When Tatyana Tolstaya decided to take up writing in 1983, no one suspected that she would emerge half a dozen years later as one of the most original talents on the Russian literary scene, translated almost immediately into many languages and highly acclaimed even outside her native land. She achieved this recognition with a modest output of less than twenty short sketches, some of them only a few pages in length, appearing in various literary journals between 1983 and 1987 but not extensively critiqued or credited until published in collected form under the title Na zolotom kryl’tse sideli (1987; On the Golden Porch, 1989). All at once readers and critics alike were struck both by her choice of theme and by her style, so tellingly different from the already diverse outpouring of glasnost literature. The glasnost era itself finds no direct reflection in Tolstaya. Her concerns are more timeless and universal, though her characters are firmly rooted in the colorless urban existence of the stagnant Brezhnev years. The various stages of disillusionment in which the protagonists vegetate, however, are not a byproduct of the wretched sociopolitical condition but are the result of poor adjustment to life in general. The author; when asked about this focus on unhappiness, stated that every life’s end in death permitted no other outlook. This stress on the transient nature of life is succinctly evident in the opening words of “Sonya”: “A person lived—a person died. Only the name remains—Sonya.” Tolstaya rescues her characters from such oblivion by creating lyrical biographies for them, made up of impressions from faded photographs, remembered snatches of dialogue, bits of phrases deciphered from yellowed, discarded letters, and, most important, authorial flights of imagination. She embellishes and enriches the portraits, bringing even the most mediocre figures vividly to life. Yet the result is not a romantic invention, for the descriptions are periodically anchored in officially recorded data about the characters and in recollections by their acquaintances and relatives.
A recurring motif, then, is the presentation of outwardly ordinary individuals with glowing inner imaginary lives. For example, the title figure of “Sweet Shura” is an old, half-blind crone in sagging stockings, shabby shoes, dirty frayed dress, and absurdly outmoded hat, shuffling in and out of traffic with her bag of daily groceries. Once safely inside the tiny abode set aside for her in an unfriendly communal flat, however, she gives herself over to memories of youth. Abetted by the obliging narrative voice, she conjures up an admirer from long ago and imagines him still pacing a distant platform somewhere in the sunny, prerevolutionary Crimean south, impatiently awaiting her. In reality, she never kept that assignation; now, at death’s door, she cannot reconcile herself to the missed opportunity. Her enfeebled mind feverishly searches for an opening in time that would grant her a second chance to keep the tryst. In the end, the portrait of the disheveled, withered old woman has been transformed into that of an elfin mirage, floating south to recapture a lost possibility, the brutal details of her actual existence paling beside the lush landscape of her flights of fancy.
Tolstaya emphasizes her subjects’ commonplace nature by refusing to adorn them with many attractive features. They are for the most part silly creatures—inept, boring, gullible. Yet human misery, the ravages of old age, the recognition of lives badly lived, and the inability to redirect destiny elicit such an affinitive compassion on the part of the author that redeeming moments are bequeathed to even the most unlikable prospects. Thus, the title character in “Sonya” is a thorough nitwit, always making a fool of herself with the wrong word or gesture at the wrong moment, suffered only because of her slavish readiness to perform menial tasks for others. When she is made the butt of a cruel joke by acquaintances who lure her into a passionate correspondence with an invented admirer, however, Tolstaya turns the jest into a small triumph for her dowdy, middle-aged heroine. Starved for affection in her waning years, Sonya builds the phony epistolary exchange into a rich and secretly happy inner experience.
Such insistence on finding redeeming features for all creatures is present in many of the selections. The tedious, fat title figure of “Peters,” with whom no one wanted to play in childhood and whom no one invites as an adult because his peculiar upbringing has made him into a dullard, is given no space to ingratiate himself. Yet Tolstaya, in the way she draws this insipid figure as he approaches the end of a joyless existence with none of his grandiose hopes realized, awakens deliberation in the reader. Is Peters really to blame for the stilted manners taught to him as a child? Is his grandmother to blame for forcing him into overblown courtesy in the mistaken belief that she was fostering genteel deportment? Who can foresee the consequences of one’s actions? Sometimes a few seemingly casual digressive phrases evoke affinity with an antagonist. Thus, the bratty child of “Loves Me, Loves Me Not,” whose nasty behavior makes life miserable for the adults charged with her care, nevertheless elicits kindred feelings as she squirms in fear of nightly ghosts or delights in fragrant, clean sheets after a hot bath. Animals and inanimate objects, too, are part of the author’s sympathetic universe. In one example, a dinner chicken, strung up outside the winter window of a refrigeratorless flat, becomes a victim, punished through execution by hanging. Another time, a lampshade comes to life as it is rescued from the flea market and given a warm existence in a cozy apartment, but it is then marked for oblivion after having served its purpose.
Death is an ever-felt presence in...