On the Golden Porch
The New Soviet Fiction: Sixteen Short Stories
Balancing Acts: Contemporary Stories by Russian Women
The Human Experience: Contemporary American and Soviet Fiction and Poetry US/USSR Committee
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 still in control (which he is now likely to lose). Only during the last few years has Tolstaya, born in 1951, been writing and publishing her remarkable stories.
On the Golden Porch, containing thirteen in all, appeared in Moscow two years ago. It sold out immediately, as good and necessary books do in the USSR; but on this handful of short stories, mostly running to a mere fifteen or so pages in large print, her reputation was firmly established. They show an exceptional virtuosity in language which, unlike Nabokov’s, makes for itself no ostentatious claims. Their originality can be appreciated best after a glance at the work of other women writers in Balancing Acts.
Sergei Zalygin claims that the short story is an indispensable genre in Soviet literature. The main literary journals need to publish at least one in every issue, which would otherwise look “incomplete and unusual” to their readers. Yet he has included only three women in his anthology—the well-known veteran I. Grekova; Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, anecdotist and also playwright, and Tatyana Tolstaya. In her anthology of Soviet women writers, Helena Goscilo has, of course, also chosen one story by Tolstaya—“Peters,” about a sad boy who is kept away from other children, her first to be published in Novy Mir and the one that alerted the public to her significance. A number of the women in Goscilo’s collection could have contended for a place in Zalygin’s. One thinks among others of Viktoria Tokareva, with her cool wit and irony; of Nina Katerli, observant and austere in her account of the impracticalities of passion in middle age; and of the geologist Anna Mass, whose story “A Business Trip Home” gave Goscilo the title for her collection. Soviet women too often face the problem of this story’s main character, to “throw a little bridge…to cross over from one life to the other,” the professional and the domestic.
Traditionally, as Goscilo explains, few Russian women have written novels. In the last century they were confined to what were considered minor genres, and notably memoirs. The implications of this Barbara Heldt has explored in Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature.1 Women, it is continually claimed, enjoy equal rights with men in Soviet society. Goscilo points out that all they have gained is “increased obligations camouflaged as expanded benefits.” She quotes a Russian feminist now in the West: “Ideally, a woman is expected to have children, to be an outstanding worker, take responsibility for the home, and, despite everything, still to be beautiful.” Grekova speaks for very many others when she tells of the choices that must be made: “It is either work or home,” adding in parenthesis “with me it was my home that suffered.” This is the all but impossible act of which Anna Mass writes. Her narrator in “A Business Trip Home” has “the sensation that two separate people—not doubles, but totally dissimilar individuals—really ought to merge into one.”
Both William Styron and the Soviet novelist Daniil Granin in their forewords to The Human Experience, a joint collection of American and the Soviet writing, remark that the United States and the Soviet Union face common problems. Granin talks of “universal troubles and dangers…burgeoning.” He speaks of pollution in both countries: “Lakes and rivers are poisoned; the air is poisoned; chemicals hold oppressive sway; animals die.” Styron finds that the “rituals of Soviet and American people seem chiefly to involve the frustrating business of muddling through—of making accommodations.” In a “collaborative effort” like this anthology, designed to “improve understanding and build trust” between the two peoples, it may seem appropriate to urge that “their common humanity” has, in Styron’s words, “made a Californian and a citizen of Kiev brother and sister in spirit.” However, the sisterly experience is radically not the same, even if we are prepared to think of “two worlds become much like each other.”
Women in the USSR, as these stories make abundantly clear, are exposed to the manifold inconvenience of daily life in a way that Soviet men have usually avoided, since the husband is not by and large involved either in domestic labor or in raising the children. Goscilo cites a passage from Nina Katerli’s story “Between Spring and Summer.” The speaker, Vasya, is a husband—Katerli, we learn, “prefers to view events from a male center of consciousness.” Vasya reflects that equality between the sexes has left a man “the least important person” in his own home:
What had happened to men? And where had these women come from who ran everything, whether at home or on the job?… War had happened. Not once, but three times. And remember, all three right in a row…. The men had been killed off, and the women were left with the kids. Who was the head of the house? The strongest? The smartest? Who was the protector? Who knew how to do everything? The mother.
And when the daughter grows up and marries, she will naturally follow this example.
It is no wonder, Goscilo writes, that “recent women’s fiction paints a bleak picture of Russian society, exposes the disintegration of family ties, and communicates all too vividly the debasing indignities with which Russian women contend daily.” A woman writer whom she quotes in a footnote to this observation has described “family life Soviet-style” as “a living hell.” To judge from the stories in Balancing Acts, it has all the rootlessness of Western society with many additional drawbacks. Little is said in them about the incursions of the state, although Grekova’s “No Smiles” (in The New Soviet Fiction) tells of the isolation endured by a woman scientist when her work is at one point found ideologically unsafe. Family life in the midst of shortages is itself full of shortages. One of the most serious is that children have very few siblings. The only child is often looked after by his or her grandparents, as best they can; the mother in these stories may be a doctor, an engineer, a geologist, who is usually away on expeditions, an actress, or even the chairwoman (there is no equivalent to “chairperson” in Soviet usage) of a collective farm. The father is usually discontented and uneasy at home, discontented and no more comfortable when he strays from it into infidelity.
Thus very often the stories in the collections under review have at their center some intractable social problem. Fiction in Russia from its beginnings has been accepted as an index to political concerns, which justified the enterprise of Martin Crouch and Robert Porter when they compiled Understanding Soviet Politics through Literature.2 Russian literature has always recognized the duty of dealing with public issues, a duty, needless to say, in which it was often impeded. Many of the Soviet women writers selected by Goscilo are in a sense sociological field-workers, but the hurt is their own; the stresses imposed by society are realized in deep personal frustration. The complaint is sometimes made that they concentrate too much on what Russians call byt—the humdrum, the daily routine, which is really, according to the novelist Yuri Trifonov, “what life consists of,” with all its “mutual relations between friends, co-workers, love, arguments, jealousy, envy.”
Tatyana Tolstaya has her own position in this matter, and in that way is unrepresentative. The best writers usually are, and only later are they seen to have understood their time in greater complexity and shown it more truly than their contemporaries did. On the Golden Porch takes its title from a story of the same name, the first of hers to be published, in the fall of 1983. The phrase, in full “On the golden porch sat: Tsar, tsarevich, king, prince, cobbler, tailor,” belongs to a children’s counting song. By using it Tolstaya makes tacit acknowledgment of the source from which her art draws sustenance—the child’s imagination. Several of the stories deal with the sometimes outrageous fantasy of a child (or an immature or unfulfilled adult). It is that of an exceptionally gifted child, as Tolstaya herself clearly was.