#13 - JRL 7013
The New York Times
January 11, 2003
A Tolstoy Speaks, And Russia Listens
By Celestine Bohlen
Tatyana Tolstaya, best known as a short story writer and an essayist, began writing her first and only novel in 1986, which, in Russian terms, was long, long ago in a place that is now far, far away.
By the time she finished, 14 years later, her country had changed dramatically, and it is continuing to change. But in a way that is very Russian, it has also stayed very much the same. So when "The Slynx," a highly literary novel that tracks the history of Russian culture by way of fantasy and allegory, came out in Moscow in 2000, she was pounced on by readers seeking confirmation of clues that could apply to the present just as easily as they could to the past.
Was the Blast that sets the stage for the book's strange wintry landscape, inhabited by mutants, mice and the mythical, menacing Slynx, a reference to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, which took place in 1986? Or was it the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917?
Is the book's opening tyrant -- a grotesque midget whose full title is Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe, the Greatest Murza, Long May He Live -- a mutated version of one of Communism's last czars? Or is he a tiny version of Boris Yeltsin? Was the tyrant that follows him, an obvious caricature of a clean-living K.G.B. colonel, an allusion perhaps to Russia's current president, Vladimir V. Putin, or to one of his Soviet predecessors?
Sitting in the offices of Houghton Mifflin, which is releasing the book in English next week, Ms. Tolstaya, 51, recalled how she had to dispel any notion that she was somehow able to predict the latest twists of Russian history. "I didn't foresee anything," she said, laughing at the thought. "I just sat down to write."
But if in the process a dose of reality emerged -- or rather a template that fits the peculiar relationship Russians have to their rulers -- then, Ms. Tolstaya said, so be it. "It always comes down to patterns," she said. "Look, when they invented fingerprinting, criminals tried to remove their prints by burning them or cutting them off. Yet they always grew back. If there is a pattern, it will come back -- maybe in Russia more than anywhere else, because it has collapsed so many times. Maybe less so here in the States, because here the society is so young."
By 1998, when she finally picked up the novel where she had left it in 1986, Ms. Tolstaya was back in Moscow, after spending almost a decade in the United States. Here, she taught American college students -- first at Princeton, then at Skidmore -- while also writing long pieces, mainly for The New York Review of Books, that were full of humor and insight, about Russian politics and literature. (These have been collected in a book, "Pushkin's Children," which is also coming out this month in English from Houghton Mifflin).
During those years, she closely followed what was going on back home -- the amazing, at times unbelievable transformation of an authoritarian Communist Soviet Union into an unruly democratic Russia. In the meantime, her short stories were published (in two volumes) to acclaim both here and at home.
But over time, she found to her horror that as an expatriate, she -- a possessor of one of Russia's most famous literary genealogies, great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy and granddaughter of the Soviet author Aleksei Tolstoy -- was losing command of her native language. So she went home.
When Ms. Tolstaya left Moscow in 1989, she had already established herself as something of a literary combatant, known for her bold acerbic wit and her zestful challenge to the old dinosaurs who then dominated Soviet cultural institutions.
She returned to an uncertain welcome. Her fans were anxiously awaiting a "big work" and her critics were watching to see how she would step through Russia's political minefields.
"Some were waiting, some were hating and the younger generation didn't even know who I was," Ms. Tolstaya said. "I decided that I love this situation, because I could start the whole thing all over again."
For one thing, she sat down and finished her novel. It took her, she said, a month. "I had long periods when the text was dictating itself," she recalled. The novel begins like a fairy tale. Then, as it tracks its main theme -- the sanctity of the written word, seen as the thread that holds a culture together -- the style deliberately shifts to realism, then modernism and finally postmodernism, ending in a kind of surrealistic apotheosis.
Critics in Russia gave it a mixed reception, although all praised her skillful and inventive use of language. (For all the book's neologisms, skillfully translated into English by Jamey Gambrell, Ms. Tolstaya insisted on keeping her Russian grammar strictly "legal.") Some, however, argued that the book may have missed its moment.
"After all that we have read and thought over about Russia during the last 15 years, this repetition of old school lessons is really confusing," Dmitri Bykov said, writing in the newspaper Vechernaya Moskva. "There is a surfeit of caricatures of the intelligentsia, of anti-utopias depicting the degradation and decay of the national consciousness, and postmodernistic variations on the theme of literary-centrism."
But the book has sold well -- 200,000 copies by an official count, although Ms. Tolstaya suspects that the real number may be twice that. Her favorite story is of a reader who spotted her in a restaurant, went home to print the book off the Internet and brought up a stack of papers for her to autograph.
Ms. Tolstaya has carved out another space for herself in Moscow. She is a co-host of a popular weekly television show, "School for Scandal," on which guests -- politicians, actors, television personalities -- are interviewed and then, after they have left, dissected by the two hosts.
"The idea is to take off their masks and then discuss them," Ms. Tolstaya said. "Some people say that it is unethical, but this is what everyone does in their kitchens. It is what the reviewers do. We are just admitting it."
Ms. Tolstaya's forte, viewers say, is her humor, but sometimes, they add, her wit takes on a caustic, contemptuous edge -- as when she makes her now-well-known observations about American life -- from the culture of political correctness to the stubborn recalcitrance of underprepared college students.
"I am a great admirer of Tolstaya's short stories -- she is a great storyteller and stylist, a master of a small form," said Svetlana Boym, a professor of Slavic languages and comparative literature at Harvard University. "She savors the language, plays with it with a great ease. The problem is that as a Russian writer with a burden of her last name, she has bigger ambitions. When she writes as a journalist or as a public intellectual using the same persona of a kitchen-table storyteller, it becomes more problematic. When she speaks of America, there are times when she sounds like a well-educated and witty Rush Limbaugh spinning cultural stereotypes."
She has also emerged as something of a "state intellectual," a peculiarly Russian concept meaning an unofficial member of the government team. Unlike some other Russian intellectuals, Ms. Tolstaya is indeed an open supporter of the Putin "regime," as she herself calls it, although she has resisted its attempts to enlist her in its various causes. "He is holding the empire together," she said, "unlike Yeltsin, who was a drunkard, irresponsible, and didn't control anything."
As her novel suggests, however, Ms. Tolstaya is convinced that Russian rulers are never in fact as powerful as they seem, or as their people wish them to be. "The one on top has the aura of power, but less real power," she said. She added later, "Putin is responsible but not powerful enough."
Her support for the Putin government does not stop her from criticizing what she sees around her: the creeping censorship that has appeared on the main government television channel, the unchecked corruption and the glaring failure to deal with social injustice. "Frankly," she said, when asked to describe being back in Moscow, "it is disappointing, sometimes frightening and irritating."
Perhaps for these reasons, she claims her public role suits her. "I am interested in the subject which is Russia," she said. "I don't think people are fools, and I think they deserve a good attitude and smart entertainment. I have enough energy to insist on saying what I think."