midshipman, Billy Budd, is trapped into a confrontation with Claggart, a scheming superior officer, and accidentally kills Claggart in a fit of justifiable though excessive rage, and is condemned to death. Somehow, I think these two stories came together in my mind and created this poem, which doesn’t exactly match either of them, but has the joint themes of a young officer being shoved into harm’s way, and a devious superior officer who is responsible for this. The poem is cast back in time, which I think is also responsible for the somewhat old-fashioned tone of the remarks about the two main characters, being as Costan might today be seen as a womanizer plain and simple, and Merlu perhaps even a correctly behaving superior who gets the soldier’s mind back on what he is supposed to be there for, however harsh the task or sentence. Still, I think with the tone cast as it is in the poem as written, the readers’ sympathies should rest mainly with Costan. Here’s the poem:
Costan and Merlu
Was what women know as a warm man.
Up to all their wiles and tricks,
Even seeing a few where there were none,
But full of love and joy and yes, laughter,
In the army
They wrinkled their noses up at
When they discussed him,
And more than one thought
His love and attention wasn’t warm
Rather possessive and deigning,
Full of his own self-importance,
And seeing not them.
At the sight of a red petticoat,
Always had a second glance for it
Over his shoulder,
Had the mort arrested
For crimes she’d only thought of committing
And thought disdainfully
Of poor people’s attire,
For modesty had nothing to do
With red petticoats,
And he flattered himself
That he was a modest man.
Costan one evening
Caught up with a lovely young smart thing
And chortled and sang with her
Under the wall, where they sat,
Sharing a bottle and some bread and cheese.
No less forward to impropriety,
But knowing what Merlu wanted,
Carried the news.
The next night,
Costan stood red-faced for reproach
In front of Merlu
Agreeing that yes, he had been most improper,
And bowing his head to anger and what was more,
Envy, though he hardly dared even to himself
Think of Merlu in that light.
Two days later,
There was a wall to storm,
A bridge to take,
And warning his friends to stand away from him,
Lest they too fall into disfavor
With the keeper of the garrison,
Costan accepted the mission
Forced upon him by Merlu,
But eager himself to shine.
The ending was inevitable,
Given Costan’s brave resilience,
And throwing of himself over the wall
Straight into enemy fire.
His loving and noble heart was breached as well,
By cannon fire he’d no way to fend off,
Since all he could think to offer was himself,
His skill with firearms not equaling
His skill with loving negotiations.
That evening, Merlu sat pondering:
What more need he do to preserve
The public order,
What ordinance or regulation pass
To keep his officers and men in line?
As he then stood, just before his window
He looked at another wall, like to the one
Of Costan’s trespass, and on it,
Flaunting bold and red,
As if someone had torn the red petticoats in pieces
And stuck them in place any way at all,
Someone had hastily painted the accusation
“Murderer!” to face his window;
He was startled, and for just a moment
Struck to the heart
That someone had read his thought.
Then, taking on himself once more
The yoke of office,
He sent a man out to clean it off
Or paint over it,
Sure, or no, not sure,
But avoiding the thought,
That someone knew him
Better than he had known himself.
Such knowledge comes too late for regret,
And in any case,
He was persuaded by the experience
That constituted all his life so far
That he was right to act so,
That Costan had been hostile
To the public temper and a danger
To public life.
And after all, once the word was painted over
From the wall,
There was no witness to the crime
And that made all the difference to him,
Though those who knew him sensed a subtle change,
A tension in the command,
As if he was second-guessing himself,
A lack of certainty, a questioning,
A questing for a solution to something
They knew not.
Came the day when he too was ordered over a wall
In front of his troops,
And taking a deep breath, nearly asking himself
If this was the price of it all,
He tried to be valiant, as valiant as he could imagine
Costan had been,
Though when his body came back also shot through,
The women and men of the town
Didn’t mourn him. Instead,
As his shattered body made its way on a stretcher
Through town, his last breath still not drawn,
He heard them saying, “It’s his time!” and laughing,
Someone spitting by his frame,
And “Serves him right!”
“Vindictive peasants!” he thought, and shedding a tear
For his own passing, he died.
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/27/17
Now it’s time, my readers, for my nearly annual Halloween post, and though I would like to cast a few shivers down your spines myself, for the sheer glory of being able to say that I could write almost anything and get by with it, I’m not talented in several directions, and that’s one of them. As well, it may sound funny to say that a particular film is my “favorite” scary film, when I have not made a habit in even the slightest way of either watching scary films or posting on them. Nevertheless, to my way of thinking (and when I was young I did have a penchant both for scary films and television shows, when I could sneak them past the household censor), this is the film to which no other scary film I’ve seen trailers of quite manages up, and the standard by which I measure all chills and thrills of that kind: “An American Werewolf in London.” Here’s why:
There is a strong human emotional response to being frightened, and that is to giggle nervously, as if hoping that it is all a joke, and not true. Films and fictions which play off that reaction are usually more successful simply because (for example) a dessert which has both sugar and a little salt in it tastes better than a dessert would just with sugar: the “salt” of the successful horror film is the comic moment (as in, “I’m taking this with a grain of salt,” indicating only partial belief, hence the tendency to giggle, as if being teased). This moment seems to reassure us that all is not as bad as it would seem. But of course, in a true horror film, once that comic moment has passed, a truly horrific scene follows, and if done correctly, scares us even more. Some films have played on this, but none I’ve encountered do it quite as well as this by now venerable movie.
