Tatyana Tolstaya: A Literary Superstar

May 26, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

The voice on the phone is low and musical; a voice of such deep timbre that it causes the slightly accented words to vibrate in your memory -- the way a cello note reverberates briefly after the bow has been lifted. There is humor in the voice, too, and a wry sensibility. It is the voice of a born storyteller and it imbues everything, even street directions, with a magical quality:

You must go up the hill and down the hill and, oh, you keep on going, I don't know how long -- it is such a complicated street! -- and you will see on your right a building like Versailles -- oh, it is Versailles, the apartments, anyway -- and you come and you come and you keep coming and I will be waiting for you, I don't care what time, whatever time suits you.

*

Tatyana Tolstaya greets you at the door of her white frame house in Towson with an apology: "Pardon me for not cleaning up," she says, referring, one assumes, to the random clutter that has settled comfortably like a thin layer of dust over most of the furniture. But she laughs as she says it, a clear tip-off to the lip service aspect of her apology.

First impression: Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya -- the woman whom Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky calls "the most original, tactile, luminous voice in Russian prose today" -- does not base her self-worth on the Good Housekeeping philosophy of neatness and order. And she is honest enough to allow a guest to observe her as she normally lives.

In fact, you might say the essence of this warm, opinionated, funny, brilliant, politically incorrect and unblinkingly candid woman -- the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy and the granddaughter of another writer, Count Alexei Tolstoy -- is best summed up by the items scattered across her dining room table:

An opened pack of Benson & Hedges; an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts; a cutting board holding a pickle with a bite out of it, a sliced onion, a cut tomato and a ripe-smelling ball of cheese; a glass of fizzing Seltzer water; a "joke" cigarette lighter the size of a gallon of milk; an array of Lancome cosmetics -- lipstick, eye shadow, mascara, blusher and the like; and underneath all this, spread out across the table, the pages of an American newspaper she has been reading.

What is represented on this dining room table, of course, is life: food, pleasure, vanity, domesticity, vice and the life of the intellect. And although Tatyana Tolstaya is far from home -- far from Moscow and Mother Russia -- there is a clear sense that wherever she sets up shop, she carries her life with her.

But her fame travels less easily from culture to culture. Although Ms. Tolstaya's short stories have appeared in the New Yorker and Knopf has published a collection of them under the title "On the Golden Porch" (paperback edition by Vintage Books), her name -- outside of literary circles -- is not exactly a household word.

Back home in her own country Ms. Tolstaya, 40, is a genuine literary superstar.

"When you're talking contemporary Russian literature at its very top, you're probably talking 10 names -- and Tatyana Tolstaya is one of them," says Ellendea Proffer, owner of Ardis, a Michigan-based publishing house that specializes in Soviet and Russian works. "The quality of her work is remarkable."

All the more remarkable when you learn Ms. Tolstaya began writing only eight years ago. After graduating from Leningrad State University and working at a number of publishing jobs, something strange happened. But, look, since she is the storyteller, let Ms. Tolstaya tell us what happened:

"It may sound strange, the thing that started me writing. But in 1982 I had an eye operation and I couldn't read or work for three months. Couldn't cook, couldn't read or watch TV. Had to be in total darkness. So you sit like a rat somewhere. And three months of doing nothing is an enormous amount of time. But when it was all over, suddenly I started writing. I never wrote before, but somehow the writing worked."

She pauses, takes a drag on her cigarette, reflects a bit, then says something that suggests the writing was not as sudden or random an act as it seems: "When I look back, I realize that for me the most important thing, always, in life was to name things. To pronounce them inwardly. To verbalize the reality. Until I find an expression, I don't feel the fact of the thing. So the literature went out orally, so to say, but I never thought about writing it down."

The first story she wrote down, she says, "was about something that I experienced in my childhood. We had a house in the country and when I was very small I used to visit the house of my neighbor next door. I thought it was just a palace. But when I grew up and he grew older, all the impressions changed. Just everything. And the first impressions, the snapshots of your childhood, are very important."

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