Tatyana Tolstaya’s short stories—with their unpredictable fairy-tale plots, appealingly eccentric characters, and stylistic abundance and flair—established her in the 1980s as one of modern Russia’s finest writers. Since then her work has been translated throughout the world. Edna O’Brien has called Tolstaya “an enchantress.” Anita Desai has spoken of her work’s “richness and ardent life.” Mixing heartbreak and humor, dizzying flights of fantasy and plunging descents to earth, Tolstaya is the natural successor in a great Russian literary lineage that includes Gogol, Yuri Olesha, Bulgakov, and Nabokov.
White Walls is the most comprehensive collection of Tolstaya’s short fiction to be published in English so far. It presents the contents of her two previous collections, On the Golden Porch and Sleepwalker in a Fog, along with several previously uncollected stories. Tolstaya writes of lonely children and lost love, of philosophers of the absurd and poets working as janitors, of angels and halfwits. She shows how the extraordinary will suddenly erupt in the midst of ordinary life, as she explores the human condition with a matchless combination of unbound imagination and unapologetic sympathy.
About the Author
Jamey Gambrell is a writer on Russian art and culture. Her translations include Marina Tsvetaeva's Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries 1917—1922 and Vladimir Sorokin's Ice, published by NYRB Classics on December 2006.
Antonina W. Bouis's most recent translation from the Russian is Edvard Radzinsky's Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar.
Read an Excerpt
WHITE WALLSCollected Stories
By TATYANA TOLSTAYA
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Tatyana Tolstaya
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLOVES ME, LOVES ME NOT
"The other kids get to go out by themselves, but we have to go with Maryvanna!"
"When you get to be seven, you'll get to go out alone. And you don't say 'disgusting' about an elderly person. You should be grateful to Maria Ivanovna for spending time with you."
"She doesn't watch us on purpose! And we're going to get run over, I know we are! And in the park she talks to all the old women and complains about us. And she says: 'spirit of contradiction.'"
"But you really do your best to spite her, don't you?"
"And I'll go on doing it! I'm going to tell all those stupid old women 'how don't you do' and 'bad-bye.'"
"Shame on you! You must have respect for your elders! Don't be rude, listen to what they say: they're older and know more than you."
"I do listen! All Maryvanna talks about is her uncle."
"And what does she say about him?"
"That he hanged himself because he had a bad bladder. And that before that he was run over by the wheel of fortune. Because he was in debt and had crossed the street improperly."
... Small, heavyset, and short of breath, Maryvanna hates us and we hate her. We hate the hat with a veil, the holey glove, the dried pieces of "sand cookies" she feeds to the pigeons, and we stamp our feet at those pigeons to scare them off. Maryvanna takes us out every day for four hours, reads books to us, and tries to converse in French-basically, that's what she is hired for. Because our own dear beloved Nanny Grusha, who lives with us, doesn't know any foreign languages, and doesn't go outside anymore, and has trouble getting around. Pushkin loved her very much, too, and wrote about her and called her "my ancient dove." And he didn't write anything about Maryvanna. And if he had, he'd have written "my fat piggy."
But what's amazing-absolutely impossible to imagine-is that Maryvanna was the beloved nanny of a now grownup girl. And Maryvanna brings up that girl, Katya, every day. She didn't stick out her tongue, didn't pick her nose, ate everything on her plate, and hugged and kissed Maryvanna-she was crazy.
At night, in bed, my sister and I make up conversations between Maryvanna and the obedient Katya.
"Finish up the worms, dear Katya."
"With pleasure, sweet Maryvanna."
"Eat a marinated frog, child."
"I already have. Please give me some more mashed mice."
In the park that Maryvanna called "the boulevard," pale Leningrad girls dig in the darkened autumn sand, listening to adults talk. Maryvanna, quickly making the acquaintance of some old lady in a hat, takes out her stiff old photographs: herself and Uncle leaning against a grand piano and behind them a waterfall. Could that white airy creature in lace gloves be buried somewhere in the bowels of that gasping fat? "He was father and mother to me and wanted me to call him simply Georges. He educated me, he brought me out into society. Those pearls-you can't see them well here-were a gift from him. He loved me madly, madly. See how handsome he is here? And here we're in Piatigorsk. That's my friend Yulya. And here we're having tea in the garden."