For example, this movie has not one but two stock or stereotypical kinds of situations to play off of, both of which it uses to both comic and horrific advantage: the horror film’s moments of heightened activity, such as the witches’ den and the warning given there, the original werewolf’s initial attack, complete with only partial visuals of slavering jaws and reddish eyes, the results of the first attack along with the discounting of the werewolf story by local police, and so on and so forth. The second strain of stereotype is a play on the by-now-familiar ruefully comic routine concerning the naïve or innocent American in the Old World, of which London is the example in this case, though of course the story must begin on the moors, as is only appropriate and conceivable, playing on both American and British urban suspicions of rural settings and the people there. Though there are also moments of gore, they are not in the forefront as much as in more recent films (or at least, in the trailers I have seen, and yes, ignored), as this movie is quite intelligent and doesn’t depend entirely on the “oh, gross!” factor for its success. Of course, there must be a love interest, which in this film is played by the lovely and extremely talented Jenny Agutter, as a nurse in love with the young American.
Without spoiling it for you (and believe me, I haven’t begun to tell you about all the scary and funny moments of this film), I cannot do more to persuade you to see this film for the first time, or if you’ve already seen it, to see it again. So, have a happy, scary, safe and funny Halloween, and don’t eat too much candy (you never know when you might need to run from a monster or visiting American on the loose)!
A Poem of Unequal Meters, for an Unequal Subject
Love is a thing that has no whys and wherefores
Love is a thing that comes but once a year;
Or once a century, or once a fortnight,
Love has no rationale, it’s oh! so clear.
Love is betwixt and between the poles and deserts,
Love is both hot and cold, angry and shy,
First we cast it off, and then we seek for it,
When we want it, then no love can we descry.
Love is both sure of itself and quite uncertain,
Love can’t decide whether to go or stay;
Where other things crawl and lump along life’s toll road
We often expect love freely to make its way.
We pay a huge price for love, yet eagerly give it
Many times to such contenders as value it not,
And whatever we have to invite its honest presence
Others would give up for what we have not got.
For lovers’ sakes we pull our hair, and beat our breastbone,
Like to a host of cannibals on the prowl,
Such spiritual nourishment torn from human sources
In a case of symbolic replacement, any old how.
On the days when love’s spirit, though, doesn’t plague us,
We fall for love’s body, a hand, a lip, an eye:
Yet always we find ourselves incredulous
Whatever our own appeal, that love passes us by.
For it doesn’t matter how modest we are, or how clever,
We’re born with a sense that it’s a democracy,
Yet often when love overtakes us, aristocratic
Norms prevail, and do not set us free.
So take your best shot at it, or forego it,
You’re born to it! Or, you lack love’s troublesome spark,
But be sure should you falter in love’s path, my dear, you will know it,
And find yourself lost and stumbling in the dark.
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/11/17
For the occasion of the publication of this poem, I don’t mind revealing that it is a poem based on fact, and is written for a friend whose presence will be sorely missed. We’ve all lived through such an experience, when all the little debates and differences of opinion we go through with our friends are suddenly less important than the friend’s upcoming departure. Debate is often a luxury of presence, and later unity of mind and temper prevail, so that we can express what we deeply and truly feel, at the last possible moment, when absence will begin to be felt.
To a Departing Friend
Yes, I am full of commonplaces,
Some not new, some all my own.
I say to you,
“‘…the feast of reason,
And the flow of soul.'”
And in search of some universal
(Or at least particular) truth,
You say in frustration,
Considering my options,
And reviewing my mistakes,
“This is all I can do,
This makes me survive.”
In search of making myself and you
A little more perfect,
If such a thing could ever have degrees,
You point to this as my
Don’t chase your own tail, my friend,
That’s a ploy for kittens and puppies,
Who don’t yet recognize
The other end of themselves following.
The fact is,
That my life has been made so much better
By your intercession for me
With the storms and high winds
The visits of the gods,
And you have for a while
Kept me most divine company
In the space allotted us
Before the great dark.
Who knows if what heaven there is
Is not arranged and populated
By such conversations as ours,
And the sorrow and laughter
We have shared
Are not apportioned out
To all who would live on
Beyond their death?
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 9/29/17