Stories lie where fantasy and reality don't meet

February 09, 1992|By Anne Whitehouse

SLEEPWALKER IN A FOG.

Tatyana Tolstaya; translated

by Jamey Gambrell.

Knopf.

192 pages. $19. Tatyana Tolstaya is one of the major Russian writers of the post-glasnost era. No stranger to American audiences, she has been published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review and has taught at a number of American colleges and universities, including Goucher College. Admirers of her luminous short story collection, "On the Golden Porch," will find the same awesome descriptive gifts, lyrical prose and comic sensibility in this new collection of eight stories.

The discrepancy between fondest desires and disappointing reality lies at the heart of her fiction. Her characters include the elderly, children, lonely outsiders, the unloved and the unbeautiful, people whom life seems to have passed by. Revealed through the distancing lens of irony, her characters are vulnerable and fallible. Loath to relinquish their hopes and fantasies, they all too often are betrayed by experience.

"The Moon Came Out" is a portrait of an aging geography teacher, "a stooped, muddy-gray old lady with jowls," who once in her youth had a suitor and lost him, and now hopelessly dreams of locating him again. "Night" is another portrait, impressionistically rendered, of a retarded man with the mind of a child, who lives with his aged, protective mother. Ms. Tolstaya illuminates Alexei Petrovich's volatile imaginative life, his pleasure and frustrations, his pitiful dreams of becoming a writer.

"Serafim," which resembles a brief parable, is about a man who imagines himself superior to the rest of mankind. After he brutalizes a dog, he is transformed into a hideous, serpent-like monster.

In "The Poet and the Muse," Nina, a brisk, efficient doctor is her mid-thirties, meets Grishunya, a bohemian poet ill with the flu. She nurses him back to health and falls in love with him. A gentle, accommodating soul, he yields to her influence. She marries him, severing him from his old messy, crowded life among "the eccentrics, licensed and unlicensed, the geniuses and the outcasts" and installs him in her clean, orderly apartment. She cannot understand why he won't write verse to please the authorities, why he persists in longing for his old life and writing poetry which she destroys because it offends her. He tries to escape, but she is too strong for him. His revenge is a Pyrrhic victory, an ironic conclusion to a witty story.

"Heavenly Flame" is a psychologically acute portrayal of how people tend to turn against those they have wronged. Olga Mikhailovna and her nameless, boring husband entertain Korobeinokov, who is convalescing at a sanitarium near their country dacha. He seems a harmless fellow, who amuses them with his ridiculous stories.

One day, however, another visiting neighbor, sculptor Dmitry Ilich, reveals that many years ago, when he was sent to a labor camp for subversive activities, Korobeinokov stole his youthful poems and published them under his own name. Instantly, Olga's attitude toward Korobeino kov changes. His visits now irritate her. Swayed by sympathy, she begins an illicit affair with Dmitry Ilich. Even after she learns that her new lover's story was a fabrication, she continues to despise Korobeinokov. She cannot bear to acknowledge the guilt she feels toward him.

"Most Beloved," perhaps the most beautiful story in the collection, is a sad, lyrical, nostalgic tale of unrewarded virtue. Zhenechka, a simple, self-sacrificing spinster is evoked by a collective "we," a nameless family of her youthful charges, who, when it is too late, feel remorse for having taken her for granted and never having truly appreciated her.

It is Ms. Tolstaya's achievement to have brought the rather stock character of the good Zhenechka to life so vividly, particularly in the botanical images which her young charges associate with her unflagging industry and tender cultivation. "In her hands flowers seem to soar: ornate pink hydrangeas like bombs ready to burst into red, or else blue ones like a mousse of whisked sky tinged with smoky thunderheads."

Ms. Tolstaya writes long, poetic sentences of gathering momentum, breathless anticipation and pungent dialogue, deftly translated into exquisite English by Jamey Gambrell. She creates an animated universe, where "river wind, garden wind, and stone wind collide and whirl," where "the deep, blue evening, brandishing a broom, nodded . . . as it advanced from the east." Hers is a fiction of vast possibility, propelled not by plot, but by a narrative voice that imaginatively conveys the ambiguities of her characters' inner lives.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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