“Aetherial Worlds” is the first collection from Tatyana Tolstaya to be translated into English in more than 20 years. Therefore, the 18 stories that comprise the volume will surely be new to most readers, even though the author is regarded as one of contemporary Russia’s preeminent writers.
What, then, are the worlds of the stories? The title certainly suggests the otherworldly, the unearthly, the astonishing. However, most of the stories are firmly rooted in the ordinary worlds of family, work, politics, home, love and loss.
The opening and closing stories serve as cautionary bookends for the entire collection. In “20/20,” Leo Tolstoy, the author’s namesake, is attending the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute during 1901. He has a “waking dream” that sets him on his path to “create” as a writer. In 1983, his granddaughter finds the same path as she recovers from eye surgery. In essence, both find new ways of “seeing.”
“See the Reverse” concludes the volume. In that story, a woman remembers her deceased father on a visit she makes to Ravenna, one of his favorite cities. She finds nothing extraordinary in the city until she is able to see “the great comforts of beauty” as her father had been able to see them years before.
Both are extraordinary stories, and in between them are others equally exhilarating.
Russia and Tolstaya’s wry humor are everywhere in the collection. “Aspic” — and its preparation — serves as metaphor for Russian history and its inherent ferocity. “Official Nationality” is an ironic consideration of what makes Russia Russian.
Some of the stories follow Russian ex-pats. In “Smoke and Shadows,” a professor from Russia who has been teaching at an American university is on the cusp of returning home. Will she miss America, even as she creates a scenario to temper her loneliness? “I will never come back,” she says one time too many.
Stories about the past are also a part of the collection. The exquisite “The Invisible Maiden” is a vivid memory of a family summer home and those who were part of it. It is, at the same time, a comment on memory, family and the socio-political history of Russia. “It’s easy to enter the past: just keep looking straight ahead and walking.”
Tolstaya is also capable of taking us through the conventional to the astonishing. “Passing Through” reinvents an alternate world for the socks that constantly disappear in our washing machines. “Father” is a loving tribute to memory and to the enduring love the author still has for hers, who still actively takes care of her from the afterlife.
In the delicate title story, a college professor, another of the author’s displaced Russian ex-pats, buys a house in America, a house whose “magic room” becomes her oasis, even as she tells herself, “This isn’t the right place for me. Once again it’s not right. I should know by now that the right place is inaccessible.”
If only that professor — if only we all — could learn to “see” just a little better.
It’s in attempting to go beyond the world’s ordinariness that new worlds are found, to be sure. Yet they are often worlds that caution us to look again at what we wish to leave behind. That’s the message of “Aetherial Worlds,” both the title story and this exceptional collection from Tatyana Tolstaya.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.