Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The plot of Tolstaya’s story is scant. Dialogue is just as scarce, used on only three occasions. The action is carried on through the narrator’s random memories. Thus, the author appears primarily interested in forwarding her views on the matters involved, as seen through the eyes and felt through the emotions of the narrator—life and death, beauty and the lack of it, and the luxurious variety of human behavior personified through Veronika, Pasha, and Margarita. Tolstaya frequently uses citations from poems and other poetic statements to bolster her arguments at particular junctions. For example, she uses an extract from Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “La Chanson du mal-aimé” (“The Song of the Poorly Loved”), in which the poet refers to the Milky Way to which bodies of lovers fly. The extract is used to emphasize the love between Margarita and Pasha, which is forbidden and doomed to end. Thus, two of the main themes of the story, love and death, are illuminated in a surprising manner.

The style is a mixture of realistic descriptions and lyrical prose. Tolstaya creates several highly lyrical prolonged descriptions, resembling the lyrical descriptions of the masterful Russian stylist from the first quarter of the twentieth century, Ivan Bunin. The story opens and ends with such long descriptions. In the opening paragraph, for example, Tolstaya describes the garden as without end, borders, or fences, full of noises and rustling, golden in the sun but pale green in the shade, with the well full of toads, with white roses and mushrooms, with raspberry and huckleberry patches, and with bridges. Such abundance of color and texture makes Tolstaya’s prose vibrant and sensuous.

Tolstaya employs symbolism in several instances. Veronika’s large stature reflects her tendency and need to dominate people. Other images, borrowed from folklore, magnify the symbolism, such as her yellow guard dog and the magical egg. Pasha’s affair with Veronika’s sister Margarita symbolizes his youthful rebirth, after having spent most of his life under Veronika’s yoke. The nuptial glass-legged bed bespeaks the fragility of Veronika’s and Pasha’s marriage, yet it is on this bed that Margarita kisses Pasha, as if awakening a sleeping prince (in a reversal of the folklore). The abundance of the color red, derived mostly from blood, symbolizes the inseparability of life and death.

On the Golden Porch

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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...

(The entire section is 2414 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The title of Tatyana Tolstaya’s first collection of short stories, On the Golden Porch, refers to a children’s counting rhyme. Tolstaya’s characters—whether old or young, female or male—depend on the rich fantasy of a child’s imagination, which might envision a world like that in the rhyme: “On the golden porch sat: Tsar, tsarevich, king, prince, cobbler, tailor, . . . ” Such a nonsensical grouping, as inexplicable as life at times appears to be, gives the reader a hint of the jumble of daily life reflected in these stories, that confusing place where dreams and reality intersect and cannot always be distinguished from each other.

The thirteen short stories give readers an exuberant picture of...

(The entire section is 587 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Tolstaya’s first work of short fiction holds a unique place in women’s literature. Although the outlook is not a particularly feminist one, and the points of view are shared by male and female alike, On the Golden Porch stands out from the other literature produced in Russia and much of the world. Tolstaya’s exuberance of language, metaphors and passages of sheer exhilarated descriptive prose that runs in torrents like poetry, reveals a style that is scarcely evident elsewhere in fiction.

Tolstaya is the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy, the author most notably of Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) and Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), and the...

(The entire section is 466 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Goscilo, Helena. “Tat’iana Tolstaia’s ‘Dome of Many-Colored Glass’: The World Refracted Through Multiple Perspectives.” Slavic Review 47 (Summer, 1988): 280-290. A useful and insightful introduction to Tolstaya’s work, which describes the key elements of her short-story writing and places her in the context of Russian literature. The author cites the stories as published in journals before the book-length collection On the Golden Porch was published.

Goscilo, Helena. “Tolstaian Times: Traversals and Transfers.” In New Directions in Soviet Literature: Selected Papers from the Fourth World Congress for Soviet and East European Studies, Harrogate, 1990, edited by Sheelagh Duffin Graham. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Goscilo discusses the way in which Tolstaya handles past and present in her characters’ intertwining of their lives with their memories. Touching on such aspects as voice, metaphors, objects, and memory, the author studies the complexities of Tolstaya’s use of time in her writing.

Simmons, K. A. “Zhenskaia proza and the New Generation of Women Writers.” Slovo: A Journal of Contemporary Soviet and East European Affairs 3 (May, 1990): 66-77. Discussing Tolstaya in terms of other female Soviet writers, Simmons concludes that Tolstaya transcends any constrictions of gender labels: Rather than confining herself solely to feminist concerns, she deals with universal issues that affect all humanity.