From the Publisher
"Tolstaya is simply the most fearless female observer of the very male-centric culture . . . of the USSR."Ben Dickinson Elle
"Tolstaya's essays in this compact, historically significant volume offer a fascinating, highly intelligent analyis of Russian society and politics." Publishers Weekly
"Collectively [the essays] become one of the great political and cultural documents of our time . . ."Richard Eder The New York Times Book Review
Written between 1990 and 2000, the 20 essays in this collection offer a progressive, dynamic meditation on Russia's recent political and cultural climate. Many of the pieces are book reviews culled from such publications as the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, but Tolstaya, an internationally acclaimed journalist and fiction writer (The Golden Porch; Sleepwalker in a Fog), goes far beyond the task of reviewing. Her careful and succinct critiques offer original, highly informed takes on the books' subjects, ranging from political biography to cultural history. Tolstaya has little patience for writers who shore shoddy research with patronizing egotism, illustrated by such lines from this stinger of a review of Gail Sheehy's 1990 biography of Gorbachev: "You have to be quite fearless, an adventurer, extraordinarily self-assured, to offer American readers a book about a country that you yourself do not understand." In 1991, Tolstaya defends Yeltsin against criticisms that his decrees to wrest power from Communist Party leaders were undemocratic: "A man who watches a wolf devouring his child does not begin a discussion of animal rights." Tolstaya reserves particular contempt for Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In reviews of two of his works, she finds that the isolated writer and political activist idol was rendered obsolete long before his 1995 return to Russia. In the end, Tolstaya's essays in this compact, historically significant volume offer a fascinating, highly intelligent analysis of Russian society and politics. (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
This collection of book reviews and essays, many of which have previously appeared in the New York Review of Books, is the first book of nonfiction from this great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy. Tolstaya covers a broad range of topics: classical Russian cooking, the bliss of snow, Russian writers, and some of the changes that have taken place in Russia under the regimes of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin. Tolstaya, who lives in Russia, has the advantage of having seen and experienced firsthand both the literary and the political changes that have swept the country, and this perspective gives her essays and reviews a sharp edge; she can convey a humorous or a satirical tone depending on her topic. Of particular interest are her essay on Yeltsin's overthrow of Gorbachev, in which she recounts the bitter dislike of the one for the other; and her moving tribute to Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel prize-winning poet. Readers will find these essays and reviews engrossing and a treat to read. Recommended for academic libraries and large public libraries. [Tolstaya's first novel, The Slynx, will be published next month by Houghton.-Ed.]-Ron Ratliff, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Critical pieces (most for the New York Review of Books) that add up to a highly opinionated, irony-laced view of life and art in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.
Born in 1951, fiction-writer Tolstaya (Sleepwalker in a Fog, 1992, etc.) bears a distinguished pedigree: her grandfather was the Stalin-era novelist Alexei Tolstoy, while another forebear was the Tolstoy of War and Peace fame. This exalted lineage afforded her and her family a degree of protection from the irrationalities, often murderous, of Soviet politics, about which she has much to say in these pages. Reviewing Robert Conquest�s The Great Terror, for instance, she remarks that Lenin hated the intelligentsia more than any other class, "and they were the first to be slaughtered," precisely, she suggests, because they had a conscience and "were not indifferent to issues of social good"; strange it is, then, that so many intellectuals should esteem Lenin to this day. Assessing Gail Sheehy�s wide-eyed biography of Mikhail Gorbachev, she wryly notes that it does no good to wonder why Gorbachev should have told his people that he was a dedicated Communist while telling Margaret Thatcher that he was no longer one of the faithful, for such duplicity is of a piece with the Soviet pattern of rule, and no Russian would bat an eye on hearing of it. (Of Sheehy, she writes, perhaps unkindly, "There is not a trace of critical attitude toward her material.") Writing of Boris Yeltsin�s time as president of Russia, during which the Western press was given to tongue-clucking over Yeltsin�s drinking and other moral failures, she reckons that it�s a good thing that "scandals of the Gary Hart-like variety leave us indifferent," for had Yeltsinnot thwarted the coup attempt of 1991, "Gorbachev would be dead, the cold war would be revived, Eastern Europe would be stained with blood, and Russian tanks would be in Berlin." (And in any event, she adds, "a real Russian is always thinking about vodka.") And so on, in acidic and always intelligent prose.