"Marvelous pictures. Is that Yulya too?"
"No, that's Zinaida. Georges' girlfriend. She's the one who bankrupted him. He was a gambler."
"Oh, so that's it."
"Yes. I should throw away this picture, but I can't. It's all I have left of him. And his poems-he was a poet."
"You don't say."
"Yes, yes, a wonderful poet. There aren't any like him nowadays. So romantic, a bit of a mystic ..."
The old lady, silly twit, listens with her mouth open and smiles dreamily, looking at me. She shouldn't stare at me. I stick out my tongue. Maryvanna, shutting her eyes in shame, whispers hatefully, "Hideous creature!"
That night she'll read her uncle's poetry to me again:
Nanny, who screamed so loudly outside, Flashing past the window, Creaking the porch door, Sighing under the bed? Sleep, don't worry, God will watch over you, Those were ravens calling, Flying to the cemetery. Nanny, who touched the candle, Who's scratching in the corner, Who's stretched in a black shadow On the floor from the door? Sleep, child, don't worry, The door is strong, the fence is high, The thief won't escape the block The axe will thud in the night. Nanny, who's breathing down my back, Who's invisible and climbing Ever closer up my Crumpled bed sheet? Oh child, don't frown Wipe your tears and don't cry. The ropes are pulled tight, The executioner knows his job.
Well, after hearing a poem like that, who'd be brave enough to lower her feet from the bed, to use the potty, say? Everybody knows that under the bed, near the wall, is the Snake: in lace-up shoes, cap, gloves, motorcycle goggles, and holding a crook in his hand. The Snake isn't there during the day, but he coagulates by night from twilight stuff and waits very quietly: who will dare lower a leg? And out comes the crook! He's unlikely to eat you, but he'll pull you in and shove you under the plinth, and you'll fall endlessly, under the floor, between the dusty partitions. The room is guarded by other species of nocturnal creatures: the fragile and translucent Dry One, weak but terrible, who stands all night in the closet and in the morning goes into the cracks. Behind the peeling wallpaper are Indrik and Hindrik: one is greenish and the other gray, and they both run fast and have many feet. And in the corner on the floor is a rectangle of copper grating, and under that a black abyss: "ventilation." It's dangerous to approach even in the daytime; the Eyes stare out, without blinking. Yes, the most horrible is the nameless one who is always behind me, almost touching my hair (Uncle knows!). Many times he plans to reach out, but he keeps missing his chance and slowly, sadly, lowers his incorporeal hands. I wrap myself tight in the blanket, only my nose sticking out-they don't attack from the front.
Having frightened me with her uncle's poems, Maryvanna goes back to her place in a communal apartment, where, besides her, live Iraida Anatolyevna with her diabetes, and dusty Sonya, and the Badylovs, who were deprived of parental rights, and the hanged uncle.... And she'll be back tomorrow if we don't get sick. We often are.
Many times, 104-degree flus would scream and bang at my ears, banging on red drums, surrounding me from eight sides and, swirling wildly, project a delirious film, always the same: a wooden honeycomb filling up with three-digit numbers; more numbers, louder noise, more urgent drums-all the cells will be filled now, just a little time left. My heart can't take any more, it'll burst-but it's been postponed, I've been released, forgiven, the honeycomb taken away, a round loaf of bread with a nasty smile runs along an airfield on spindly legs-and it grows quiet ... except for tiny planes like dots of bugs which scurry along the pink sky, carrying away the black cloak of fever in their claws. It's passed.
Shake the crumbs from my sheet, cool my pillow, smooth my blanket so that there isn't a single wrinkle, otherwise the planes with claws will be back. Without thoughts, without desires, I lie on my back, in the coolness, in semidarkness-a half-hour's breather between two attacks of the drummers. A fan of light crosses the ceiling from corner to corner, then another fan, and another. The cars have their headlights on, the evening has descended, a rug of light has been pushed under the door into the next room: they're having tea there, the orange lamp shade is glowing, and one of the adults is making forbidden braids in its fringe, "ruining it." Before the planes come, back, I can leave my corporeal shell pounding with fever among the cast-iron sheets and mentally slip beyond the door-long nightgown, cold slippers-sit invisibly at the table (I'd forgotten this cup over the week) and, squinting, travel by gaze along the orange humps of the shade. The lamp shade is young and skittish, it isn't used to me yet-Papa and I got it only recently at the flea market.
