“Petya was given a large bowl of rice porridge; a melting island of butter floated in the sticky Sargasso Sea. Go under, buttery Atlantis. No one is saved. White palaces with emerald scaly roofs, stepped temples with tall doorways covered with streaming curtains of peacock feathers, enormous golden statues, marble staircases going deep into the sea, sharp silver obelisks with inscriptions in an unknown tongue — everything, everything vanished under water.”
This is from “Date with a Bird”, by the Russian writer and cultural critic Tatyana Tolstaya; White Walls compiles her two previous story collections, the glasnost-era On the Golden Porch and Sleepwalker in a Fog, along with more recent stories. Its liquid imagery is an apt embedded metaphor for Tatyana’s impressionistic prose itself: the interbleeding of objective description and subjective perspective; the free-floating border between reality and dream states; the momentum flowing with the whim of the current. And so her stories are carried less by directed narratives than by moods, characters, states of mind. Unsurprisingly, given the permeable barrier Tolstaya’s writing establishes between the real and imagined world, the state is often childhood (cf. the above-quoted story), generally a pastoral childhood, roaming free in a country house. The tension in such stories comes from the looming realization of the adult world’s tangible circumscriptions — the weighing knowledge and shabby apartments that are themselves the subject of roughly as many pieces in White Walls. Youth is dazzling, age drab; youth is rural, age urban. But Leo Tolstoy’s great-grandniece is no escapist: “She stood near the unhappy counters — veal bones, ‘Dawn’ mashed potatoes. Well, let’s wipe our tears with a finger, smear them on our cheeks, let’s spit at the votive lights: our god is dead and his temple is empty. Farewell.” Here, in “The Fakir,” is all the lyricism of her depictions of childhood, now prancing ironically through a grocery.
So vivid and pervasive is Tolstaya’s lyricism, in fact, that after 400-odd pages of effervescence, White Walls threatens to bubble away altogether — the book is less a river to travel down than a sun-dappled lake, behind a dacha, to dip into now and again.