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The Real Thing

In the beginning was the garden. Childhood was a garden. Without end or limit, without borders and fences, in noises and rustling, golden in the sun…

Let no one suppose from this opening to her story that we are about to enter the frail idyllic scene of Kenneth Grahame’s The Golden Age. Russian writers too are capable of sentimentalizing memories of their earliest years; but Leo Tolstoy never did this in his first work, Childhood. Nor does Tatyana, though it has to be admitted that only in this respect does she resemble her great kinsman. Fantasy was not his strong quality: he ranks among the “literalists of the imagination,” and owes little or nothing to the tradition of Gogol. Tatyana’s writing has affinities with the riot and color of Gogol’s Ukrainian stories especially. Gogol, like her, was always aware of the evil behind the enchantment. But he exults in the play of fantasy, in the rich and over-powering detail of life as he conceives it, in absurdity and in the grotesque.

The child in Tolstaya’s fiction moves naturally in the world of Russian fairy tale, with a freedom and responsiveness very difficult for most children to attain today; for they are deprived of the power to visualize for themselves, as the little boy Petya does in “Date with a Bird,” those legendary creatures from Russian folk tales: the Sirin, the Finist, the Alkonost. The process that began with Disney seems to have paralyzed that nerve in their imaginations, just as the telling of fairy tales must be endangered in Russia with the disappearance of the old peasant nurse, like Nanny Grusha in “Loves Me, Loves Me Not.” The children can always rely on her for a genuine thrill:

Her gray head holds thousands of stories about talking bears, and blue snakes that cure people with tuberculosis by climbing in through the chimney during the night, about Pushkin and Lermontov.

So Petya, eating his rice porridge, sees the butter floating on top as a doomed Atlantis, and the gorgeous city, with its emerald-roofed white palaces, temples whose doorways are curtained with peacock feathers, “sharp silver obelisks with inscriptions in an unknown tongue,” and the presiding statue of a golden god with three eyes in his forehead all “slip, list, into the warm, transparent waves.” This capacity for dream persists in many of the adults depicted by Tatyana Tolstaya. The drabber their surroundings, the more disadvantaged and restricted in life they are, the surer will come to their rescue a vision of southern seas and a promised paradise. Even Peters, who had not been allowed to join in children’s play, and becomes hopelessly frustrated when he grows up, is granted as an old man sight of “the naked golden spring” that cries “laughing: catch me, catch me!” And so he “smiled gratefully at life—running past, indifferent, ungrateful, treacherous, mocking, meaningless, alien—marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.” These are significantly the last words of the book.

Gogol’s sense of an appalling emptiness in life, so evident from his later work, is not absent from Tolstaya’s fiction. The adults who daydream with extravagant and childish expectation of happiness to come, like Rimma in “Fire and Dust,” or like Galya in “The Fakir,” are easily deluded and are virtually always thrown back onto the dreariness of daily experience. They may indulge their imaginations in that particular form of mendaciousness that the Russians do not call lying but give the more tolerant name vran’ë, the art of piling up absurd accretions on a half-truth or no truth at all. Pipka does this in “Fire and Dust”; the fraudulent Filin does it in “The Fakir.” In a more acceptable way so does the old lady in “Sweet Shura,” who can almost persuade us that after sixty years her lover of 1913 still haunts a railway platform in the Crimea, and she will keep the assignation promised long ago. Their common enemy is time, the ruthless unmasker. As Tatyana Tolstaya declares in “On the Golden Porch”:

What mean jokes you play, life! Dust, ashes, rot. Surfacing from the magical bottom of childhood, from the warm, radiant depths, we open our chilled fist in the cold wind—and what have we brought up with us besides sand?

A. Mikhailov, who wrote a generally sympathetic afterword to the Russian edition, found some of the Tolstaya stories “rather far-fetched.” He cited “Okkervil River,” about the long forgotten singer Vera Vasilevna, whom a lonely Lenin-grader, much addicted to playing her records, seeks out one day to his disillusionment, and “A Clean Sheet,” which tells how an unhappy husband, with a careworn wife, an ailing child, and an unfaithful mistress, visits a doctor for the mysterious operation that will transform him into an elated and appallingly active go-getter. Mikhailov is fairly indulgent to such excesses, as he sees them. But even the most extravagant kites flown by Tolstaya are attached to a tough wire that brings them down to earth.

Her stories must be read with close attention to their economy, the inner coherences that bring out their meaning, and to the oblique but searching light they cast on the daily pressures and restrictions of Soviet life. One of her more recent stories, “Sweet Dreams, Son” (1986), yields rather more than is apparent on a cursory reading. I should place it among her very best, and it must be emphasized that such stories of hers call for the attention we normally give to a poem, or at least to the prose fiction of poets—like Pasternak’s The Childhood of Luvers or Mandelstam’s The Egyptian Stamp, even though both run to the length of novellas.

