Tatyana Tolstaya lives a double life. A fiercely postmodern, vibrant writer of the here-and-now, an indulgently larger-than-life presence in Russian letters and culture at home and abroad, she is also a ghost – a rather hard-to-miss, palpably material ghost, but a ghost of Russian and Tolstoyan past, nonetheless. Her latest collection of short stories, Aetherial Worlds (Tolstaya is a classicist by training, so her aether is ancient, indomitable and unapologetic), is many things, some splendid, some less so, yet it is above all a cri de cœur that Russia, eternal, magical, mythologised, barbaric or mystical, has not died – and that we should all yearn to go and live there, be Russian, feel, think, dream and envision the world and its essence in its untranslatable words and concepts, through its sublime or terrible images.

Aetherial Worlds begins with a story about Tolstaya’s grandfather, Alexei Tolstoy, whose longing to imagine things and the worlds they might inhabit prevented him from becoming a formula-seeking engineer. He became a writer of historical novels and science fiction instead, and of a famous Russian adaptation of Pinocchio. Although Tolstaya does not tell us so, he was also a rather controversial figure, earning the nickname the Comrade Count, and producing a healthy (or unsavoury) corpus of writings in support of the official, pan-Slavic party line. Tolstaya has said that she cannot judge him, since the historical circumstances decreed a different kind of ethics and aesthetics.

Alexei Tolstoy’s “ability to daydream”, and that of Leo undoubtedly as well, “was passed on to me, although not to the same extent. I didn’t start out a writer and had no plans of becoming one. Although I happily swam in imaginary expanses, I had no words to describe them.” The induced blindness of an eye operation to correct shortsightedness would lead to mental images that could only be captured if the words were right. Lack of sight, Tolstaya tells us in what is a quasi-parable of what makes a writer into a true craftsman of their art, led to verbal, narrative and socio-philosophical insight. It is a power that is equal almost to a certain sense of omnipotence in her case, to a persona that is charmingly egocentric and rather oblivious to the effect that her particular point of view, actions, choices and desires, and the means of satisfying them, may have on others. It is also an inherited divine gift that has an aura of old-fashioned feudalism about it, both highly objectionable and irresistibly endearing, somewhat shocking and ultimately harmless. Tolstaya’s mode and style has a humorous, acerbic eccentricity, it is a solipsistic shaft of light that falls relentlessly on herself and others, on society at large, like a Röntgen X-ray. Lies and truths, alternative facts and creative ambiguities are all shown in stark relief without discrimination, and with an equal measure of whimsical, penetrating scepticism.

The past and its remembrance, the possession of the material objects or the human experiences and stories that can lead to it and guarantee its survival and vital legacy are what seem to be at stake.”

Tolstaya’s writing exudes a Slavic enchantment with an aestheticised, poetic vision of the self, of the artist as a liminal being. Vastly synesthetic, animistic, spectral and evocative, her stories have an air of prestidigitation about them, an optical illusion quality full of the brilliance and madness of Paul Signac. A molto vivace tone of irony and self-deprecation runs throughout, and the sense of narrative all-powerfulness, totality and mastery is often paralleled by a permeating feeling of utter despair. An existential, archetypal instinct to howl but also to create with almost demonic conviction, so as not to vanish in a land of ghosts and oblivion. Tolstaya has often been praised or criticised for the strong vein of nostalgia that throbs beneath the skin of all her writings, and here that throbbing becomes almost embolic.

The past and its remembrance, the possession of the material objects or the human experiences and stories that can lead to it and guarantee its survival and vital legacy are what seem to be at stake in Aetherial Worlds – the title perhaps referring not only to the precariousness of fiction, to the corrosive processes of time and a failing culture that are the key elements of the eponymous story, but also to a celestial reality only accessible through an empirical attachment to history, genealogy, oldness and the infinity of older values. The claim to this hoard of being or non-being is not always as clear, and much of Tolstaya’s “personal voice” and “private memory” feels in fact as though it had belonged to others, now long gone, “an olden world drowned a hundred years ago”. One would be hard pressed to say whether Tolstaya appropriates memories or whether hers is the ultimate pantheistic gesture. “When a line in a book says ‘remember?’ then it seems to me as if I do remember.” “I am the sole witness of the existence of these titans [imaginary or real figures], and their dilapidated worlds.”

Aehterial Worlds gives voice, a startling or disturbing presence to animate and inanimate worlds of spirits, human or supernatural, endowed with what Goethe called “the open secret”, and Tolstaya is the mystic guide or rambunctious Shakespearean fool holding both map and key to “the colour of sighs and murmurs, of white nights, whispers and otherworldly emotions”. It is a quirky, self-willed type of magic realism, that is unpredictable and carefully directed. The stories are perched expectantly, precariously, between agnosticism and transcendence, between an absolute neo-gothic darkness and a glaring, blinding, neorealist light. There is a domineering mock rationalism and an exuberant, ultimately triumphant absurdity that tease and challenge our despair for meaning and for an escape from what has become both a prescriptive and arbitrary world reality. Tolstaya’s aim seems to be an acrobatic balance between divine ecstasy and blasphemy, a sublime, paroxysmal pathos, or a bathetic biliousness that does not always serve her well.