Of much interest to Russia hands, as well as admirers of Tolstaya�s fiction.
Read an Excerpt
INTRODUCTION If the really lucky writers are the ones who survive the hideous misadventures of history, then Tatyana Tolstaya is fortunate beyond telling. Consider the devastating events she and her countrymen have lived through in the half-century her lifetime spans: hunger, persecution, treachery and corruption, highly convoluted inducements to fear, brainwashing (and, sometimes, in the face of it, the most heroic adherence to the liberty of the mind), scarcity and demeaningnot ennoblingpoverty, decades of spiritual stagnation and disgust. And then consider the stage on which these tragedies of the Soviet Union played themselves out: Great Russia itself, the chill white motherland, endless, magnificent, all-consuming. Oh, to be born in the proximity of such material!
Even better luck, the author who claims this rich inheritance came of age as a writer sometime around the middle of the 1980s, just in time to record the death by putrefaction of Soviet socialism, the collapse of its vast empire, and the subsequent lurching advance of the post-Soviet state. These events took place beginning in 1985, with the designation of Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. His momentous years in power were followed by the adventures in government of President Boris Yeltsin. Under the pallid leader Vladimir Putin, Russia now struggles with its past and future. Tolstaya has written about all of it and so presents the happy reader with the twenty essays in this book, a brilliant writer’s ongoing account of the most transcendent political event of the second half of the twentieth century.
Tolstaya has published three other books in English translation: two short works of fiction written in a delicate, richly meditative register, and her latest novel, The Slynx. As a writer of fact Tolstaya takes on a very different voice. In fact, she writes as a participant in her country’s lamentable history, and she is a spinning fury, emitting words like sparks, enraged, saved from choking on the absurdities she has been called to witness only by the irresistible need to laugh at them. Indignation is her creative fuel, and her only relief is a related mordant tenderness for the sorry protagonists of so much stupidity. She does beautifully when she has to wave farewell to the poet Joseph Brodsky, dead so long before his time. She does even better, though, when she takes on the lumbering Boris Yeltsin and slaps him around in print, calling him a great Russian dolt, upbraiding him for doing this and failing to do the other, then stops in her tracks to observe him, deathly tired of so much responsibility, as he asks his helicopter pilot to land by a river and just linger a while. And what of her description of the epic, pathetic, and maligned Russian Everyman, grimy from centuries of poverty and self-neglect, without so much as a radish to bite on before he gulps down a shot of vodka, sniffing instead at the filthy sleeve of his greatcoat in order to get, at least, a good whiff of its many spicy odors?
Tolstaya is the offspring of a deeply literary family (although, she has said, she was well into adulthood before she started writing, in response to “steady and gentle pressure” from her father). Lev Tolstoy is among her forebears. Her paternal grandfather, Alexei Tolstoy, was a famous writer of the Soviet era. Her father was a brilliant scholar. Her mother’s father, Mikhail Lozinsky, produced definitive translations of Shakespeare, Dante, and Lope de Vega. Tolstaya was born while Joseph Stalin was still alive, but the near-sacred family name shielded its members from terror, and Tatyana grew up in relative comfort in a book- filled apartmentall of which placed her rather outside the Soviet norm and granted her precocious observer status. She learned early to tell stories and quarrel with words, and would suffer when she was not able to find the inner words to describe her feelings, she later recalled. At university she studied the classics. She worked in a publishing house. At last, she started writing. She made a short trip to the United States and then, in the company of her husband, moved there in 1989. She learned English, and when she realized she was learning too much of it she fled back to her native country, before her Russian suffered any damage. (She retains enough English, however, to work closely with Jamey Gambrell on the latter’s beautiful, muscular translations.) The author’s childhood, glowing and privileged in so many ways, nevertheless coincided with the cold war’s years of frozen panic, and also with the long interregnum in which the Soviet leadership relaxed in power, believing itself eternal. Growiing up surrounded by the bad faith and false language of that particular stage of socialism, Tolstaya learned to take rhetoric seriously. This lucky accidentyet another!gives her enormous range, as rhetoric permeated every aspect of Soviet life. Lenin’s tomb was a rhetorical exercise, and so was urban design, as Tolstaya reminds us when she writes about the heirs to Field Marshal Potemkin: the scruffy bureaucrats who ordered all the houses on Richard Nixon’s route to the Kremlin painted and refurbished in preparation for his visit. But most of all, of course, rhetoric dominated language, and language dominated thought. “The Party is our Helmsman!” “You are walking the true path, comrades!” (rhetoric loves exclamation points) and “The Party is the Mind, Honor, and Conscience of the People!” (rhetoric loves capital letters, too) are among the deadly avalanche of slogans the young Tatyana’s love of words survived.
