Russian Women

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya, translated by Antonia Bouis
    Virago, 199 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 1 85381 078 9
  • Balancing Acts: Contemporary Stories by Russian Women edited by Helena Goscilo
    Indiana, 337 pp, $39.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 253 31134 9

Tatyana Nikitichna, her publishers keep reassuring us, is ‘descended from the Tolstoys’ – that’s to say, from Aleksey Tolstoy, not the one who wrote nonsense verse (with two cousins) under the name of Kuzma Prutkof, but the one who wrote The Road to Calvary. But none of this has any bearing on her brilliant success. That came in 1986, three years after she had begun to appear in print, with her story ‘Peters’. Readers of Novyi Mir met something heady and irreversible, like the first entrance of the Firebird. There are 13 stories in On the Golden Porch, ranging from childhood to old age and the experience of death. The faces seem familiar. There are young sisters eating raspberries in the dacha, poor relations, an extravagant mother-in-law, an old peasant nurse, oddly-behaving uncles, small-time officials and clerks in cheap suits. ‘A little man is a normal man,’ Tolstaya told the Moscow News in 1987. But she has also said: ‘It’s difficult to read peole’s souls: it’s dark, and not everyone knows how to do it.’ She is not reading souls, nor is she offering the traditional Russian sympathy. She treats her characters with a humour which, disconcertingly, is often not kind at all, and shifts, with dazzling agility, from one viewpoint to another.

In ‘Sonya’ the simple-minded, put-upon female relation is cruelly deceived by Ada Adolfovna and her friends. They invent a romantic suitor, write letters from him, and intercept Sonya’s trembling replies. Sonya is killed during the siege of Leningrad. Ada survives to become a tiresome invalid. What has she done with Sonya’s letters, which would have given her a kind of immortality? But at this point Tolstaya abruptly changes face. ‘What’s the point of pestering a paralysed old woman? ... Most probably she threw the packet into the fire, standing on her swollen knees that icy winter, in the blazing circle of a minute’s light, and perhaps the letters, starting slowly at first and then quickly blackening at the corners and finally swirling up in a column of roaring flames, warmed her contorted, frozen fingers, if only for a brief instant.’ The ‘perhaps’ shows Tolstaya’s confident way, not only with human beings, but with time. Perhaps the letters burned – but we have already seen them at it. Time, in the stories, is a totally unstable element. Our past grows up side by side with our present, with interventions, sometimes grotesque, from the future. Tolstaya seems impatient, rather than Post-Modernist – impatient, in fact, with the predictability of time and the slowness of human processes. Let’s stir them up a little, let’s see how they look another way round.

We are, all the same, in a well-defined world, on the pavements of Leningrad and Moscow, in high-rises and communal flats, or on holiday expeditions, ‘two weeks of suffering in a damp tent on an uninhabited cliff covered with pine and bilberries, amongst offensively healthy strangers bawling cheerfully over their dinners of pea concentrate’. The day-to-day is exactly described. And yet as a narrator – though we can’t miss her guiding voice – Tolstaya never keeps still. She is, and is not, the thoughts of her characters. She comes and goes, and when she gets close, calls on the reader to remember with her, or to hear, touch, taste and see. We have to catch up as best we can with her exuberant changes, anxious not to be left behind, since every modulation counts. Here are two little girls in the garden of the dacha.

   Without end or limit, without borders and fences, noisy and rustling, golden in the sun, pale green in the shade, a thousand layers thick ... to the north, white roses and mushrooms, to the west, the mosquitoed raspberry patch, to the east, the bilberry patch, bees, the precipice, the lake, the bridges. They say that early in the morning they saw a completely naked man at the lake. Honestly. Don’t tell Mother. Do you know who it was? – It can’t be. – Honestly, it was. He thought he was alone. We were in the bushes ... What did you see? – Everything.