Often compared to Turgenev, Gogol or Chekhov, her style here is closer to that of radical Soviet writing and pre-regime Bulgakov, to Vera Panova’s lyrical scenes of Soviet life and her sedately subversive high camp, and George Perec’s obsessively material, immaterial indexes of the minutiae, trivia and sine qua nons of life. It is a tongue-in-cheek blend of surrealism and pragmatism, of essayistic writing and grassroots storytelling, producing a narrative that is an alloy of free-flowing associations and unabashedly ipse dixit pronouncements. A sense of deep isolation dominates, as though this were the self-soothing, unsettled and disturbing monologue of an old woman evoking ghosts, real or imaginary, in order to fight a rematch of unfinished battles. An old woman with a Keep the Aspidistra Flying kind of irreverence and cantankerous will for mischief, and an oftentimes malicious sense of humour.

We get a sparkling panorama of pre- and post-Glasnost Russia, of the labyrinths of the Soviet era (Minotaurs and Ariadnes included in lavish detail), and the meandering mazes of what came after. A pre-revolutionary vis comica and resignation meet fragmentary, entropic modernity – in Tolstaya’s worlds, an older, dreamy beauty of a domain of dachas, landed gentry and city aristocracy coexists nebulously, uncomfortably, seamlessly with more recent nightmares, white nights of extinguished vision, and Soviet bureaucracy and nightmare. If Fedor Ivanovich Dolokhov and Natasha Rostova, those other Tolstoyan offspring, had grown old through all the years of history, fiction and reality separating them from our times, and had sat down to pen their combined stream or dream of consciousness, Aetherial Worlds is perhaps what they might have whispered in Tolstaya’s eager ear.

Tolstaya evinces a compulsion to digress in order to escape from ineluctable structures, and to retrieve a truer pattern of human creativity, unpremeditatedness and individuality beyond formulas and regimes of homogeneity and compliance. The caustic lightness leaves many questions unanswered and our suspended disbelief is not necessarily gratified, yet what may seem a little too carefully crafted at first soon builds into a formidable momentum, a hard to resist reverie of insight into the unknowable, into lives that were, still are, exist no longer. A particularly moving, strikingly evocative story is ‘Father’, a portrait of her father as the young man of her earlier memories and as the gradually crumbling relic of himself in his old age. It showcases Tolstaya’s talent to conjure up lives out of the nothingness of time and oblivion, and to embody the tension between mortality and the ever-unfinished act of life, a theme she explores in myriad variations.

Tolstaya believes in the somethingness of eternity. Not necessarily in religious terms, but certainly in terms of a continuity of being and metaphysical immanence. Death is a door, a gate, a passageway to an unquestioned elsewhere. Her analysis of Malevich’s Black Square through Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich has some of her best qualities, including the apophthegmatic, almost apocalyptic tone that characterises her writing. It is a poignant, if eccentric and wilful analysis of Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis and Malevich’s transgressive innovation, that is above all an anatomy of the meaning of all art and of the divine value or the human hubris of artistic creation – the consolation or damnation afforded by art. Her analysis of the dehumanising purpose of the desacralisation of existence is a veritable polemic and an elegiac response to the agnosticism, atheism, materialism, superhumanism which she sees prevalent today: “while refuting Him, we refute ourselves; while mocking Him, we mock ourselves – the choice is ours.”

At their best, the stories in Aetherial Worlds are a virtuosic display of an indomitable, often ruthless critical power and wit.”

In case we have been lulled by this diatribe on the sacred in art and life, Tolstaya has the right pick-me-up in reserve, the story ‘Without’, a no-punches-spared parable of an alternative West as formed by Tolstaya’s version of a triumphant pre-Roman Orient, a utopian dystopia of a Westless Western world. It is both sharp and clumsy, with unclear categories of values and principles, causes and effects, cultural origins and civilising agencies, or a sense of historical direction. Yet this reductio ad absurdum is a provocative dare against the extremes of the current debate on Western vs. non-Western cultures that has the power to shock and perhaps clarify, expose and hopefully redress and redefine.

At their best, the stories in Aetherial Worlds are a virtuosic display of an indomitable, often ruthless critical power and wit. Sadly, several stories simply seem to serve as padding to Tolstaya’s surrealist tableau, and feel as such, weighing down the collection with facile clichés, an overindulged sense of superior judgementalism (the irony seldom undercuts that feeling), and a tendency to rant and lash out simply on the strength of what is unquestionably a confident wordsmithery. Many of the stories are unrefined gems or outright jewels – ‘The Invisible Maiden’ being one such example; some, however, are quite simply juvenilia, that perhaps ought not to have been included. The last story, ‘See the Reverse’, is exquisite in its fine balance between idiosyncrasy and immediacy, between a highly individual narrative vernacular and an ecumenical language and significance. It is the apex of the turmoil of this collection, the climax and true celestial, aethereal vision, and it is perhaps worth persevering through much that is mere distraction in order to reach this haven of, quite simply put, true wisdom.


Tatyana Tolstaya is the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy. Since the 1980s she has enjoyed a reputation as one of Russia’s foremost original literary voices. The TLS hailed her first novel, The Slynx, a postmodern literary masterpiece of the same stature as Gogol’s Dead Souls and Nabokov’s Pale Fire, while Joseph Brodsky called her “the most original, tactile, luminous voice in Russian prose today.” She has written for New York Review of Books and The New Yorker and lives in Moscow. Aetherial Worlds, translated by Anya Migdal, is published in paperback and eBook by Daunt Books.
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Author portrait © Alena Lebedeva

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.