By Tatyana Tolstaya
Translated by Anya Migdal
256 pp. Knopf. $25.95.
The first story in “Aetherial Worlds,” a new collection from the Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya, describes an excruciating three-month convalescence from corrective eye surgery. This is Russia, 1983, so we’re talking razors, not lasers. The patient has to stay in near-total darkness. As preludes to adventure go, it’s sufficiently unpromising.
But over time the narrator — who may or may not be Tolstaya, I can’t tell — develops a different kind of vision. She starts seeing episodes from her past, not just images but whole narratives, so precisely and clearly that she has to write them down, even though she’s never written a story in her life. She eventually regains her earthly eyesight, but this new shadow world stays with her: “It turned out to be a multifaceted underside of so-called reality, a dungeon full of treasure, an aetherial world through the looking glass, a mysterious box with passcodes to all enigmas, an address book with the exact coordinates of those who never existed.” Title drop! The main theme has been sounded.
But if the stories that follow are more of these aetherial worlds, they’re also about people who are haunted by aetherial worlds — visions, glimpses of the transcendent, moments when the dull plastic coating of reality peels back to reveal something vastly more precious underneath. These glimpses can come at any moment, in any form: the premonitory ecstasy before an epileptic seizure; a pane of blue glass through which the shades of the dead seem to be visible; a still snowy dawn before the rest of the family is up; a beautiful patio, dreamed of but never built; the ancient mosaic ceiling of a Roman mausoleum, lost in shadow until it is briefly and gloriously illuminated when a tourist drops a coin in a box. There’s no shortage of aether in “Aetherial Worlds.”
Tolstaya’s stories come both plotted and plotless. There’s a perfectly turned Borgesian tale about a magical window from which one can collect random consumer goods for free (except that they’re not) and a marvelously vivid recollection of Tolstaya’s rambling old family dacha. Tolstaya is well known in Russia as a brilliant and caustic political critic, but her memories of her Soviet childhood have a tender, personal quality, devoid of any ideological ax-grinding. One could reassemble an entire midcentury Russian apartment block out of “Aetherial Worlds,” from a characteristic doorbell — “a flat brass knob the size and shape of half a butterfly” — to the slow descent of an old-fashioned elevator: “First the intestines appear in the elevator’s wrought-iron cage, then the cabin itself.”
Tolstaya is doubly haunted by the past, both by its lostness and by its stubborn refusal to go away. She is blessed, and cursed, with the mystic’s gift of seeing the shades of the departed; she’s visited by, among many others, the memory of an old neighbor whom she used to meet walking his dogs:
“You don’t know, do you, the names of his dachshunds. But I do! Another fifty years from now — even a hundred, or two hundred — and I’ll still be able to hear his noble clarion voice:
“‘Myshka, Manishka, Murashka, Manzhet!’
“Those were their names, and always in that order.”
(It’s an echo of the triumphant moment in “Speak, Memory” when Nabokov finally recalls the long-lost name of his first love’s dog: Floss!)
There’s a valedictory sadness to these memories, but Tolstaya isn’t the type to pine. She’s much given to sudden rhetorical gearshifts — she’ll swerve from a flight of melancholy lyricism straight into a thicket of profanity, shaking off her own eloquence like a bad mood. This sonorous lower register gives voice to her bracing impatience with sentimentality and disingenuousness. As she says (or fantasizes about saying) to a student who’s trying to snow her: “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. I’ll corner you and eat your brains for breakfast.”
Although this is Tolstaya’s first book to be translated into English in 10 years, it could not be said of “Aetherial Worlds” that it is all killer, no filler. There’s a Seinfeldian outing on the subject of what-is-the-deal-with-all-those-missing-socks, and another that tackles the pressing question, “What if there were no Italy?” There’s an interesting but surely misplaced academic rant about Kazimir Malevich’s painting “The Black Square.” (It features a cameo by the great Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who, I should mention somewhere in this review, was Tolstaya’s great granduncle; also, irrelevantly enough, my namesake.) But it’s more than worth sifting through a little dross for the pleasure of seeing the world through the corrective lens of Tolstaya’s vision, which reveals the world as not just a dull accretion of matter but a complex and shifting system of real and unreal realms, populated by beings both visible and invisible, floodlit by flashes of transcendence.
Continue reading the main story