The author’s swift, skillful weaving between false words and the reality they hit at a slant allows her readers to become intimate with the eerie unnaturalness of Soviet existence. On the surface, the coarse fabric of everyday life could not have been more stultifying and commonplace. But because it was shot through with the glinting thread of so many wild, extravagant, preposterous lies, it acquired a dreaminess, a mythical quality, that serves Tolstaya’s literary purposes well. Memorably, she tells how, as a child playing in the courtyard, she helped defeat U.S. imperialism and the omnipresent network of spies and infiltrators she had been warned against: “Who knows, they might be anywhere, disguised as Soviet citizens in regular clothes. They would reveal all our mysteries, steal the secrets of our might, and, God forbid, become just as strong and unconquerable as we were.” These enemy agents must be deceived at all costs. When on a spring day an aged, wheezing couple shuffles towards her to ask directions, she understands her duty and sends them tottering away in the opposite direction from the botanical gardens they wish to visit.
Early guilt can carve an entire life into a different shape. Age eight, watching the elderly couple make their painful progress in the wrong direction, she is overwhelmed by the knowledge that they are not spies. “I heard the scrape and clank of the cogs in the state propaganda machine, a machine that had forgotten why it was turning,” she writes. She understands something basic about how the lies her elders told her have twisted her soul. Who knows but that her nonfiction writing career has been one long effort to make things right with the two pathetic strangers she betrayed as a child?
Be that as it may, any writer’s struggle to survive a regime that dictates thought is a remarkable moral journey. Alice, making her way through the looking-glass world, passive and bemused and so easily conned into apologizing for mistakes she has not made, acquires great moral power when she at last succumbs to rage. “I can’t stand this any longer!” she yells, sick of the insanity, sick of the Red Queen and her threats. Then she picks up the pathetic, flailing queen and shakes her and shakes her and shakes her . . . until at last she wakes up. So Tolstaya.
In Tolstaya’s writing, we get a first-person Alice, clear-eyed and back from mirror land. There is a luminous directness to Tolstaya’s discussion of Russian intellectuals, who have struggled for two centuries to understand whether it is morally tolerable to write as Pushkin did, without political engagement. Curiously, although Tolstaya comes down squarely on the side of creative freedom, it is as a chronicler of political events that her own words catch fire. Her opinions are passionate, changeable, arguable, and sometimes even questionableshe is not, praise heaven, that most tedious of media creatures, a punditand every one carries the full force of the lived moment. She is not a reporter with a tape recorder in her hand, but a Russian writer with a unique voice and an urge to communicate the state of things.
Emerging from these pages, we can imagine Tolstaya and her world with such intensity that it would be difficult to persuade us of any difference between our imagination and her reality: the prerevolutionary kitchens with their pheasant consommés, their ovens like furnaces, and the miserable servant sleeping in the cupboard; Stalin and his handy eraser, with which he cheerfully removed his enemies not only from the world of the living but from the pages of photographed history too; Solzhenitsyn, once our moral guide, now the dreary geezer mouthing tedious, endless nostrums in the wasteland of the television screen. It’s all so appalling, so hopeless, so ridiculous. If one could only stop laughing, it might be possible to give in to a spell of moral anguish. “Oh, but you know, I heard the most amazing thing today. Let me tell you . . .” Tolstaya exclaims, and we listen entranced to her latest story.
Copyright © 2003 by Tatyana Tolstaya English translation copyright © 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000 by Jamey Gambrell Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.