The Real Thing

On the Golden Porch

by Tatyana Tolstaya, translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Knopf, 198 pp., $17.95

The New Soviet Fiction: Sixteen Short Stories

compiled by Sergei Zalygin
Abbeville Press, 318 pp., $22.50

Balancing Acts: Contemporary Stories by Russian Women

edited by Helena Goscilo
Indiana University Press, 337 pp., $17.50

The Human Experience: Contemporary American and Soviet Fiction and Poetry US/USSR Committee

edited by the Soviet/American Joint Editorial Board of the Quaker, with forewords by William Styron and Daniil Granin
Knopf/Khudozhestvennaya Literatura (Moscow), 357 pp., $19.95

Tatyana Tolstaya
Tatyana Tolstaya; drawing by David Levine

In his introduction to The New Soviet Fiction Sergei Zalygin writes:

I would like to voice the opinion that our literature—at its best, naturally—has, on the whole, always risen to the occasion, even during the period of stagnation.

By “the period of stagnation” he means the lethargic Brezhnev era, which continued under his faltering successors, Andropov and Chernenko. After which all was talk about Gorbachev’s perestroika. Zalygin is the editor of Novy Mir, which in the 1950s and 1960s kept Russian literature going within Soviet borders. Thereafter, the editor Alexander Tvardovsky having been deposed, samizdat largely took over the same task; and one by one Soviet writers of talent and independent mind made their way, or were forced to make it, to the West. Perestroika remains in many respects a promise that it has become more urgent than ever to fulfill; but glasnost—though still with some limitations—is a vivid reality. It would not have advanced so rapidly if the best of Russian literature, “even during the period of stagnation,” had failed to carry out its immemorial task: to be, in Zalygin’s concluding sentence to the introduction, “a witness of its time.”

What we may hope to see—but hopes are seldom realized in Russian history—is unimpeded collaboration between the metropolitan and overseas provinces of Russian literature, so that it may derive strength both from the writers in exile and from those who, in Akhmatova’s words, can say

I have been with my people
Where to its misfortune my people was.

It has not always been a voluntary choice. But for Tatyana Tolstaya, today widely recognized as the brightest star of her generation, to leave Russia in pursuit of such advantages as the West can offer is unthinkable. In an interview with David Remnick of The Washington Post she remarked: “But after the good life, what would be next? Here, I feel needed.”

She belongs to the vast family that produced not only the Tolstoy who sent its name around the world, but also his distant cousin Aleksey Konstantinovich (1817–1875), honored by Joseph Brodsky as “a poet of unique facility and versatility” and “a superb humorist.” In the twentieth century there was another Aleksey Tolstoy (1883–1945), the novelist who wrote The Road to Calvary and the unfinished Peter the First. He too had his unique facility, and even a kind of versatility, which enabled him to survive as an unassailable potentate in Soviet literature. As “the Red Count” he exploited a latent snobbery that Stalin would seem to have shared with some other revolutionaries.

Aleksey Nikolayevich was Tatyana’s grandfather, and she has fully atoned for his timeserving, if she felt the obligation to do this, by her own admirable intransigence. She was not dismayed when the Union of Soviet Writers refused to elect her to membership because she had spoken disparagingly about Vasily Belov, one of the old guard…

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