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by Bamber Gascoigne

Tatyana Tolstaya (b. 1951)


Russian short-story writer, essayist, and novelist, who established her fame in the 1980s as one of the most original voices in Russian fiction. Tatiana Tolstaya writes of ordinary people, but her complex style is far from conventional, relying on impressionistic detail, colorful images, irony, exclamations, and multilayered narrative techniques. Her work has often been classified as a Russian example of magic realism, but she also draws on Gogolian realism and the literary avant-garde of Andrey Bely and Isaak Babel.

"Russian writers and thinkers have often called the "Russian soul" female, contrasting it to the rational, clear, dry, active, well-defined soul of the Western man. The West, in fact, often refuses to speak about the "soul" at all, insofar as it applies to a people or a culture." (in Pushkin's Children, trans. by Jamey Gambrell, 2003)

Tatyana Tolstaya was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) into a literary family. On her father's side, she is the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy, her grandfather was the novelist Aleksei Tolstoy and grandmother the poet Natalia Krandievskaya. Mikhail Lozinsky, her maternal grandfather, produced definitive translations of Shakespeare, Dante, and Lope de Vega. Her childhood home was filled with books which stirred her imagination, but it was not until she was in her 30s, when she began to write her own stories.

"This ability to daydream was passed on to me, although not to the same extent," Tolstaya wrote of her grandfather Aleksey in the story '20/20' (Aetheral Worlds, 2018). "I didn't start out a writer, and had no plans of becoming one. Although I happily swam in imaginary expanses, I had no words to describe them." Between 1968 and 1974, Tolstaya studied philology at Leningrad State University, receiving a degree in classical languages. While at the university, she met Andrei Lebedev; they married in 1974. Their son, Artemy Lebedev, became a web designer and later gained notoriety as an outspoken blogger. In the early 1990s,  Andrei Lebedev was a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. From 1996 he has  taught Greek philosophy at the University of Crete in Rethymno.  

Upon graduation Tolstaya moved to Moscow, where he worked as a junior editor in the Eastern Literature Division of Nauka publishing house. At the age of thirty-two, Tolstaya decided to become a full-time writer and began to contribute stories to Leningrad and Moscow journals. Except the works of Yuri Trifonov, Tolstaya did not appreciate much of the fiction that came out in the 1970s. "It seemed the better one got as a writer the harder it was to get published," she once said in an interwiev. 'Na zolotom kryltse sideli...' (1983, in Avrora), dedicated to her sister Aleksanda, marked Tolstaya's debut as a serious writer. 

'Peters', which appeared in the prestigious literary journal Novyi mir in 1986, eventually opened doors for her in the literary scene. Originally entitled 'This Wonderful Life', the melancholic story told of a nearsighted librarian, who loses his will to live a full life after a disappointment in love. Until 1988, much of her fiction was published in émigrré journals. Tolstaya's first collection, Na zolotom kryltse sideli (1987, On the Golden Porch), was delivered from book kiosks and was sold out immediately. It was followed by Limpopo (1991), a collection of novellas, which reflected the chaotic state of Russian society during the glasnost period. Although Tolstaya's stories did not include political details, the title work commented indirectly on racism. White Walls (2007) contained stories from On the Golden Porch and Somnambula v tumane (1992, Sleepwalker in a Fog), along with some previously uncollected pieces.

Tolstaya favors third-person narration. In many stories, the protagonist is a male – "soul's don't have a sex", Tolstaya has said ('Tatjana Tolstaja', in Sata makkaralaatua ja yksi idea, ed. by Anna Ljungren and Kristina Rotkirch, 2010, p. 161).  Helena Goscilo has argued that in stories such as 'Hunting the Wooly Mammoth' (1985), 'The Poet and the Muse' (1986), and 'Fire and Dust' (1986) a large part of Tolstaya's literary stratege was to capitalize gender stereotypes only to subvert them.  ('Monsters Monomanical, Marital, and Medical. Tatiana Tolstaya's Regenerative Use of Gender Stereotypes' by Helena Goscilo, in Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, edited by Jane T. Costow, Stephanie Sandler and Judith Vowles, 1993)

In the 1980s and 1990s, Tolstaya spent much time in the United States, where she took up residence with her husband, a classics professor, and taught at a number of universities. After teaching at Princeton University and at Skidmore College, returned back to Moscow. Her journalistic articles have appeared in such periodicals as the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, the New Republic, and the Guardian. The original texts were written in Russian and then translated into English.

In Russia Tolstaya has also co-hosted a popular TV show called  "Школа злословия" (The School for Scandal); the show was broadcast from 2002 to 2014. "I am a person who likes to try different things in life," she had said. The American indie rock band Okkervil River has taken its name from one of her short stories published in White Walls (2007). With her niece Olga Prohorova, Tolstaya published in 2010 a children's book, The ABC of Pinocchio, a homage to Aleksei Tolstoy's Zolotoy klyuchik (1939). It was awarded at the XXIII Moscow International Book Fair. 

