Petrushevskaja's "Vremja Noch'": Moscow Underground

Sharon Lubkemann Allen, Princeton University

Russian literary theory and cultural semiotics have long provided models for reading the modern novel as an urban/e construct-shaped by urban contexts and structured by urbane consciousness. Baxtin, for whom the novel was a wholly urbane genre, argued that it recreated the peculiar compression and polyphony of the city. Lotman and Toporov, retracing a terrain that had begun to be mapped in early- to mid-nineteenth-century essays and tales collected in such works as Nekrasov's "Fiziologija Peterburga", took this argument further, claiming that authors, like their characters, are bound by the city to speak its particular truths. These "truths", as slippery as they might have seemed in the foggy, eccentric Petersburg of the nineteenth century, become all the more multi-faceted and elusive in flood-lit Soviet Leningrad and Moscow. While offering threshold glimpses, neither Bakhtin's nor Lotman's readings venture far into this terrain, in which the boundaries between genres and cities become porous.

Far more than early binary distinctions drawn between Moscow and Petersburg texts, Lotman's late concept of the semiosphere offers a model of the twentieth-century city and citytext, informed by socio-political upheaval that sought to level the literal landscape and complicated re-membering in the literary. Bulgakov's "Moscow" text evinces how the concentric city becomes haunted and alienated space, as eccentric subtexts filter into the novel. The modern novel's inward turn motivates a shift of the "concentric"novel's interior space: spaces of social encounter are refracted in consciousness-the angled, reflexive, threshold-fraught territory of the "eccentric" novel.

Petrushevskaia's Vremia Noch' represents the even stranger permutations of the Moscow text in the post-modern, post-imperial, post-Soviet context. The madness that mediates the transposition of the eccentric into the concentric sphere in Bulgakov's novel is no longer necessary, insofar as it has already "receded into everyday life" and "into style" (to use the terms in which Ju. Mann described the fantasticality of Gogol''s later texts). In Petrushevskaja's "zhenskaja proza", ordinary space (of both "byt" and prose) is complicated by the duplicity of existence and memory--literal and literary.

In Petrushevskaja's Vremja Noch', surface readings are disrupted by undercurrents-by both explicit and implicit intertextual references. Whereas the literal setting for Petrushevskaia's novel is Moscow, its literary subtexts are quintessential Petersburg/Leningrad texts: Dostoevsky's and Axmatova's. These filter into the novel as self-conscious underpinnings. The kinds of space inhabited by the novel are interior, alienated spaces: belonging at once to both concentric and eccentric urban traditions. On the one hand, the narrative is rooted in the home and other social spaces characteristic of the Moscow text, both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On the other hand, the narrative digresses into a mind and street as blinded as any fog- or snow-bound prospect in Gogol', Dostoevskij or Belyj-spaces in which one is alienated from both others and self, in which consciousness is split. The "Penelope" imagined at this Moscow hearth seems to unweave more than she spins (her poetry is notably absent from this prosaic text); she seems more schizophrenic than circumspect. The formal space of the text is polyphonic, belonging to the Petersburg tradition; it is also domestic and lyrical, belonging to the organic, natural, feminine Moscow text. Yet both domestic and literary space are unsentimentally "deconstructed" by the layered voices in the text. Like Bulgakov's novel, Petrushevskaja's doubly explores the insights offered by displacement through a housing crisis and a writer whose manuscripts are both being written but absent in the text. Whereas Bulgakov realizes fantastic imaginary transformations, Petrushevskaja, like Dostoevskij, insists on a more perverse fantasticality inherent in the mundane, in the underground of reflexive consciousness and interpersonal relationships. Internal and intersubjective space are continually revised through the narrative's dialogized voices. Nevertheless, Petrushevskaja creates a different dialogue than Dostoevskij could write--reflecting women's consciousness from within, Soviet experience, a post-modern intertextual self-consciousness


As feminine text, Petrushevskaja's novel shifts the interior terrain, both that of social interaction and of mental alienation. It inhabits the peculiar "corner" of the "kitchen table," where it is prose composed by a woman poet, read by a daughter who is both subject, part-author, and purveyor of the manuscript. Petrushevskaja reconsiders the old Petersburg questions concerning the creative capacity of the copyist and the autonomy of fictive creation or double by transposing these into the strangely new but familiar (even Classical, except intimate) space marked by the strained relations between mothers and daughters Whereas the women in the narrative write and die (their writing representing them as self-conscious witnesses implicit in each other's dying), the sons are immortal fictions-the heroes mother and daughter need to generate, both parasitic and perversely autonomous. Petrushevskaia's novel, reflexively playing with the space within which its subjects live, reflects a strange compression, violent and dark: a space in which mother and child must prey parasitically upon each other in a compounding of Dostoevskij's unfertile underground. In this context, physical, mental, literary, and textual space seem not only to overlap but somehow interbreed. The feminine voice keeps on rounding out, not just turning on itself. That is, Petrushevskaia suggests parasitism with creative potential. She charts a new terrain: an embodied underground consciousness, able to give birth to a child and, hence, to a novel with real rather than imagined intercourse-ambivalent as the lived lives it generates might be