(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The title of Tatyana Tolstaya’s story “Na zolotom kryl’tse sideli” (“On the Golden Porch”) comes from an old Russian counting song that names several different unrelated persons—a czar, a king, a cobbler, and so forth. This is an appropriate title for the first collection because the collection comprises stories about all sorts of people—a five-year-old girl and her nanny, a little boy in love with a beautiful neighbor, an old woman who still dreams of joining her first lover, a desperate young woman who traps a coarse and insensitive man into marriage, a shy fat man who dreams his life away—to mention only a few of the disparate and varied characters. The stories have some elements in common. Similar settings, themes, and styles give the stories more unity and connection with one another than the nursery-rhyme title might suggest. A similar kind of variety as well as unifying elements characterize the stories in Sleepwalker in a Fog.

The stories are all set in Moscow or Leningrad, with an only slightly less frequent setting being the dacha, or country summer home, so often found in Russian literature. More particularly, the stories repeatedly contrast the cramped, drab, and dismal environments of late twentieth century Soviet citizens with the idyllic life in rural surroundings. There are exceptions to the idyllic quality of the dacha settings, but the connotation is always consistent with relaxation, plenitude, and natural beauty.

Tolstaya seems to have particular favorites among the kinds of characters she portrays: innocent though sometimes mischievous children; hardworking and loving elderly people, especially women; and a distinctive group of weak, deluded, and disillusioned persons of less determinate age but all suffering from vulnerability, deprivation of one sort or another, and a strong tendency to mix dreams and fantasy with harsh reality.

While there is not a totally cheerful story in the two collections, there is much that is joyful, merry, tender, and humorous. The stories are not tightly plotted. Incidents and events are used to reveal characters’ interactions, situations, and conditions. Tolstaya seems to be more concerned with evoking moods and portraying unforgettable characters, whether they be a child dreaming of running away with a beautiful woman who betrays him, an old nanny who spends her life living for others, a weak and ineffectual librarian who longs for love, or a no-longer-young woman who traps a man into a loveless marriage. In fact, every principal character in her collections has a story that lifts each of them out of the ordinary, into the realms of brilliant, rich imagination.

Tolstaya has been lauded again and again as one of the most original and impressive Soviet writers of the late twentieth century. Her use of multivoiced narrators has been cited, as has her ability to combine sadness with humor, tenderness with cruelty. Her tendency to use objects in anthropomorphic ways has also been praised: Gardens wave handkerchiefs, cabbage soup talks to itself, dresses tuck up their knees inside dark trunks, and a lamp shade is young and skittish. The metaphor of dream is one of Tolstaya’s most distinctive devices. It appears in almost all of her stories; some of them consist almost entirely of dreams. The overall effect is evocative, evanescent, wry, and sometimes bizarre. Her stories have a natural, conversational style, whether in the narrator’s voice, in the talk among characters, or even in a character’s monologue. Tolstaya’s themes reveal her special concerns: the dreadful contrasts between the disappointments and failures of everyday life and the joyful life of the imagination, between reality and fantasy, and between dreams and nightmares.

For the reader delighted with Tolstaya’s prose of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, unfortunately, there is little to add. One story from the 1990’s, “Siuzhet” (1992; the story) is not considered to be of the same, high artistic quality as her earlier prose. In 1988, she began residence in the United States with tours of teaching and duties as writer-in-residence in many American universities. She applied for, and was granted, the proper documents for remaining in the United States with her husband and younger son, who joined her. Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, she has found in the New World both a new audience and a new outlook on her ideas. She published articles in The New Republic (May 27, 1991) and the Wilson Quarterly (Winter, 1992) which expressed her opinion of literary life in Russia. Such a self-conscious, Western reorientation may have been an inevitable result of emigration. Still, the accomplishments already made by Tolstaya stand on their own merit, both in Russia and in the West. In a world of conservative views on gender and nationality, Tolstaya has found a useful flashpoint, literature, where she can meld together articles of faith and pure fantasy, challenging reality and collective consciousness, artistically and, thus, substantively.

On the Golden Porch

Three stories in Tolstaya’s first collection exemplify both the similarities and contrasts in her writing. One is set in Leningrad, the other two in a dacha. All three stories are told from the point of view of a child, one of Tolstaya’s favorite narrative forms. This method allows her to use a fluid, rambling conversational style, laden with images and strong feeling. In all three stories, the nature of childhood, which is not entirely innocent, is contrasted with cruel betrayals by adults, indeed, by life. The differences, however, are what make each story distinctive and memorable in its own way.

The title story of the first collection alludes to a Russian counting rhyme in its title. Beginning with a brief poetic description of childhood as a garden, it shifts to the less idyllic aspects of childhood and uses several images of blood to convey the cruel and frightening side of that period. For example, a beautiful neighbor sells strawberries, her fingers red with berry blood. The narrator recalls how the same beautiful neighbor once smiled about her red hands after she had just killed a calf, and thus the contrast is established. The child narrator’s fears are expressed in fantasies about her mother crawling over broken glass to steal a strawberry runner. Uncle Pasha, the scary neighbor’s elderly, meek, henpecked husband, an accountant, runs every day to catch the commuter train to Leningrad. With his black cuff protectors and his scurrying to and from his job in a smoky basement, Uncle Pasha inevitably reminds one of Nikolai Gogol’s Akaky Akakyevich. Uncle Pasha’s house, however, is an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, which are described in fantastic terms. With abrupt speed, the accountant grows old, and his treasure-filled room is now seen with the adult eyes of the narrator as filled with trash and rubbish,...

(The entire section is 2829 words.)