As an essayist Tolstaya has written on literature and on current events in Russia, her subjects ranging from Joseph Brodsky and Andrei Platonov to Russia’s resurrection and the prize of eggs. "It would be naive, if not silly, to think that Putin's policies can be influenced by accusing him in advance of all possible sins," Tolstaya said in 'The Making of Mr. Putin', originally published in The New York Review of Books (May 25, 2000), after Putin was elected president. "Now as never before there is a historic chance to carry out systemic reforms in Russia. It would be a great mistake not to try to make use of it." Pushkin's Children: Writing on Russia and Russians (2003) collected her pieces published mostly in The New York Review of Books between 1990 and 2000. "Collectively, they become one of the great political and cultural documents of our time," wrote the reviewer Richard Eder (The New York Times, January 26, 2003).  Tolstaya's attacks against feminism and dismissal of "women's fiction" as a category have annoyed critics and liberal academics in the Unites States. Reviewing Francine du Plessix Gray's book Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope (1990), she maintained that Russian society is matriarchal: "To imagine that Russian women are subservient to men and that they must therefore struggle psychologically or otherwise to assert their individuality vis-à-vis men is, at the very least, naive." (Pushkin's Children: Writing on Russia and Russians, 2003, p. 8)

As a contrast to the everyday reality she had portryed in her short stories, Tolstaya's first novel, The Slynx (2000), was a dystopian fantasy of a world which is ruled by ignorance. Tolstaya started to write the novel in the beginning of the glasnost and perestroika programs, and finished it 14 years later. Its original inspiration was the Chernobyl accident in 1986. With this work, Tolstaya joined those writers, among them Abram Tertz and Timur Kibirov, who have attempted to challenge Pushkin's official image in the national consciousness – in the story a member of the old intelligentsia carveswith a stone knife an idol of the poet from a log, bit by bit. "What did he need this pushkin for? He trembled over it, and he ordered Benedikt to tremble as well, like he worshipped it. He wrote a lot of poems, said Nikita Ivanich, he thought the people's path to him would never be overgrown – but if you don't weed, then it's sure to grow over." 

The book was in Russia a publishing event and sold well, but was received with mixed reviews. The Slynx takes place two hundred years after an unexplained catastrophic, possibly a nuclear Armageddon, has destoyed much of the world. The protagonist, Benedikt, is a young scribe in the service of plagiarism industry, who loves books but only as objects, not as instruments of knowledge and ideas. Benedikt's friend Nikita Ivanovich is ordered to be burnt at the stake, but he manages to survive with some other dissidents the ensuing fire which gets out of control. "Ms. Tolstaya repeatedly makes the point that Benedikt and company are the ones who are the real animals," said Michiko Kakutani in his review of the book. "They are the Slynx of the title, a mythical beast, waiting in the forest to pounce on innocent victims; a destroyer of reason and a threat to freedom." (The New York Times, October 10, 2007) Eliot Borenstein has noted that Tostaya subverts the traditional prometheanism; in her radioactive world being enlightened by old books may well be deadly. ('Dystopias and Catastrophe Tales after Chernobyl' by Eliot Borenstein, in Russian Literature Since 1991, edited by Evgeny Dobrenko and Mark Lipovetsky, 2015, p. 95) 

For further reading: 'Sometimes Love: The New Prose of Tatyana Tolstaya' by Irina Surat, in Russian Studies in Literature, Volume 51, Number 3 (2015); 'Tatyana Tolstaya. The Slynx: A Novel'; Tatyana Tostaya. Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russian' by Marta Dreyrup, in The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Spring, 2004);  Russian Literature, 1995-2002: On the Threshold of the New Millennium by N.N. Shneidman (2004); Encyclopadia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed.  Steven R. Serafin (1999); Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed.  Neil Cornwell (1998); TNT: The Explosive World of Tatyana N. Tolstaya's Fiction by Helena Goscilo (1996); 'Tolstaya, Tatiana (Nikitichina),' in World Authors 1985-1990, ed. Vineta Colby (1995); Russian Literature 1988-1994 by N.N. Shneidman (1995); 'Monsters Monomanical, Marital, and Medical. Tatiana Tolstaya's Regenerative Use of Gender Stereotypes' by Helena Goscilo, in Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, edited by Jane T. Costow, Stephanie Sandler and Judith Vowles (1993); 'Tat'iana Tolstaia's 'Dome of Many-Colored Glass' by Helena Goscilo, in Slavic Review, 42/2 (1988)

Selected works:

  • Na zolotom kryl'tse sideli, 1987 - On the Golden Porch (translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1989) - Tulta ja pölyä (suom. Marja Koskinen, 1989) / 'Savu ja varjo' (Dym i ten) (suom. Martti  Anhava & Vappu Orlov, teoksessa Toisaalta, kaikkea voi sattua, 2015)
  • Limpopo, 1991 (published in Znamia)
  • Somnambula v tumane, 1992 - Sleepwalker in a Fog, 1992 (translated by Jamey Gambrell)
  • Three Stories / Tri rasskaza, 1996 (edited by S. Dalton-Brown)
  • Liubish'- ne liubish': rasskazy, 1997
  • Kys, 2000 - The Slynx (translated by Jamey Gambrell, 2003)
  • Den’: lichnoe, 2001
  • Russkie tsvety zla, 2002 (with Evgeniy Popov, Anatoliy Gavrilov)
  • Noch': rasskazy, 2002
  • Izium, 2002
  • Krug: rasskazy, 2003
  • Pushkin's Children: Writing on Russia and Russians, 2003 (translated by Jamey Gambrell)
  • Odna, 2004
  • Reka Okkervil': rasskazy, 2005
  • Russkii Plakat: Izbrannoe, 2006 (ed.)
  • White Walls: Collected Stories, 2007 (translated by Antonina W. Bouis, Jamey Gambrell)
  • Ta samaja azbuka Buratino, 2010 (with Olga Prohorova)
  • Legkie miry: povesti, rasskazy, esse, 2014  (edited by Elena Shubina)
  • 'Smoke and Shadow', 2015 (translated by Anya Migdal, in The Iowa Review, Spring 2015)
  • Devushka v cvetu, 2015 (edited by Elena Shubina)
  • Aetherial Worlds: Stories, 2018 (translated from the Russian by Anya Migdal)

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