Wednesday 22 October 2014

On The Golden Porch & Other Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya

Thirteen stories by the first woman in years to rank among Russia's most important writers celebrate courage and the will to endure among the people who live on the periphery of society but who dream with a redeeming passion.
Goodreads description 

I have a particular liking for Slavic literature. In a previous review I raved about the short stories of Ekaterina Sedia and one of my favourite authors is the French Russian writer Andre Makine.  To that list of excellent Russian writers I can now add Tatyana Tolstaya. They all share a way of portraying and seeing the world as hauntingly beautiful filled with people whose lives are doomed to disillusionment.

The writer Tolstaya most reminds me of is not her famous grandfather but Chekhov. There is an ironic humour about her writing and yet she does not laugh at her subject, nearly all of whom are struggling with the loss of their dreams and aspirations.  Some are trapped by their relationships, some by hopeless unspoken love, and some by an absence of identity. They could easily be Chekhovian characters. Tolstaya draws each with loving and detailed care.

I was particularly impressed by Tolstaya's very individual writing style, with descriptions that are capable of being poetic and humourous at the same time. Take this one of the lobby of a women's hair salon as an example: stiff green sabres grew hilt-down out of large pots, and photographs of bizarre creatures with unpleasant glints in their eyes stared from the walls under incredible hair - towers, icing, rams' horns; or ripples like mashed potatoes in fancy restaurants. At other times the style is conversational, with short verbless sentences: More tea? Apple trees in bloom. Dandelions. Lilacs. Oof, it's hot. Leave Moscow - to the seaside. Although poetic the prose is economical. The writer's touch is light, allowing impressions to build in the reader's mind. 

Tolstaya's use of magic is equally light and impressionistic. She does not feel the need to highlight it, because it is a magic which runs deep in the Slavic soul and tradition. In the first story in the collection for example a five-year old girl is talking about her governess Maryvanna, whom she dislikes. She ends the story with the lines: Farewell Maryvanna. We're ready for summer. What does she mean by that? It helps to know that the spirit of winter is called Morana in Russian and in a ceremony to welcome spring an effergy is often burnt and then thrown in a river. In another example of Tolstaya's light touch with magic,  Rendezvous with a Bird features a boy's grandfather who is waiting for death, which comes in the form of a bird. The dark garden rose and fell like the ocean. The wind chased the Sirin bird from the branches: flapping its mildewed wings, it flew to the house and sniffed around, moving its triangular face with shut eyes: is there a crack?

I could write an essay about the themes I found in Tolstaya's stories: of the importance of the passage of time, of memory, and dreams and self-delusion. But the format of a blog post does not afford the space to do so. Instead I simply urge you to find  this book and read the stories for yourself. 

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