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.

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