Big Thinks

Patricia Beer

Tatyana Tolstaya’s collection of short stories, On the golden Porch, published in Britain in 1989, was received with hysterical enthusiasm. Some rather silly things were said, like ‘Tolstaya writes.’ Some rather lazy comparisons were made too: she was likened to every Russian writer one can call to mind, with the exception, as far as I know, of Tolstoy. Well, now Tolstaya writes again, and the italics have become capital letters The new collection, Sleepwalker in a Fog, consists of seven stories; the first of them, the title piece, is almost long enough to be called a novella, and at 60 pages the final one must certainly be so called.

In the same breath with which they were stating her resemblance to all these eminent precursors, many reviewers also dwelt on her originality and the startling freshness of her approach. My own first reaction was to be reminded, immediately and forcefully, of Penguin New Writing, which in my sophomoric days published a great many stories translated from Russian. Though the authors kept their individuality they were all working in the same fashion, to an extent which, in England, laid them open to parody. I remember with affection the overblown descriptions of nature with which they set the emotional scene: ‘In places the clouds rose like foam on the top of boiling milk. Uneven, their edges, broken with turbid tongues, licked the stones. The enormous bowl of the forest disappeared beneath their dishevelled frenzy’ (Nikolai Tikhonov). I was pleased, too, by their way with fantasy: its connection with, or divorce from, reality seemed not to worry them at all. A successful lover going home did not just feel like flying; he flew, his feet hitting people’s windows and his shirt billowing round him with great verisimilitude. It is true, I found their whimsy rebarbative, and their cavalier handling of time flustered me, but I enjoyed their imagery which bore no signs of strain though it must have been the product of dedicated observation. In short, I have not forgotten them, and fifty years later all their chief characteristics turn up again, in the work of Tolstaya, who would certainly acknowledge the continuity.

Penguin New Writing was on the whole luckier with its translator than Tolstaya has been on this occasion. Sleepwalker in a Fog is rendered into American English: vocabulary, spelling and syntax all look or sound unusual on this side of the Atlantic. This could have been an advantage to us for whom Russia and her ways still tend to seem intriguingly alien, but unfortunately it does not work like that in this case. The pay-off sentence of the first story, ‘Surely he’ll keep running till he meets the light?’ suggests a writer who has no decided grasp of any language. The colloquialisms are slightly disturbing too. Does anybody really say ‘attaboy’ nowadays? Of course a writer of fiction creating a character who said ‘attaboy’ years after everybody else had stopped would be perfectly justified, but in other cases the hoary expression is perhaps best avoided. ‘Hunky dory’ is another example. And the reader’s confidence is shaken by other things, small in themselves but they add up. Surely the plurals of ‘memento mori’ and ‘lazybones’ cannot be, respectively, ‘memento mori’ and ‘lazybones’?

As Rebecca West’s career developed, H.G. Wells commented unkindly on her increasing efforts to achieve Big Thinks, and suggested they were not paying off. It looks as though Tolstaya has been attempting the same thing and nobody has had the nerve of H.G. Wells. That she should decide to write more ambitiously must be welcomed, for her earlier success though inflated was soundly based, but she appears to think that development and progress in one’s work have something to do with size. Sadly, the greater length of a novella – whatever else it offers, it has to be longer than a short story – simply does not suit her talent; and she chooses to write two of them. The amount of material she has had to pack into ‘Limpopo’ to make it the big production she is apparently attempting has had the irritating effect of obscuring the narrative. I kept getting lost. The title does not help. The relevant quotation (‘and Doctor Doolittle ran all that day, and only one word would he say; Limpopo, Limpopo, Limpopo’) is not introduced till half-way through. It is followed by the author’s explanatory comment: ‘Moscow, Limpopo, the town of R, or the island of Ithaca – isn’t it all the same?’ No, it is not. The knowledge that one is clearly meant to keep on getting lost does not improve either one’s temper or one’s receptivity.

The title story, at 40 pages the second longest in the collection, involves a very Big Think indeed: the meaning of life and how best to live it. It is reasonable to suppose in the abstract that the meaning of life as a subject might need fuller exposition than some topics, but literature tends to demonstrate that it is best shown, if at all, in glimpses. And in her less pretentious and shorter stories Tolstaya gives us a full measure of these glimpses. ‘Sleepwalker in a Fog’ starts straightforwardly: ‘Having made it half-way through his earthly life, Denisov grew pensive’ and we look forward to being enlightened. As Tolstaya goes on, however, she abandons most of the normal basic storytelling techniques and becomes quite incoherent. There is a character called Makov, for example, who is very cursorily introduced: that he died on the mountains and still lies there is about all we are told. Yet he haunts the story like a spasmodic ghost. I realise he is meant to be very significant and I like the sound of him, but at no point can I see what he is for. The story seems to choke. At first I tried to credit Tolstaya with the once daring notion that I complicated theme is best served by artistic confusion, but the masterful voice of genuine experimentation is not the voice of the over-reacher which I think one hears in this story, as if the author was desperate to show that a novella is not a novelette.