   Now, that was a stroke of luck. That only happens once every hundred years. Because the only naked man available – in the anatomy textbook – isn’t real. Having torn off his skin for the occasion, brazen, meaty, and red, he shows off to the eighth grade. When we’re promoted (in a hundred years) to the eighth grade, he’ll show us all that too.

What has become of the Turgenev-like opening? Well, it is not being satirised, it is not in disgrace. The manifold interpretations of life lie side by side, or one may come to the rescue of the others. Tolstaya’s world is crowded with physical objects. It is also magical, animated, and conscious of all there is from the enormous sky to the ‘secret potato cities’ beneath the soil. The fog is impatient, the May Sun is indignant, Solitude eats straight from the frying-pan, Depression waits for you in the wide bed, the sewing-box sleeps belly-up with its paws in the air, the passengers are ‘live roe’ inside the bus that swims the streets, the cabbage soup talks to itself on the stove, the coffin-like cupboard puffs out its wooden cheeks, slippers hold their mouths open – slip your foot in, and Fate turns its solid back, laughing with its friends. All this is like the ‘material sensibility’ of Pasternak’s earlier poetry and of The Last Summer. But I don’t think she intends to make any serious correspondence between human beings and their environment. The forces surrounding us are too irresponsible for that.

She is not, or not so far, a political writer, and she cannot give a very hopeful account of individual love, except for ‘the way an animal understands an animal, an old person a child, and a wordless creature its fellow’. This, of course, is a very important exception. But even if it is left out of account, there is a redeeming factor for the grotesque, the frustrated and the lonely living in the great cities, and that is the imagination. ‘How restlessly the transparent tamed shadows of our imagination retreat before the world,’ thinks Simeonov, the shabby hack translator, with whom the Moon ‘refuses to co-operate’, slipping like soap through his hands. Yet Simeonov’s imagination is set free by music – the voice of an old-time diva, Vera Vaslevna, played on a heavy old disc through the spin, creak and hiss of a still older gramophone. Listening to this he ignores the ‘warm, kitcheny’ Tamara, his kind neighbour ready to oblige with the laundry or with anything else. And Vera Vaslevna is still alive. He plucks up the courage to find her address from a street directory kiosk. When the dreadful old contralto, hard-up and drunken, has actually descended on his flat with her hangers-on, and has left grease and white hairs in his bath, music is put to its sharpest test. But it survives. As Simeonov cleans up, the divine, stormy voice rises up again from the depths of the atrocious record, and once again it seems to him that the ‘nameless rivers flow backwards.’

The process can be reversed. Yura and Galya live in the tedium of the outer suburbs, where the sleepless ring road, roaring with traffic, ‘lies like a hoop of darkness’. Sometimes – and it is all they have to look forward to – they are invited for the evening by Filin, the collector of curios; he lives in a Sultan’s palace, a high-rise flat with a grocery on the ground-floor where you can buy herring-oil without queueing. His rooms are full of wonders – ‘Wedgwood, see, the dark blue things on the shelf’ – and he himself is a teller of tales. Before long the spell is broken. The apartment, it turns out, is only a sub-let. The stories were lies. But the effect of this upon Galya, curiously enough, is that of an epiphany: ‘Let’s sing the praises of the suburbs, the rains, the greyed houses, the long evenings on the threshold of darkness ... and the first ice, the first blueish ice with a deep imprint of someone else’s foot.’

