Book review: Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya

Book review: Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya

Aetherial Worlds

"For us, the best time is always yesterday.” These words from Russian writer-commentator-TV host Tatyana Tolstaya are not from her collection of stories under review. However, these are valid words.

This great grand niece of Leo Tolstoy writes stories that often hark back to the past.

And as she explains in the very first ‘story’ - a loose term encompassing stories and musings – the author gained an ability to fuse memory and imagination together, put them into words, all for the very first time in 1983, while recuperating from an old style eye surgery that used razors, not lasers.

Eyes shut safely through three months; the storyteller took birth, as childhood images, and words, from the misty past appeared in her mind-screen.

Tolstaya also acknowledges the debt of gratitude owed to her grandfather, an engineer-turned-historical novelist: “He saw the past in great detail, every button on a jacket…”

The same sense of the past is revealed in the author’s stories — the detailing, an ability to capture the very mood, the scents, innocent childhood, memories of eccentric aunts and disastrous builders, an ephemeral recalled world into which the author peers through a misty looking glass, rather like Alice of the iconic children’s tale. This is the aetherial world that Tatyana Tolstaya presents through her 18 chosen stories.

And the reader closes the book, happy at the re-emergence of classic poetic writing, much needed in these prosaic times. 

The themes cover topics like filial love, obsessive love, cultural differences and behaviour, and even mundane matters that come off as weird, yet meaningful. Take this story called Aspic – a reference to a jelly dish, made from the boiling of bones.

The author narrates the process of making the dish, starting with the purchase of bones at the butcher’s. But the writer’s zany sense of humour shines through when she writes about the chopped-up legs in the shopping bag being heavy, refusing to enter the elevator and maybe “they’ll twitch, break free, and run away, clacking across the ceramic tile.”

While the Soviet Union was breaking up in the late 80s, Tatyana spent almost a decade in the US, teaching in universities. Her experiences have produced stories that speak of the two cultures, attitudes, even the different approaches to everyday life.

Along with providing a contrasting study, the stories occasionally manage to disturb the unwary reader. In Smoke and Shadows, a Russian professor in a small North Eastern town finds herself falling obsessively in love with a rather boring American colleague.

The gloom and the cold seem to take over her soul – and she decides to free herself of her obsession – in a shocking manner that could question the ethical basis of such a resolution.

Far more cheerful and appealing is the novella-length story, The Invisible Maiden. A cast of extremely invigorating characters traipses in and out of this tale set in a dacha, the rural farmhouse retreat of Russian families. The narrator recollects her years at the badly designed dacha, from childhood to later years, years that find a nanny, aunts, a hard-working mother, sisters, Curly the ‘ imbecile’ builder (who built a house with almost all rooms facing north, thus ensuring a cold sun-less moldy house) - so many people light up the pages. This story is occasionally coloured by the retrospective imagination of the author as a child. One stained-glass window is described as “a blood red rhombus that made the entire world seem pale pink, like overcooked berries in compote.”

This great grand niece of Leo Tolstoy writes stories that often hark back to the past.

Aetherial Worlds, the titular tale, returns to the US setting. The Russian narrator has come off a Soviet state breaking apart, and here she is buying a piece of rural property, in Princeton, New Jersey, to house her little family of four. “The address may have said Princeton, but really it was Bumblefuck, New Jersey – dense forest a rutted road leading towards dilapidated structures.” And yet, the narrator finds her diamond in the dust: she has a patio built by competent honest American workers (as compared to the laid-back Russian workers of memory). She spends summer evenings there, reading, smoking, perhaps spying deer in the woods …or was it a unicorn?

And as she lingers in the darkness, her very own angel hovers around, “for protection and compassion”, his “aetherial body” pierced by refractive starlight.

It’s a motley but dense collection offering not just stories, but essays, mystical travel pieces, unusual stories from secretive Soviet years… a blind man in an Italian church helps tourists discover the beauty of mosaics, high up on the ceiling.

An artist saves money, attends an antique sale, wishing to get his wife some long-awaited bedroom furniture, but returns with an expensive marble statue – “another woman” - that he loves totally, beyond the wife who walks out. And the reader closes the book, happy at the re-emergence of classic poetic writing, much needed in these prosaic times.