AETHERIAL WORLDS: Stories. By Tatyana Tolstaya. Translated by Anna Migdal. Knopf. 241 pages.
“Aetherial Worlds,” Tatyana Tolstaya’s new story collection, is her first book in nearly 20 years. Like her other stories, these are tethered to the world we all walk in: comic and banal, but also fraught with unexpected beauty and significance.
Tolstaya has patented a smart, cool, funny voice, at times touching lightly, at others gaining amplitude and darkness. There’s something brilliantly Russian about her work, as well there might be, considering her heritage. (Her grandfather is the science fiction writer Aleksey Tolstoy, and her great-uncle is Leo Tolstoy.) Tolstaya’s stories live at the intersection of fantasy and reality, with an irrational and playful edge that is distinctly her own.
“Aetherial Worlds” begins with “20/20,” an origin story that opens in the past, when her grandfather is studying engineering at a technological institute in St. Petersburg. The professor asks the students to imagine a cigar-like object. That does it. Her grandfather enters a trance. He sees the cigar, imagines clipping the end away, smells the aroma of Havana tobacco. Soon, he’s seeing the brandy snifter full of cognac. The waking dream and golden reflection become his milieu.
Tolstaya herself belonged to the everyday world until 1982 when she goes to an eye clinic for corrective surgery. This is before laser procedures. The doctor promises 20/20 vision, but only after three blind months of pain and tears (streaming like rain on a window pane). In the darkness, something strange happens. She begins to see bright scenes from the past, accompanied by pages of text.
As soon as she emerges from the dark, Tolstaya writes her first story. The double vision stays with her. Beyond the obvious world is “a dungeon full of treasure, an aetherial world through the looking glass, a mysterious box with passcodes to all enigmas, an address book with the exact coordinates to all who never existed.”
The stories that follow lead us there, into the past of Tolstaya’s Russian childhood, but also along the trails of her imagination, where words are “passcodes to all enigmas.” Sometimes, the past never ends. “Aspic,” for instance, is a superb little story about the mandate to recreate what once was, in this case, an aspic. Making the aspic is a necessary and ritualistic behavior. Even in the brutal cold, when you have to “breathe through your mittens,” you still have to compose and chill the aspic. The very name of the dish, Tolstaya says, makes the “temperature of your soul drop.”
Making the aspic removes her from the crisp, clean world of clementines and radishes. She enters the place “where the blood and the axe are,” where pieces of muzzle mix with nostrils, lips and hooves. Tolstaya shrugs her shoulders: “Russia is Russia.” Everything goes into the pot, where it boils and rages — “all that’s fearful, all that’s suffered, darted, and tried to break loose, oinked and mooed, couldn’t understand, resisted, and gasped for breath — all of it turns to muck.” At the end of the procedure, the meat rests in a golden broth that’s left out on the cold balcony, and nature finishes the job.
Like so many of Tolstaya’s stories, “Aspic” builds to a strange and worthy emotion. She closes with a kind of benediction: “And if you feel like senselessly crying, do it now while nobody can see you. Do it violently, about nothing and for no reason ...” She has reached “this there,” but where?
The characters in “Aetherial Worlds” are often stung by the past. Tolstaya’s imagination hangs on to lost rituals and abandoned houses. There are many places that no longer exist. “Invisible Maidens” is a long, loose and layered story that exhumes and refreshes the past. The story begins in April or May, as the family sets about readying their dacha for summer. They come in shifts: first the cleaners (Mother and Tatyana), then Nanny and the children, then the grannies, Aunty Lola and Klavsevna.
Aunty Lola is their dead grandmother’s friend, a “relic from other wars” who always sits in the same chair, drinks from her special cup and sleeps in the dampest bedroom. She speaks “as if she lived in a Henry James novel.” Klavsevna is the mild opposite of Aunty Lola, happy to wedge her maiden’s bed in a corner of the busy TV room and become invisible. Tolstaya builds up her noisy, idiosyncratic world only to dismantle it. When, one by one, the Aunty Lolas and their ilk are gone, Tolstaya sees them all still, out of reach but waving to her from the other side of the “blue glass.”
Each of Tolstaya’s stories comes around to a revelation of multiple, co-existing realities. The imaginary world she discovers after her eye operation is nourishing and robust. Another writer might take the coordinates of Tolstaya’s life and tell a tale of eviction and endless wandering. That is not Tolstaya’s story. Some of her writing has an exotic, bygone luster to it. But “Aetherial Worlds” is less about nostalgia than about “a sudden slanting of the rational plane of life,” as Nabokov said of Gogol. Anything can happen and everything can change, but stories never end.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.