There are no rules, then, for the imagination, except for its mysterious connection with pity. Pity, however, is a distressing emotion, and tiring. Might it be better to get rid of the two of them together? In ‘A Clean Sheet’, the most striking, I think, of all these stories, Ignatiev is tormented by a sick child, an exhausted and much-loved wife and an unsatisfactory mistress. He doesn’t know, we are told, how to cry, so he smokes, and his imagination ranges at large. ‘Hand in hand with depression, Ignatiev said nothing: locked in his heart, gardens, seas and cities tumbled; Ignatiev was their master, they were born with him, and with him they were doomed to dissolve into non-being.’ ‘You don’t understand,’ he tells his friend, pointing at himself, ‘it’s alive, and it hurts.’ ‘It hurts because it’s alive,’ says the friend, picking his teeth with a wooden match, ‘What did you expect?’ But there is an operation, it seems, these days. ‘It’s very widespread in the West, but it’s still underground here.’ One must have, of course, a hundred and fifty roubles in an envelope for the specialist. After a decent hesitation, Ignatiev makes his appointment. In the surgery, there are the only too-convincing humiliations (the money has been put by mistake in a cheery gift envelope), and fears (the needle waiting in the tray is ‘disgustingly thin, thinner than a mosquito’s whine’). Then, looking up at the doctor, Ignatiev sees that he has no eyes, only a nightmarish dark gaping, like a black hole, between his upper and lower lids, ‘openings into nowhere’. But the operation, since Ignatiev is too timid to protest, must go ahead. The move in and out of fantasy, to suggest the real horror of what is being done, gives distinction to this powerful story. As for the effect on Ignatiev, Tolstoya describes it in a page or so, and it is all the more painful for that.

Ignatiev wills his own destruction, or rather he is tempted into it by his friend and his friend’s friend N., a successful professional man. N., of course, has had the operation. But Tolstaya hasn’t allowed her book to end with this sardonic parable. She ends it with ‘Peters’. The wretched, flat-footed, pot-bellied Peters, cheated by women, is one of the classic figures of Russian comedy on whom she likes to play variations. She leaves him as a middle-aged man, opening his windows to the sun, suddenly glad because his wife has left him.

The 19 stories in Balancing Acts were written over the past twenty years by three generations of women. The writers are predominantly professional and urban – only Irina Velembovskaia’s ‘Through Hard Times’ and Inna Varlamova’s ‘A Threesome’ go back to the village and the kolkhoz, but Goscilo feels able to claim that ‘it offers an unparalleled opportunity to hear Russia’s women speak for and about themselves in their voices.’ Her introduction is in a spirit of generous indignation. She begins with a remark attributed to Lidia Chukovskaia, a long-time liberal: ‘What does “women’s literature” mean? You can have a women’s sauna, but literature?’ Her contributors, Goscilo feels, are outside the current of feminist criticism, they are ‘provincial cousins’ to the rest of Europe, and yet aren’t they themselves partly to blame? ‘The majority basically adhere to the narrative principles that are associated primarily with 19th-century realism.’ You can feel her, at exasperation point, scolding and shepherding.

These Russian women write about love, and about separation over the vast distances of their country, and although the lovers are basketball-players, biologists and agronomists, the tone is that of Chekhov’s ‘Lady with a Little Dog’. In Uvarova’s ‘Love’ the headmaster and the school inspector never mention his wife or her husband, ‘as if they didn’t exist’. There are moving stories, too, of endurance, and women’s long tradition (or bad habit) of self-sacrifice. This relates to the most persistent theme of all, the double-shift, or (more threateningly) the double-duty. On the one hand, the woman’s job, and, on the same hand, the home and children. Tanya, in Anna Mass’s ‘A Business Trip Home’, is a field geologist, like Anna Mass. She has failed, or believes she has failed, both her son and her ageing parents, and her shame, ‘like a heavy burden, bends my back’. This is the balancing act of the book’s title, and balancing is as hard, if not more so, than renunciation. Meanwhile, as Goscilo reminds us, Gorbachev has declared that he wants to enable Russian women to return to their mission: ‘housework, the upbringing of children, and the creation of a good family atmosphere’. All this, he says, has suffered as a result of the ‘sincere and politically justified desire to make women equal with men in everything’.

In both books the translation often sounds unconvincing. The slang seems neither Russian, nor English, nor American: as Germaine Greer said of the Australian accents in Neighbours, ‘they seem to be cut from the same cloth.’