Petrushevskaya: From 'Russia's last writer' to a cabaret performer

At the opening of 'Petrushevskaya and Norstein' exhibition in Moscow. Source: ITAR-TASS

At the opening of 'Petrushevskaya and Norstein' exhibition in Moscow. Source: ITAR-TASS

Even a three-month long festival is not enough to showcase the talents of the famous Russian writer and Renaissance woman as she celebrates her 75th birthday in Moscow.

Russians have a saying that if someone is talented, then they’re talented in everything. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya excels in many spheres – she’s a writer, dramatist, poet, painter and singer. The Financial Times once provocatively called her “Russia’s last writer.”

The internationally hailed animated film ‘Tale of Tales,’ for which Petrushevskaya wrote the screenplay, was voted “best animated film of all nations and times” in the results of an international opinion poll held by the Academy of Cinema Arts in conjunction with ASIFA-Hollywood in 1984. The film has an avid cult following. Petrushevskaya’s plays are produced by Moscow’s top theaters, and her experimental musical project “Cabaret Noir” has been packing audiences into many different venues for the past six years. Yet Petrushevskaya remains true to herself; her hallmark approach is discernible in everything she does.

Through July, Moscow is celebrating the writer’s jubilee. Multiple events, in every conceivable art form, are certain to delight her fans during the Petrushevskaya Festival.

Source: RBTH / Alexandra Guzeva, Pavel Gazdyuk

The celebrations kicked off at the Mayakovsky Theatre in Moscow, where Petrushevskaya presented her increasingly famous cabaret, performing her own material with a live band. Her songs are partly humorous, partly satiric – with new lyrics performed to well-known tunes.

Cabaret Noir illustrates the complete “paradosk” (as she calls it) of her character. The jaunty songs she performs poke fun at the band and are interspersed with her short stories narrated by Russian famous actors. The stories are all basically about death – or more accurately, how the realms of life and death touch each other.

The discrepancy between the content and her presentation style had the audience in peals of laughter of the kind that sweeps through an audience. Her typically fractured fairy tale of a girl who got lost in the woods and was separated from her parents for many years is read with a saccharine smile. Another tale – of an alley cat adopted and brought home, which then proceeds to poop all over the flat and keeps its new owner awake at night – is related in the style of a taut thriller.

Petrushevskaya’s poetry and prose elevate our basest thoughts and emotions – they’re often small-town and kitchen-sink, and seemingly insane and sordid. A typical example is “The Time: Night,” a novella in which a mother’s suffocating care for her adult children stunts them, angers them, and seems needless and at times bestial.

Petrushevskaya does not overanalyze her intentions. “My stories are a mirror. People see themselves in them. If they see evil, it means they’re evil. If they see good, it means they’re good,” she said in an interview with Afisha magazine.

However Petrushevskaya’s spirited songs, self-portraits and animated films stand in contrast to her frequently macabre stories.

The wondrous collaboration of Petrushevskaya and Norstein

Petrushevskaya’s animation work demands its own exhibit at the festival. Called “Petrushevskaya and Norstein,” it illustrates the friendship between the writer and the animator Yuri Norstein, creator of the cult-animated classic “Hedgehog in the Fog.” A large part of the exhibition is given over to “Tale of Tales,” a joint project between Norstein and Petrushevskaya. It’s far from being a children’s cartoon – instead it’s an individual collection of allusions to Russian history, in which very personal experiences mingle with childhood memories of the Second World War, alongside deeper images from Picasso and Russian fables.

Her use of deceptively naive narratives that act like fables with deeper philosophical meaning is a continuing theme in Petrushevskaya’s work. In 2002, she released a trilogy of books about Piglet Pete for toddlers. These simple stories were an Internet success, and adults made their own cartoons and fan-fiction based on them – some of which bordered on the limits of good taste. Yet Petrushevskaya takes this kind of popularity in her characteristic stride. “So what? There was vulgarity and swearing? That’s completely natural, it’s a folkloric reworking.”

Petrushevskaya – the granddaughter of a famous philologist – also tried her hand at linguistic tales with her series “Pusky Byatye.” They’re amusing tales in which all the vocabulary is made-up, yet somehow remains understandable to Russian-speakers in its sounds and structure. The main characters – Pusky, Kalusha and the Kalushettes – later appeared in an animated film.

Petrushevskaya’s penchant for animation also gave rise to a series of her own illustrated comics, in which black-and-white stick men engage in humorous repartee. Still, the feeling has much of the grim nature of her prose. The daily grind of Soviet-era life, and the way people deal with each other (especially at home) – is all inspiration for her comic genius, a lyrical mix of sardonic and bitter amusement.

Yuri Norstein, "The Golden Snail," creates cartoons adults love to get lost in

Source: Youtube

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya once wrote that Yuri Norstein is a genius, and that even in the cartoons in which he played a secondary role, she could see his "Mozartesque" themes and characters.

The broader public knows Norstein best through his genuinely cult cartoon "Hedgehog in the fog" (1975), which in its simple essence still addressed the complexities of loneliness and the meaning of life. 

"Who if not you will count the stars?" the bear cub asks the hedgehog, scared that he had been lost. And this very phrase embodies a profound sense of the unique nature of every person.

"Tale of tales" was released in 1979. Norstein said that this film was about memory, and about how in the history of one family, a single meeting and particular memory can reflect the history of the whole country. 

Since the early 1980s, Norstein has worked on "The Overcoat," based on Gogol's work by the same name. His painstaking technique uses handmade figures that are shot on glass panes, and his slow progress on this highly anticipated film has earned him the title, "The Golden Snail." His collaborator and wife, the artist Francesca Yarbusova, drew the faces, men and creatures that make such classics as "The Overcoat" and "Hedgehog in the Fog."

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