Tolstaia, Tatiana (Nikitinichna)

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TOLSTAIA, Tatiana (Nikitinichna)

Nationality: Russian; great-grand-niece of Lev Tolstoi, q.v.; granddaughter of Aleksandr Nikolaevich Tolstoi. Born: Lenin-grad, 3 May 1951. Education: Leningrad State University, 1968-74, degree in philology 1974. Family: Married Andrei Lebedev in 1974; two sons. Career: Junior editor, Eastern literature division, Nauka publishing house, Moscow, 1974-83; writer-in-residence, University of Richmond, Virginia, 1988, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, 1990; senior lecturer in Russian literature, University of Texas, Austin, 1989. Lives in Moscow.


Short Stories

Na zolotom kryl'tse sideli. 1987; as On the Golden Porch and Other Stories, 1989.

Sleepwalker in a Fog. 1992.


Critical Studies:

"Tolstaia's 'Dome of Many-Colored Glass': The World Refracted Through Multiple Perspectives" by Helena Goscilo, in Slavic Review 47(2), 1988; "Reflections, Crooked Mirrors, Magic Theaters: Tat'iana Tolstaia's Peters " by John Givens, in Fruits of Her Plume: Essays on Contemporary Russian Women's Culture edited by Helena Goscilo, 1993.

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Tatiana Tolstaia's short stories first appeared in print in the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachov's policy of glasnost was already in full swing. Her world is the Soviet-Russian metropolis—mainly the former Leningrad—and the surrounding summer resorts. Her time is the 1970s and early 1980s, but the past informs the consciousness of many of her stories. The overwhelming majority of the writer's oeuvre consists of shorter fiction, and its strong personal stamp—both structural and thematic—differs from the published literature of the Soviet period after the 1930s. Tolstaia's stories never treat politically sensitive issues, and yet their publication under the stern reign of Soviet-style socialist realism would have been all but inconceivable. Her characters are ostentatiously nonheroic, average people depicted in a private world of domestic life. They often are children and old people or men and women captured in a world of dreams and fantasies. Tolstaia is not interested in the collectivized atmosphere of the workplace, the school, or other social institutions. Her characters live their unmistakable and utterly nonidealized Soviet lives surrounded by communal flats and drab, exhausting, and embittering daily routines. They dream about the good life, suffused with the crudest images of Western commercialism, vague memories of prerevolutionary Russia, and the distant and unavailable outside world in which East Germany, Syria, and Australia unite in their "exoticism."

Tolstaia's short stories offer intimate glimpses into banal lives, but her rare ability to create aesthetic experiences out of the flotsam and jetsam of triviality reminds readers that the significance of life for most of us lies in little details rather than in much-publicized drama. From the intensity and lyricism of these accounts, it appears that Tolstaia's childhood stories—"Loves Me, Loves Me Not," "On the Golden Porch," "Most Beloved"—draw on personal experiences. Her stories about adults and her almost grotesque portraits of lower-middle-class poshlost—mostly embodied in women such as Vera Vasilevna in "Okkervil River" and Zoya in "Hunting the Wooly Mammoth"—seem to be far removed, however, from the privileged circles of Tolstaia's own family. Her family's world of the favored intellectual elite does not inform her fiction.

Each of Tolstaia's quintessentially Soviet-Russian stories captures universal human experiences. Sexuality lurks as a motivating force behind the action of many stories. Her main interest lies in such areas as coming to terms with unresolvable contradictions between dreams and reality and between health and illness and with rejection. In "Fire and Dust" Rimma's hopes of occupying both rooms of their two-room flat and of living a life of some interest turn out to be more unreal than the crazy Pipka's accounts of fantastic adventures. The flat remains communal, and, instead of exoticism, all she gets is an out-of-style and overpriced blouse from a profiteer who is distinguished by having been to Syria.

Loneliness and old age contrast with memories of the past. Zhenechka in "Most Beloved" and the protagonist of "Sweet Shura" appear important and interesting in their own tales, whose audience is largely restricted to themselves. On their death all that is left of them are heaps of their treasured rubbish and old dwellings, which nobody wants to protect in loving memory. In "Hunting the Wooly Mammoth" Zoya, one of Tolstaia's females with no redeeming features, wants to hook a husband who can deliver her the lower-middle-class dream lifestyle of chic long cigarettes, East German dressing gowns, and Yugoslav lamps. In what is, no doubt, one of Tolstaia's wittiest parodies, we see Zoya picturing to herself a proposed visit to the artist friend of her boyfriend and then see her own aggrandized image and the dream artist debunked when the meeting takes place in a tawdry studio. The artwork is completely incomprehensible to Zoya and so is the conversation.