Most fortunately, among the other six pieces we find examples of Tolstaya’s work at its very best. Two stories in particular, ‘Most Beloved’ and ‘The Poet and the Muse’, though they are very different from each other, show what heights she can reach when she keeps her feet on the ground. In theme, ‘Most Beloved’ is something of a rerun of ‘Love me, love me not’ from On the Golden Porch, in that the main character is a governess, unloved and despised by her pupils. The message is similar, too. It is never explicitly stated, but if it were it could adopt the robust voice of Elizabethan capitalism: ‘Put money in thy purse.’ Then you need not experience the hell of being a subordinate and the butt of vulgar jokes by your fellow workers, in this case your employers’ domestic staff. There is little evidence in either book of solidarity among workers. When Galya in ‘The Fakir’ takes the great step of going to the Bolshoi, she forgets to bring her good shoes and is humiliated in the Ladies because of her muddy boots, so that when the performance starts she has to tell herself that the dancers ‘weren’t swans at all but union members’. Above all, if you are rich you do not have to live where you do. From On the Golden Porch we are familiar with the distant suburbs to which the workers ‘crawl back’, along roads where ‘something big drives by, its lights nodding in a pothole’, to their homes in icy Zyuzino and puddly Korovino – into that impenetrable misery where you can only run and croak inhumanly.’ Zhenechka, the heroine of ‘Most Beloved’, lives in such a district and her cold flat is depressingly described down to the detail of the coverlet: ‘a dusty indoor spirit, so light it couldn’t be thrown over the bed with one broad flap; rumpling in a slow glide, slack and indifferent it descended unevenly, riding handfuls of stale household air as it fell and shuddering long alter it landed, stirred by the thin streams of a warm draught, by the rumble of trucks outside.’

There are characters in Tolstaya’s other stories who also discover that they cannot depend on their fellow humans for kindness: Korobeinikov in ‘Heavenly Flame’, for example. But Zhenechka is the most striking. She is good, she is innocent, and if people are exasperated by her failure to notice that she is unloved, it is this self-deception which protects her from the cruelty she meets with at the end. Tolstaya cleverly does not show her reaction to this final blow. Irony is the main flavour of the story not sentiment. When Zhenechka’s charges were young she wrote out a motto for them: ‘Don’t wish to be the prettiest. Wish to be the most beloved.’ They needed no telling; they were dying to be the most beloved, though as the clear-sighted pupil who narrates the story remarks, ‘Nothing came of it,’ explaining how, later on, after a grudging visit to their old governess: ‘we would depart awkward and relieved ... looking all around us eagerly for the arrival of love, which we expected any minute now – long, true love, everlasting and unique – while the love that leaned against the windowpane above and watched us go was too simple and mundane for us.’

‘Most Beloved’ starts in the best PNW tradition with a description of the spring wind blowing through Leningrad at night. The story, when we get to it, is well structured; the two important flashbacks are adroitly handled. The only potential hazard is the laboured lyricism (‘the swish of summer stillness at the summit of century-old birches’) which might lead us to expect a sort of Cider with Raisa as a forthcoming development. But in fact the next story, ‘The Poet and the Muse’, is astringent almost, if not quite, to the point of heartlessness. The style has been sharpened, sometimes painfully. There are no dreams swirling like a warm shadow, no gardens waving hankies before going down for the last time, no janitors glueing golden stars onto the black sky. The whimsy carries a jab of menace: the lavatory down which Nina flushes such of her husband’s poems as she disapproves of is ‘a watery netherworld, a little domestic Niagara’.

There are various Thinks in the story but they are not big in H.G. Wells’s sense and they are not at all edifying. One is that the opposite of ‘monogamous’ is not ‘polygamous’ but ‘gregarious’. Nina, a doctor, is strictly monogamous, her strictness extending to the administration of GBH to anyone who, however innocently, trespasses on her solitude à deux. Grishunya, the poet/caretaker whom she bullies into marriage, is, on the other hand, boundlessly and indiscriminately sociable. Her possessiveness kills him in a couple of years, and here comes another thought: the old saw that you get what you want but in a form that you cannot enjoy. Tolstaya is fond of this moral; it is one of the bright spots of ‘Limpopo’. Uncle Venya’s heart’s desire is to get a certain diplomatic appointment in Africa and to be assimilated into the life of his new posting: he does get it and is eaten by a lion. In ‘The Poet and the Muse’ Grishunya sells his skeleton for 60 roubles to the Academy of Sciences and now stands in the very premises where he was once such a convivial caretaker, endlessly surrounded by medical students who stick cigarettes between his teeth, put a white cap on his head and make him dance.