During the late 1980’s Tatyana Tolstaya (tohl-STI-yah) came to be considered one of the greatest talents in Russian literature. She and her six siblings, all of whom grew up with unusual privileges for the time, were grandchildren of the historical novelist Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoy, himself a relative of Leo Tolstoy. Tolstaya’s other grandfather was Mikhail Lozinskii, a minor poet and well-known translator.
Tolstaya came of age during the period in the Soviet Union that came to be referred to as “the stagnation,” years during the Brezhnev era that show remarkably little original prose literature. Many of the more interesting writers, among them Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky, and Vasily Aksyonov had already left the country. Others, including Yuri Trifonov and Lidia Chukovskaya, who never left the Soviet Union, were also out of the picture, due to either death or the lack of publishing opportunities. The impoverished monumentalism of the official genre of Socialist Realism had reached its nadir.
After Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982 a liberalizing atmosphere began that eventually culminated with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 and the period called glasnost, a reference to the opening of the closed, controlled society created by Soviet socialism. It is not coincidental that Tatyana Tolstaya began writing at about this time. In 1983 came the publication of her first story, “Kleem i nozhnitsami” (with glue and scissors), which set the stage for such later stories as “On the Golden Porch.”
The period of openness brought with it the so-called new thinking, which undoubtedly played a significant role in the success of Tolstaya’s next story, “Peters.” This complex psychological work focuses on the childhood of a boy made to conform to a despotic older generation, personified in his grandmother, who does not allow him to grow in a natural fashion but attempts to create a robotlike compendium of “good manners.” The origin of the final letter s in the name derives from the nineteenth century custom of reducing the word for “sir” to this sound, which was added, in deference, by a person of the lower classes in speaking to someone from the nobility. With a twist of irony, Tolstaya presents the act of preparing for life as the life-draining force of the twentieth century Soviet era. In this the work is reminiscent of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1957), where, however, the principals are all unmasked, playing their natural parts; in “Peters” the force is masked, the role of the intimate exchanged for the baton of the despot.
Tolstaya’s prose does not show the linear quality typical of Soviet writing. The deeply textured language, in which thought and action sometimes become meshed, would probably not have been accepted for publication in Russia at an earlier time. Tolstaya has been absolutely uncompromising in her writing, never allowing any changes to her texts whatsoever.
Tolstaya has achieved considerable...
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