It is impossible to ignore the family heritage that Tatyana Tolstaya’s name evokes. She is the granddaughter of the Soviet writer Alexei Tolstoy, who wrote historical novels about Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and the great-grandniece of the even more famous author of Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886), Leo Tolstoy. However, as many of the best of her stories indicate, her true literary ancestors are Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin, for her tales are tightly built explorations of the disillusionments of little people, not the expansive socialist realism of her grandfather, nor the epic history of her great-granduncle. There are few references in her short fiction either to the nobility of the pre-Soviet era or to the political upheavals that have occurred in the Soviet Union since the revolution. For the most part, she avoids the lengthy political rhetoric common to earlier Soviet writers, insisting that she is glad Mikhail Gorbachev does not seem to care about literature and therefore has no desire to control it; she says she asks no more from a political leader. Her one political conflict has not been with the Russian government but with the Moscow Writers’ Union, which refused to admit her, even after the success of her first book, because she dared to criticize one of the union’s most beloved authors. She has since been admitted and has called the controversy an awful joke.
Tolstaya was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1951 and earned a degree in classics at Leningrad State University, after which she worked for several years at a Moscow publishing firm. She began publishing her own stories in the mid-1980’s in literary magazines. An English translation of her first collection, On the Golden Porch, was published in 1989 to great acclaim. The original Russia edition, Na zolotom kryl’tse sideli, published in 1987, sold out immediately in Moscow bookstores. An English translation of her second collection, Sleepwalker in a Fog, appeared in 1992. Her first novel, Kys (2001; The Slynx), was published in English translation in 2002.
The tone of most of Tolstaya’s stories is established by the opening tale in White Walls, “Loves Me, Loves Me Not,” in which a child tells how she hates her governess, preferring instead her beloved Nanny. Told from the little girl’s point of view, the story mixes fantasy and reality, as a child, who is learning how frightening and hostile the world can be, would be most apt to do.
The lushly lyrical “Okkervil River” ultimately undercuts the romanticism of an aging bachelor named Simeonov, who listens to old records of love songs by a singer named Vera Vasilevna. The story ends predictably, but nonetheless pathetically, with his discovery that she has turned into a vulgarian, white, huge, and rouged, paid court to by other aging suitors. Simeonov tries to console himself by insisting that the Vera Vasilevna he has loved must have died and been eaten by this horrible old woman. He continues to escape his dreary life by losing himself in the divine voice of his dream woman.
Similarly in “The Circle,” Vassily Mikhailovich, a man of sixty, for whom fur coats get heavy and stairs get steep, longs for a six-winged seraph or some other feathery creature to come and carry him away from his drab and loveless life. Like Simeonov in “Okkervil River,” he too dreams of another woman whom he has transformed in his imagination, a woman named Isolde, who he hopes can bring him out of the cramped little pencil case called the universe, a woman who can shatter the ordinary world like an eggshell. However, what he ultimately discovers is a horrible-looking, wrinkled old hag, blowing beer foam on her cloth boots. Like many of Tolstaya’s characters, Vassily Mikhailovich is a victim of the relentlessness of time and the sadness of missed chances and misplaced romantic fantasies.
In “Peters,” a librarian fantasizes about all the lovely young women he will impress once he learns the German language, but when he overhears a woman call him a wimp and a sissy, he feels he has been run over by a trolley and sticks his head in an oven, only to discover that the gas has been off all day because of repairs. Seeing life as a chain of dreams and a charlatan’s store, he furiously considers killing the women who have tricked, seduced, and abandoned him, thus revenging all the fat and tongue-tied men who are locked in dark closets and never invited to the party. Accidentally, as if in passing,...
(The entire section is 1880 words.)