An abandoned child and an orphaned child, respectively, are the main characters in "Peters" and "The Moon Came Out." Meaningful vignettes summarize lives in a nutshell. Raised by oppressive grandmothers, Peters and Natasha, in "Peters," were denied the chance of befriending people of their own age group. Instead of a happy childhood, they received inhibitions powerful enough to prevent them from ever feeling comfortable. As their dreams of love remain unrealized and their disastrous relationships pass, they wake up to find that the best parts of their lives are over and that nothing good has ever happened to them. A life of rejection is, perhaps, best suggested in the epiphany in "Most Beloved," in which the man whom Zhenechka loved never noticed her. She never forgot his most meaningful words to her: "Good tea, Evgeniia Ivanovna. It's hot."

The most universal of Tolstaia's stories seem to deal with ill people surrounded by the healthy. In "Night" a mentally retarded man lives in complete dependence on his 80-year-old mother in a communal flat. Incapable of understanding the world around him as other people see it or his own mature sexuality, Alexei Petrovich must confront the bestiality of modern society with the mind of a four-year-old. In "Heavenly Flame" Korobeinikov was supposedly operated on for an ulcer, but we know and he guesses that the flaming pain inside his body signifies his approaching death from cancer. He forgets about the pain when he visits Olga Mikhailovna and her husband at their dacha. They find him and his stories highly amusing, and this sense of approval keeps the ill man's spirits up. But a pseudoartiste, Dmitrii Ilych, turns up and resents that he does not receive all of the attention. He lies about the past of Korobeinikov, a man whom he has never before encountered. As a result the dying man and his stories grow unwelcome. The vulgar hostess now deems his illness to be the "heavenly flame" meted out as his punishment, and her discourse and behavior provide one of the most eloquent examples of poshlost in modern Russian literature.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Tolstaia's stories is their style. No writer in Russia since the 1920s has come close to her in creating such a richly multivoiced text. Her sentences do not attempt to reflect a narrowly defined lackluster reality. Rather, they allude and imply through the use of abundant metaphors ("love—a homely, barefoot orphan," from "Most Beloved"), synecdoches, and images that are pasted together by the logic of dreams. In fragmented sentences she leads her reader, saturated by propagandistic or ineffective Soviet literature, toward hackneyed conclusions that never materialize. She produces ostranenie by her carnivalesque denial of the insincere official literary consciousness, the only consciousness allowed under the dictates of socialist realism. She consistently shuns institutionalized literary kitsch with its ready-made solutions and trite closures.

Tolstaia's pastiche is unmatched by any contemporary Russian writer. She juxtaposes such diverse styles as the voices of children, semieducated people, and those of the street, something that was, incidentally, completely ignored by official Soviet literature. Her stylistic parodies of pretentious discourse, such as the poems by Maryvanna's uncle in "Loves Me, Loves Me Not," are probably some of the finest in Russian literature. Tolstaia's narrative technique pluralizes the text still further. Third-person narrators imitate the characters talking to a particular audience, as in "Heavenly Flame," where the narrator's irony merges with the banal Olga Mikhailovna's attempt to impress her lover: "She loves truth, what can you do, that's how she is." Several consciousnesses are frequently at work in the narrator's voice. In "On the Golden Porch," for example, the child's impressions merge with the omniscient adult narrator's viewpoint. In "Night" the narrator's perspective incorporates the retarded man's childlike viewpoint with that of an adult outsider. As a result, our conventional, dulled perception of reality is challenged to recognize the abnormality of the normal.

The author of some 30 stories, Tolstaia has earned herself the kind of recognition Russians give only to great writers. Her fiction does not imitate any of her literary predecessors, but it is clearly founded in the best traditions of Russian prose. Indeed, she has marked her territory by developing an idiom recognizably her own. In her anthropomorphic universe people are not judged but are allowed to have their little pretenses and their innocent or harmful lies as they go about lives fraught with hardships and failures. Tolstaia's creatures, even the mice ready to move into a dilapidated house or the cat fed up with all the meat she is given, talk, explain, implore, and fend for themselves. It is a world in which the ugly and the petty are made radiant in the kaleidoscope of language.

Peter I. Barta