Oh, there were so many people there, so many owners of quilted cotton and plush jackets, of brown Orenburg scarves. And they all gabbled and bustled and shook blue diagonal remnants before Papa's face and shoved sturdy black felt boots in his nose. Such treasures there! And Papa: he blew it, missed out, he didn't bring back anything but the lamp shade. He should have bought up everything: vases and saucers and flowered scarves, stuffed owls and porcelain pigs and rag rugs. We could have used the pussycat banks, and whistles and paper flowers-poppies with inked cotton in their centers-and paper fans, red and green trembling jabots on two sticks: you turn the sticks out and the fringed, impermanent lace shakes, turn them some more and it folds back up and disappears. Marvelous oilcloth paintings flickered: Lermontov on a gray wolf snatching up a swooning beauty; or him again wearing a caftan and aiming from bushes at swans with gold crowns; or doing something on a horse ... but Papa dragged me on, farther, farther, past invalids with lollipops, to the lamp shade row.
A man grabbed Papa's leather sleeve, "Master, sell me your coat!"
Don't bother us with nonsense, we need a lamp shade, we have to get over there; I turn my head, I glimpse brooms, baskets, painted wooden eggs, a piglet-watch it, that's it, let's go back. Where is it? Oh, there. We push our way back through the crowd, Papa has the lamp shade, still dark and silent, but already a member of the family: it's ours now, one of us, we'll come to love it. And it waited quietly: where was it being taken? It didn't know that time would pass and it, once the favorite, would be mocked, cast down, discarded, exiled, and a new favorite would take its place: a fashionable white five-petaled "shorty." And then, insulted, mutilated, betrayed, it would go through the last mortification: it would serve as a crinoline in a children's play and then plunge forever into wastebin oblivion. Sic transit gloria mundi.
"Papa, buy me that, please."
"What is it?"
A merry, bundled-up peasant woman, glad to see a customer, is spinning in the cold, hopping up and down, stamping her felt boots, shaking the chopped-off golden braid as thick as a hawser.
"Papa, buy it!"
"Have you lost your mind? A stranger's hair! Don't even touch it-it's got lice."
Phooey, how horrible! I freeze: and really, there they are, enormous lice, each the size of a sparrow, with attentive eyes and shaggy legs and claws clutch the sheet, climb on the blanket, clap hands, louder and louder.... The delirium hums again, the fever screams, the fiery wheels spin: flu!
... A dark urban winter, a cold stream of air from the corridor: one of the adults is hauling in a huge striped sack of firewood to heat up the round brown water heater in the bathroom. Scat, you're underfoot, get out of the way! Hurrah, we're going to have baths today! A wooden railing is placed across the tub: heavy chipped basins, pitchers of hot water, the sharp scent of pitch soap, soaked wrinkled skin on the hands, the steamy mirror, stuffiness, the clean, ironed underwear, and whizzz, run down the cold corridor, and plop! into fresh sheets: heaven!
"Nanny, sing a song."
Nanny Grusha is terribly old. She was born in a village and then was brought up by a kindly countess. Her gray head holds thousands of stories about talking bears, and blue snakes that cure people with tuberculosis by climbing in through the chimney during the night, about Pushkin and Lermontov. And she knows for a fact that if you eat raw dough you'll fly away. And when she was five-like me-the tsar sent her a secret package to Lenin at Smolny Institute. There was a note in the package: "Surrender!" And Lenin replied: "Never!" And shot off a cannon.
The Terek flows over rocks, Splashing with a stagger ... An evil Chechen crawls ashore, Sharpening his dagger ...
The curtain trembles on the window, a threateningly shining moon appears from behind a winter cloud; from the murky Karpovka Canal a black Chechen climbs onto the icy shore, shaggy, baring his teeth....
"Sleep, my darling, sleep tight."
