These uniformly masterful stories from Tolstaya (The Slynx) reject any attempt at easy categorization, resulting in a profound, surprising, and rich experience. Some stories, like the title work, which details a narrator named Tatyana’s unhappy experience teaching creative writing to American college students in 1992 and owning a home in New Jersey with endless problems, seem straightforwardly autobiographical. Other stories, such as “The Invisible Maiden,” about memories of a dacha, or “A Young Lady in Bloom,” which recalls a stint delivering telegrams as a student, echo the lyricism of the Russian masters and glow with “the swanlike whiteness of the past.” Others are more essayistic: “The Square” meditates on the frightening painting of the artist Kazimir Malevich; “Official Nationality” modestly distills the Russian character to three bullet points: “boldness, longanimity, and ‘Let’s hope.’ ” Some, such as “The Window,” are surreal allegories in the manner of Gogol. While the works blend fantasy and fact, often within the same story, what unites them all is Tolstaya’s singular and assured voice, capable of beautiful specificity—noticing “the calm blue flower of propane” on a stove—and of surveying history from above and proclaiming, matter-of-factly, that “autocracy is basically self-explanatory.” Agent: Andrew Wylie, the Wylie Agency. (Mar.)
Marvelously vivid, perfectly tuned. . . 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. She is haunted by the past, blessed—and cursed—with the mystic’s gift of seeing the shades of the departed. Tolstaya’s vision reveals the world as a complex system of real and unreal realms, populated by beings both visible and invisible, floodlit by flashes of transcendence.”
—Lev Grossman, The New York Times Book Review
“Playful and poetic...A sense of permanent impermanence, both forlorn and liberating, inflects Tolstaya’s reveries; and never is she more luxuriantly homesick than when she recalls her childhood...The resplendent story 'The Invisible Maiden' describes her charmed summers in the family dacha—it shows this foxy, original writer at her most sublime, when memory fuses with wonder, and wonder with worship."
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“Grimly hilarious ... Everything in this generous writer’s hands is vivid and alive …Tolstaya is divinely quotable—slangy, indignant, lyrical, crude...It’s all sublime...the swerve and cackle, the breeziness and dark depths...the torrents of language and the offhand perfect touch…She has been compared to Chekhov. Absurd...Tolstaya barrels by him and knocks him in the ditch.” —Joy Williams, Bookforum
“Beautiful, meticulous . . . emotion has seeped into every surface. The best of Tolstaya’s stories trace [the] intersection of imagination and memory, where the two become something greater by not being merely one or the other.”
—David Wallace, The New Yorker
“Tolstaya’s writing is so good that it cuts through the surface directly to the universal workings of the human heart.” —Bookpage
“A collection of dark, funny folkloric tales . . . Each is masterful in its ability to keep apace with the world’s banalities and frustrations while moving seamlessly into the surreal. Tolstaya's characters are haunted by ghosts, but also by the alienation they feel among Americans. Tolstaya is funniest when observing life in American universities and darkest when writing about a melancholy deadening the hearts of her characters. Her conscious aversion to sentimentality makes you feel as if you alone are catching a glimpse into the secretly vulnerable and deeply captivating souls of her characters.” —Lauren Kane, The Paris Review
“Praised by...Joseph Brodsky as ‘the most original, tactile, luminous voice in Russian prose,’ Tolstaya, two decades on, is all that and more in this edgy, brash, slyly surreal, and mordantly funny short story collection...Tolstaya contrasts family troubles, poverty, lies, and tyranny with the ‘aetherial worlds’ of love, dreams, memories, and myths. Tolstaya’s daring, masterful stories, crisply translated, glint and whirl with extraordinary dimension and force.” —Booklist
“Fans of Russian literature and culture will relish this first work [of] celebrated woman of letters Tolstaya’s to be translated in 20 years . . . Fluid remembrance is in full effect in these stories . . . Tolstaya writes lyrically, in thoughtful, sometimes magical prose.” —Kate Gray, Library Journal
“These uniformly masterful stories reject any attempt at easy categorization, resulting in a profound, surprising, and rich experience. Some stories…echo the lyricism of the Russian masters…Others are more essayistic...Some, such as ‘The Window,’ are surreal allegories in the manner of Gogol. While the works blend fantasy and fact, often within the same story, what unites them all is Tolstaya’s singular and assured voice, capable of beautiful specificity...and of surveying history from above and proclaiming, matter-of-factly, that ‘autocracy is basically self-explanatory.’” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A poet of silences and small gestures, Tolstaya often writes of love, if sometimes love that has gone off the rails…Elegant, lyrical tales woven with melancholy and world-weariness—but also with a curious optimism. A gem.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
"Call off the search for Tatyana Tolstaya's origins among the Russian greats: There's no one like her anywhere, then or now. She is a writer of breathtaking originality, boldness and importance."
—Thomas McGuane, author of Cloudbursts
Long-awaited new collection of stories by Russian writer and former talk show host Tolstaya (The White Walls: Collected Stories, 2007, etc.).Related to Leo Tolstoy (albeit distantly) as well as Ivan Turgenev, her grandfather the science-fiction and historical novelist Aleksey Tolstoy, Tolstaya admits in the opening, semiautobiographical story "20/20" to having the latter's "ability to daydream…although not to the same extent." That story goes on to describe a period of blindness following eye surgery, when she discovered the ability to see, not just remember, the past and enter a "heretofore invisible, hidden world" of the imagination. A poet of silences and small gestures, Tolstaya often writes of love, if sometimes love that has gone off the rails because one or the other of the partners is either not listening or asking the wrong questions; says Eric, the illicit lover of one émigré academic, "Tell me something surprising about your alphabet. The Russian alphabet." Answering that it has a letter that represents, yes, "a certain type of silence," she wonders why he wants to know, inasmuch as he has no intention of learning Russian and therefore no need for that bit of information. And what of mere curiosity? Well, that way lies trouble. Several stories are set on campus, but some of the most memorable take place in quiet places such as the Russian woods far from the city: "It's the most important place in the world—nowhere," Tolstaya writes. Meanwhile, in the city, life's daily difficulties mount: in a wonderful aperçu, a beleaguered apartment dweller in the middle of a renovation notes that, as the famed clay tablets of early Greek civilization recorded that a carpenter named Tirieus didn't show up for work, contemporary carpenters are just as "eternally flaky": "a Russian carpenter (or plumber, tile layer, spackler) stretches out his arm to his Mycenaean brethren across millennia: Workers of the world unite, if not in space then in time."Elegant, lyrical tales woven with melancholy and world-weariness—but also with a curious optimism. A gem.