Sweet Dreams, Son” is set in the 1970s, that “period of stagnation” rivaling the “muffled” or “godforsaken” years of torpor in the 1880s. Sergei’s mother-in-law, Maria Maximovna, an obvious beneficiary of the system, cannot get over the loss of a very special fur coat, which had a silk lining with a pattern of lilies of the valley. A handsome and comfortable widow, she had been wearing the coat in the flea market, where she went to buy a squirrel fur coat for everyday wear. She handed her treasured coat to Panya the cleaning woman; and it was gone in a flash. After thirty years Maria Maximovna still cannot forget this dreadful episode—the great tragedy of her life. Sergei, newly married to the daughter of the family, unable to “resist her watery charms,” is told this story, and it comes to us mostly in his mother-in-law’s words. Tolstaya is adept at switching from one register to another, as she views what she has to tell through the consciousness of different actors in the story. Her work, with its sensitivity to tones of voice, and its colloquial force, is taxing to a translator. Antonina W. Bouis acquits herself remarkably well and with a sure instinct for the right racy equivalent. (It is evident that an American translator has an advantage here over an English one, because American speech is more democratic and less embarrassed in its use of slang.) Sergei will hear his mother-in-law tell this story many times. With each repetition the nature of the family he has married into becomes clearer to him.

Sergei had his own really tragic loss, when the mother whose name he never knew was killed by a bomb in the war, and he was saved, to enter an orphanage. There they issued him a name and an estimated date of birth. Life in the orphanage is brilliantly evoked: “Long winters, hungry eyes, shaved heads, some adult giving a quick pat on the head as he ran past; the smell of mice in the sheets, the dull light.” His motive for marrying the unresponsive Lenochka was to come out of the cold. He “married in fear and delight, hazarding a guess, understanding nothing.” Lenochka, whom he cannot make out, is “steady and passionless, a sister instead of a wife. Mother and sister—what more could a lost boy want?”

He could want a father. The obvious candidate is the missing member of the family, that high-ranking military doctor who in 1944 had found the fur coat in Germany and immediately sent it to his young wife. Maria Maximovna describes the long ago deceased Pavel Antonovich with genuine admiration—“a warrior against the plague,…complex, quick to judge; terrible in his wrath, and honest in his work.” But Lenochka can barely remember him—she thinks of him in his official car, with its chauffeur who had steel teeth, common in those hard times. Lenochka recalls the “angry nape” of her father’s neck and her only other memory of him is a scene of his terrible wrath, on some trivial pretext at home. By then her father had been “insulted, abandoned,” while his ungrateful students carried “the slightly soiled banner onward.” That phrase is surely not Maria Maximovna’s. It reveals the first crack in her idol.

The boys at the orphanage had wanted Seryozha to climb through the narrow window and steal bread for them from the bakehouse. But a voice, which he believed was his mother’s, told him not to take it. Pavel Antonovich worked up one of his righteous rages when the coat he sent from Germany was stolen in 1948. He accuses Panya; she must be arrested and made to denounce her “co-conspirators.” Panya’s testimony is muddled. “In short—they convicted her.” At one time Sergei fantasizes that she may have been his mother. But her morality would not have let her steal. And if her imagined husband had been so tempted, he wouldn’t have stooped to it either.

Sergei has often pictured the scene in the abandoned German house. Pavel Antonovich, as always, “didn’t waste time.” He took down the coat, parceled it up, “knotted the twine with his clean medical fingers.” And it was sent back home. Pavel Antonovich justifies his action in a phrase the translator has missed: “For our towns and villages.” It was an act of sacred vengeance. After all, as Maria Maximovna insists, “doctors are saints.” Pavel Antonovich had evidently performed astonishing feats in the 1920s and 1930s in his warfare with the plague, destroying every species of rat, and many other small mammals. He even discovered that camels are plague carriers. With his assistants he would at grave risk catch a camel, infect it, take samples, and finally visit upon it the condign punishment of death. This grotesque business haunts Sergei. He sees his father-in-law “in anti-plague goggles and rubber boots, with an enormous syringe,” closing in on the camel. Maria Maximovna says, “He had no patience for cowards.” The uneasy doubts grow for Sergei: “Was he afraid? Such an important man. Terrible in his wrath and honest in his work. But why that fur coat?”

Yet Sergei cannot free himself from the ghostly presence of his father-in-law. He longs to find his own “link in the chain,” as a true descendant of Pavel Antonovich, Anton Felixovich, Felix Kazimirovich. In his orphanage they used to play a game not unlike Nuts in May. When they called out “send Seryozha” he remembers how he would “run…from one line to the other, from his family into another, to push apart the thin clasped hands, and to join them, the strangers, if he could, feeling proud of his strength yet a little treacherous too.” His new family is also alien: their names are all Polish on the male side. When Sergei accuses in his mind Pavel Antonovich of vulgar theft, he addresses him as “high and mighty gentleman,” using the Polish word pan. The doctor and his wife are alien in a deeply opprobrious sense, because they have lived by the exploiter’s code that the Revolution had aimed to eradicate forever.

Pavel Antonovich had unlimited power, particularly over animals. Tolstaya is much aware of the wrongs inflicted upon animals: in “The Circle” she lists all the animals who have to suffer atrociously for a well-to-do lady to dress in fashion. Doctors in two other stories are presented as wielders of despotic authority. Zoya in “Hunting the Wooly Mammoth” sees a surgeon as “king of this world,” consecrated “to perform the highest judgment, to come down and chop off, to punish and to save, and with his glowing sword give life.” And in “A Clean Sheet” the doctor has “a rough, blue Assyrian beard,” and appears to his patient as Vrach Vrachei, Physician of Physicians.

Sweet Dreams, Son” ends with little Antosha, the child begotten without love or understanding, asleep in his cot. The world has been made safe for him—temporarily. “The plague corpses in the cemetery are covered with lime,…the camels are locked up in the zoos.” It is hard not to see this story, about homelessness, the utter loss of parents and connection with the past, the iniquities of power, and corruption in high places, as a reading not only of Soviet life, but also of what man can easily do to man in the best-intentioned of societies.

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