The Moscow Times
Complete article:

Telling Tales

Fantasies and dreams step in for facts and history in the beguiling world of Tatyana Tolstaya's collected stories.

By Oliver Ready
Published: August 24, 2007

Few contemporary writers have been less overtly contemporary than Tatyana Tolstaya. The stories on which her high reputation still largely rests were written some 20 years ago, and they were hardly of their time even then. They evoked some of the sights, smells and inconveniences of late-Soviet life at the urban flat or the country dacha, but they were far more deeply rooted in myth, folklore and literary history. They looked back to the modernist aesthetics of Andrei Bely and Vladimir Nabokov more than they looked forward to the post-Soviet postmodern of Viktor Pelevin or Boris Akunin. Above all, they insisted that "forward" and "backward" are in any case secondary notions, whether for literature, for the universe, or for human beings, whose lives are lived not along the illusory tracks of time, but at the whim of memory, fate and oblivion.

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New York Review Books
Acclaimed for her writing, Tatyana Tolstaya also co-hosts the television show "Shkola Zlosloviya."

A kind of poetic justice is thus achieved in "Sonya," but this is hardly typical of Tolstaya's work as a whole, where dreams and fairy tales usually peter out, leaving little but toska (which Bouis repeatedly translates, rather too clinically, as "depression"). Sinyavsky and other 20th-century writers often looked to folklore as a way of re-enchanting the world, and as an antidote to the scientific and historical determinism that had gained ascendancy in intellectual culture. For them, the world became more alive and more open when viewed through the lens of earlier, less skeptical cultures, whose ready acceptance of the apparently impossible could even be connected -- not without some difficulty -- to the Christian faith. Tolstaya also believes that our "new, bleached, laundered and disinfected world" is in need of some magic, but re-enchantment in her work is rarely more than an illusion, a beautiful pattern quickly vanishing against a bleak background. After every punctured flight of her characters' imaginations, life shows its "empty face, its matted hair and sunken eye sockets."

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Tolstaya can also be very witty, however, and her style is much more varied than her themes. Her elaborate evocations of nature are interspersed with energetic narrative, arresting comparisons (a needle "thinner than a mosquito's whine"; a cake "dusted with confectionery dandruff"), and a great deal of highly idiomatic reported speech, which provides something of a master-class in educated Russian chatter. The result is an opportunity for some virtuoso translation, with Gambrell's renderings being especially convincing.

Oliver Ready's translations include "The Zero Train" and "The Prussian Bride," by Yuri Buida.


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