Writers in Russia are so exalted that it’s difficult not to feel sorry for them. Walk down almost any major street in big city and some Pushkin or Lermontov is sure to be staring down on you from his pedestal. As for flesh-and-blood writers, what chance have they of stacking up against these unmoving idols? Even to try is a bit impudent. The arrogance! Still, some primal deep-rooted impulse calls for prose; its demands cannot be stifled, and so write one must.
Tatyana Tolstaya is no stranger to the particular weight of her country’s formidable literary tradition. Her surname precedes her, linking her to one of the most storied lineages in all of Russia. She is the granddaughter of Soviet-era novelist Aleksei Tolstoy, himself a distant relation of the author of War and Peace. In her new collection of short stories, Aetherial Worlds, now out in an English translation by Anya Migdal, Tolstaya wastes no time in letting the reader know she feels no compulsion to hide her personal prehistory. The first story in the collection, “20/20,” begins with a description of how her famous grandfather’s writerly imagination derailed his plans to become an engineer. Later, she chronicles how she became a writer after eye surgery, discovering a new world through sightlessness: “Meanwhile, I found that the second world, having first appeared to me in darkness, was here to stay; it turned out to be a multifaceted underside of so-called reality, a dungeon full of treasure, an aetherial world through the looking glass, a mysterious box with the exact coordinates of those who never existed.”
Did this new world descend through her bloodline or is it the birthright of all Pushkin’s compatriots? Could it be that this other world is available to everyone, or does it single out people at random? Regardless of how Tolstaya earned her access, she mines it with intent. She writes industriously, disregarding boundaries between genres and styles. In the West, she is best known for her cult novel The Slynx, a surreal vision of a dystopian Russia caught between sci-fi grotesquerie and medieval despotism. Her 2003 essay collection Pushkin’s Children was a vehicle for her thoughts on Russians from Joseph Brodsky to Vladimir Putin, whose reign was then just beginning. She has also been a Russian television personality, hosting School for Scandal from 2002 to 2014.
The stories in Aetherial Worlds tend towards a more personal register, but it would be naïve to read them as plainly autobiographical. Her writing often seems to inhabit two places at once, and journalistic frankness intermingles with visionary lyricism. Unsurprisingly, her work is at its best when it breaks down these barriers entirely, as in her unforgettable description of Soviet writer Andrei Platonov: “Perhaps this is how a mythical beast would write if he were to assume human form – some nocturnal creature who hears with his legs, sees with closed eyes, and can smell a creature of the opposite sex a dozen miles away.”
Did this new world descend through her bloodline or is it the birthright of all Pushkin’s compatriots?
Tolstaya has a way of turning real-life artists into compelling literary characters and she is drawn to figures who share her visionary streak: Aetherial Worlds includes considerations of Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich and eccentric Swedish religious thinker Emanuel Swedenborg. In “The Square,” she casts Malevich as a sort of Faustian figure, peering past the limits of the representable and heralding, not without destructive consequences, “the end of art.”
Tolstaya’s ancestor Lev Tolstoy makes an appearance as well. Tolstaya recounts the “Arzamas horror,” an existential crisis in an inn in the Russian hinterlands that the great author recounted in his diaries, foreshadowing his later life as a religious and political thinker of legendary severity. “Tolstoy banished from within himself the life-giving power of art, moving onto primitive fables and cheap moralising,” Tolstaya writes. “He let his life go out of him before his physical death, astonishing the world not with the artistry of his later works, but with the magnitude of his genuine anguish, his individual protest and public self-flagellation on a hitherto-unprecedented scale.” This contrasts with Tolstaya’s portrait of Swedenborg, whose grand millenarian revelations did not interfere much with his genteel Scandinavian lifestyle.
The happy Swedenborgs are few and far between in Tolstaya’s Russia, and yet the country will never lack for fevered and pitiless Maleviches. In her essay on Platonov, Tolstaya writes, “The lightbulb that Edison lit is still burning, but in Siberia one ‘project of the century’ after another lies in ruins.” The contrast between East and West is a major fixation throughout the collection. “Smoke and Shadows” and the titular story, “Aetherial Worlds,” both draw on the author’s experiences teaching American undergraduates, and the latter takes some very funny swipes at students, with the narrator concluding, “Any earnest appeal to conscience, to exemplars worth appealing to, or other such high-falutin crap that’s so popular in my homeland, doesn’t work here at all.” In “Official Nationality,” she posits as an essential component of the Russian national character the principle of “Let’s hope,” writing, “This ‘Let’s hope’ is a denial of causality, it’s a lack of belief in the material nature of our universe and it’s physical laws. Remember this and carve it in stone.”
Tolstoya’s Russia is no fixed entity. Her first published story, “On the Golden Porch,” came out during the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika, and over the years that followed she has observed and written about the chaotic Yeltsin 90s, as well as, of course, the expansive Putin years (recently renewed for another six seasons; let’s see if he makes it!).
Much of the writing in Aetherial Worlds has the flavour of such long-awaited moments of reflection, when life slows down and the mind begins to move at its own pace
“The Invisible Maiden,” one of the longest stories and most complex in the collection, is Nabokovian in both the intricacy of its construction and in the sheer forces that memory exerts upon it. Taking the form of a digressive piece about the narrator’s family dacha, it unfolds in an implied present but it also encompasses a time before the writer’s life: “the 19th century was slow to leave these shores; it hesitated, showing us how it was before the First World War: the green, blue, sunny world of the not-yet-killed.” The times come and go, places change or are forsaken, people arrive, depart, and die off; none of it is ever truly gone, but transformed into strange and unexpected forms.
Even the stories that take place in the present tense are infused with an awareness of temporal currents. The brief, potent “Aspic,” reads almost like a recipe, all second person tenses and imperative constructions, guiding the viewer through the preparation of the eponymous delicacy from supermarket to table. Despite it’s brevity, it, too, feels like a portrait of a nation and a society, as seen from the perspective of a corrosively funny older woman silently shouldering considerable burdens. “Strain the broth, pull the meat apart, slice it with a sharp knife, as they did in the olden days, in the age of the tsar, and the other tsar, and the third tsar, before the advent of the meat grinder, before Vasily the Blind, and Ivan Kalita, and the Cumans, and Rurik, and Sineus, and Truvor, who, as it turns out, never even existed.”
When the aspic has been made, one has time to sit and think. And much of the writing in Aetherial Worlds has the flavour of such long-awaited moments of reflection, when life slows down and the mind begins to move at its own pace. It’s these moments that are most prized by Tolstaya’s characters, where the past and present come together, the fantastic seeps into the banal, and aetherial worlds are manifested within our unforgiving and harsh material one.