Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya review – an elegiac Russian collection

Dead lovers, family and friends haunt these short stories – the author’s first collection to appear in English in 25 years

There has always been a visionary quality to Tatyana Tolstaya’s fiction. Within the first few pages of Aetherial Worlds, the narrator – who may or may not be Tolstaya – confesses that she began to write only after eye surgery in 1983. For three months after the operation, she had to live by touch: the incisions took that long to heal. Blind to the world outside, “in my mind’s eye I began to see bright visions from my past.” The narrator traces these visions back to her grandfather – Tolstaya is the granddaughter of the Soviet writer Alexei Tolstoy – who could also see the “past in great detail: every button on a jacket, every wrinkle on a dress”.

It has been 25 years since a new collection of Tolstaya’s stories appeared in English, and Aetherial Worlds seems to mark a nostalgic turn in her sensibility. It is almost as if she is afraid now of forgetting the past. “20/20”, the opening story, sets the tone. We are far from the dystopian future of her novel The Slynx. Page after page in the new book is haunted by dead grandparents, dead lovers, dead acquaintances. The narrator can hear them all in the midst of Moscow’s “urban stink” – “singing as if there were no tomorrow”. Many of these stories are elegies for houses of the dead, apartments where the curtains are no longer drawn, closets full of clothes fashionable before the world wars. A lakeside dacha in “The Invisible Maiden” had once been overrun by three generations of the narrator’s family. A dead father starts to appear dressed as his younger self in his daughter’s dreams. In “Aspic”, the cooking of a dish is a “yearly sacrifice”, made by boiling up chopped cow legs “till all the pain and all the death are gone, congealed into repugnant fluffy felt”.

You sense this is a different Tolstaya: wiser, less playful. She doesn’t need to dabble in the surreal to make the past seem like a dream. Her characters may be passing through Greece, Italy or the United States, but everywhere they have bright visions of the lives they lived before. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she wrote that the “Russian writer now feels like a senile old man in an uninhabited island ... He doesn’t know what to do.” Perhaps he should move away, these stories seem to suggest, and remember the island fondly from a different shore.

Aetherial Worlds, translated by Anya Migdal, is published by Daunt (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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Abhrajyoti Chakraborty

The GuardianTramp

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