By Ray Greenblatt
Tatyana Tolstaya is from the noble and intellectual Tolstoy family. She was born and educated in St. Petersburg, then spent many years in the U.S. teaching. On her return to Russia she hosted a very successful interview show on TV. The first book she wrote—On the Golden Porch (1987)—is what I will write about. I found the two most outstanding characteristics were her startling imagery and raucous sense of humor.
Tolstaya has a marvelous ability to bring children alive with all their idiosyncrasies. “Flus would scream and bang at my ears, banging on red drums, surrounding me from eight sides and, swirling wildly, project a delirious film, always the same: a wooden honeycomb filling up with three-digit numbers.” (7, LOVE ME, LOVE ME NOT) She does not deny a child’s imagination: ”The children couldn’t shut their eyes at night, sitting up like white columns in their beds.” (122, DATE WITH A BIRD)
And yet, a sadness invaded them and could stay with them for life. A boy loses his grandfather: “Surfacing from the magical bottom of childhood, from the warm, radiant depths, we open our chilled fist in the cold wind—and what have we brought up with us besides sand?” (49, ON THE GOLDEN PORCH)“His soul was boiled like egg white hanging in clumps on the trees rushing toward him; sour sorrow filled his mouth.” (128, DATE WITH A BIRD) The child can also pity others: “Lord, the world is so frightening and hostile, the poor homeless, inexperienced soul huddling in the square in the night wind.” (13, LOVES ME, LOVES ME NOT)
Under the oppression of Communism no one gets away unharmed emotionally,
women and men alike. “Rimma cracked—she looked around and saw that time kept flowing on, yet the future still hadn’t arrived.” (107, FIRE AND DUST) “Life had gone and the voice of the future was singing for others.” (112, FIRE AND DUST) “Thousands of years, thousands of days, thousands of translucent impenetrable curtains fell from the heavens, thickened, turned into solid walls, blocked roads, and kept Alexandra Ernestovna from going to her beloved, lost in time.” (35, SWEET SHURA) This image says it all: “Life had shown its empty face, its matted hair and sunken eye sockets.” (113, FIRE AND DUST)
Yet, moments of joy and love do exist. “His words glistened with winy sparkle. He led her to a restaurant and the crowd parted for them, and the coat check took her raiments as if they were the magical swan feathers of a fairy bather who had come from the heavens to a small forest lake. The columns emitted a soft marble aroma, and roses floated in the dim lighting. Vassily Mikhailovich was almost young, and Isolde was like a wild silvery bird, one of a kind.” (68, THE CIRCLE) And dreams can sometimes bode good: “Sleep came, invited him into its loopholes and corridors, made dates of secret stairways, locked the doors and rebuilt familiar houses.” (179, PETERS)
But memory fails. “Only a trace of her voice in my head, incorporeal, seeming to come from the black jaws of the telephone receiver.” (141, SONYA) “Now the backs of the seated people are translucent like gauze, and with frightening speed, their laughter falls to pieces, recedes in the distance—catch it if you can.” (141, SONYA) “How restlessly the transparent, tamed shadows of our imagination scurry when the noises and smells of real life penetrate into their cool, foggy world. (22, OKKERVIL RIVER)
Again we feel depressed. “The rain, darkness, and window-bending wind reflected the white solemn face of loneliness.” (17, OKKERVIL RIVER) A person dies. “The yellow dog gently closed his eyes and left through the snowflakes up the starry ladder to the black heights, carrying away the trembling living flame.” (49, ON THE GOLDEN PORCH) “Life had begun to turn its not-good side toward Pavel.” (131, SWEET DREAMS, SON) “Peters sat with his leftovers, as immobile as a suitcase.” (189, PETERS)
Children, women, men all find life at times hopeless, destructive. And yet, some weather through it all. “Peters smiled gratefully at life—running past, indifferent, ungrateful, treacherous, mocking, meaningless, alien—marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.” (192, PETERS)
It is fairly easy for a professional author to come up with some imagery. However, not every writer can pull off humor. I feel it must be built into the nervous system. Tolstaya has that ability too. In HUNTING THE WOOLY MAMMOTH she shows it through the character of Zoya. She puts on airs: “She opened her lips only a millimeter to taste the profiteroles in chocolate sauce, pretending for some intellectual reason that it wasn’t very tasty.” (52) She poses again: “Her face was supposed to reflect the fleeting nuances of her complex spiritual life, like exquisite sadness or some refined reminiscence.” (53)
She doesn’t really love the man she is trying to capture. She hates the great out-of-doors: “Among offensively hearty strangers bawling cheerfully over their dinner made of pea concentrate.” (54) He just won’t play the game she expects him to: ”But this one comes on his own, gets up close, grazes, plucking at the grass, rubbing his side against the wall, napping in the sun, pretending to be tame. Allows himself to be milked! While the pen is open on all four sides.” (59)
What she wants is to be worshipped: “Oh, they would have sculpted her soul, her pain, all the folds of her blanket the right way, they would have sculpted her and then fixed it up on tippy top of a dizzying, lacy cathedral, at the very top, and the photo would be in close up: Zoya. Detail. Early Gothic.” (60)
In THE CIRCLE a man is married but takes his wife for granted. He sees her in a hair salon: “My God—long wires were attached to a reddened, albeit very happy head, with protruding diodes, triodes, and resistors.” (63) Women love clothes: “A cow gives birth in suffering so you can have shoes; a lamb is sheared screaming so you can warm yourself with its fleece.” (64) Women love make up: “Your pink cheeks come from boxes of flying dust, your smiles from golden containers with strawberry filling, your smooth skin from tubes of grease, your gaze from round transparent jars.” (64)
However, “you don’t pick wives: they simply appear out of nowhere by your side, and you’re struggling in fine netting, bound hand and foot; hobbled and gagged.” (65) He admits that they teach you many things but are they important. “How to clean spoons, and the comparative physiology of meatballs and patties; he knew by heart the grievously brief lifespan of sour cream.” (65) Some foods he found ugly: “In the face of annual death nature gets scared, turns around, and grows head down, giving birth in the final moments to coarse, harsh, clumsy creatures—the black dome of radish, the monstrous white nerve of horseradish, the secret potato cities.” (68)
He wants to escape. “Sometimes he wanted to be born a fiery southern youth; or a medieval alchemist; or the daughter of a millionaire; or a widow’s beloved cat; or a Persian king.” (65) Or even have an affair. “Once, dropping off sheets at the laundry, Vassily stared into the blossoming clover of cotton expanses, and noticed that the seven-digit notation sewn onto the northeast resembled a telephone number; he secretly called, and was graciously welcomed, and began a boring joyless affair with a woman named Klara.”(66)
He kept searching for the answers to life. Perhaps a Rubik’s cube: “Spent weeks twisting and twisting its creaking movable facets, until his eyes grew red, waiting in vain for the light to another universe to shine at last from the window.” (73) “He spent hours standing on his head with his legs crossed in someone’s apartment near the railroad station, between two unshaven, also upside-down engineers, and the rumble of the trains outside the house speeding into the distance shook their upraised striped socks.” (74)
Plot is limited in these stories, mostly no more than vignettes. However, the characters are 3-dimensional and varied. It is primarily the imagery that makes every page sparkle. And the humor makes us laugh at human foibles, often with tears in our eyes.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Porch-Tatyana-Tolstaya/dp/0679728430
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).