... Yes, things aren't going too well with Maryvanna. Should I be sent to a French group? They go out for walks, and get a snack, and play Lotto. Of course, send me. Hurrah! But that evening, the Frenchwoman returns the black sheep to mother.
"Madame, your child is completely unprepared. She stuck her tongue out at the other children, tore up pictures, and threw up her cream of wheat. Come back next year. Good-bye. Au revoir."
"Bad-bye!" I shout, dragged away by my disappointed mother. "Eat your own crummy cream of wheat! No revoir!"
("Is that so? Well, just get out of here! Take your lousy kid!"-"Who needs it! Don't think you're so hot, madame.")
"Forgive us, please, she's really quite difficult."
"It's all right, I understand."
What a burden you are!
... Let's take colored pencils. If you lick the red, it gives a specially smooth, satiny color. Of course, not for long. Well, enough for Maryvanna's face. Put a huge wart here. Fine. Now the blue: a balloon and another balloon. And two columns. A black pancake on her head. In her hands, a purse; but I don't know how to draw one. There. Maryvanna's done. She's sitting on a peeling vernal bench, her galoshes spread and planted firmly, eyes shut, singing:
I was going ho-o-ome ... My heart was fu-ull ...
Why don't you go home? Why don't you go to your precious Katya?
"Georges always bought halvah for me at Abrikosov's-remember?"
"Yes, yes, of course...."
"Everything was dainty, delicate...."
"Don't I know it...."
"And now. Take these: I thought they were intellectuals! But they cut their bread in huge chunks."
"Yes, yes, yes ... and I ..."
"I always used the formal 'you' with my mother. I showed respect. But these ones, well, all right, I'm a stranger to them, but their parents, at least their parents, but no ... nothing ... And they grab at the table. Like this! With their hands, their hands."
God! How long must we put up with each other?
And then they shut the little park to let it dry out. And we simply walk the streets. And one day suddenly a tall thin girl-a white mosquito-throws herself screeching on Maryvanna's neck, weeping, and caressing her shaking red face!
"My nanny! My dearest nanny!"
And look: that lump, weeping and gasping, also grabs the girl, and they-strangers-right here before my eyes, are both shouting and weeping over their stupid love.
"My dearest nanny!"
Hey, girl, what's the matter with you? Rub your eyes! It's Maryvanna. Look, look, she has a wart. It's our Maryvanna, our laughingstock: stupid, old, fat, silly.
But does love know that?
... Get out of here, girl! Don't hang around here ... with all that goopy stuff.... I push on, angry and tired. I'm much better than that girl. But Maryvanna doesn't love me like her. The world is unfair. The world is upside down. I don't understand anything. I want to go home! But Maryvanna has this radiant look, holds me tight by the hand, and puffs along ahead.
"My feet hurt!"
"We'll make a circle and head back ... soon, soon...."
Unfamiliar parts. Twilight. The light air has risen and is suspended over the houses; the dark air came out and is standing in the doorways and arches, in the holes of the street. An hour of depression for adults, of depression and fear for children. I'm all alone in the world, Mama has lost me, we're going to get lost any second, now. I'm in a panic and I clutch Maryvanna's cold hand.
"That's where I live. There's my window-second from the corner.
Disembodied heads frown and open their mouths-they'll eat me-under every window. The heads are horrible, and the damp darkness of the archway is creepy, and Maryvanna is not family. High up, in the window, nose pressed against the dark glass, the hanged uncle waits, running his hands over the glass, peering. Bug off, uncle! You'll climb out of the Karpovka at night, disguised as an evil Chechen, grin under the moonlight -eyes rolled back into your head-and you'll run real fast on all fours over the cobblestone street, across the courtyard to the front door, into the heavy, dense dark, with bare hands up the icy steps, along the square staircase spiral, higher, higher, to our door....
Hurry, hurry, home! To Nanny! O Nanny Grusha! Darling! Hurry to you! I've forgotten your face. I'll huddle against your dark skirts, and your warm old hands will warm my frozen, lost, bewildered heart.
Excerpted from WHITE WALLS by TATYANA TOLSTAYA Copyright © 2007 by Tatyana Tolstaya. Excerpted by permission.
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