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.