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Book Review : The Anatomy of Russian Melancholy

On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya, translated by Antonina W. Bouis (Alfred A. Knopf: $17.95; 200 pages)

You could block out every allusion to monuments and landmarks, censor references to the rigors of daily life, anglicize the names and “On the Golden Porch” would still be immediately recognizable as Russian literature. Whether they’re young, old or members of the author’s own postwar generation, Tatyana Tolstaya’s characters dream and yearn for elusive, lost or unattainable goals. In the rare instances where they achieve their desires, the consummation turns to dust, leaving the protagonist to bittersweet melancholy.

Tolstaya, the descendant of one illustrious Russian literary family, partakes of her country’s entire tradition. Though the 13 tales are contemporary and the style is intensely personal, the collection echoes with Dostoevsky’s passion and Chekhov’s wistfulness. Tolstaya writes with Andrei Bitov’s satirical bite but occasionally lapses into Yevtushenko’s sentimentality.

Virtually a one-woman anthology of contradictory Russian attitudes, Tolstaya’s frustration is tempered by a powerful sense of national identity; her hard feelings softened by a palpable love of the land. The frigid winters, the clammy autumns, the amazing springs and the short sweet summers are as important to her stories as the people, perhaps because you cannot create the complex Russian character without the climate. Moscow freezes, Siberia looms, Georgia basks in sunshine; Leningrad teases with glimpses of Scandinavian comfort and vanished imperial glory. Surrounded by choice, her characters are fixed in place by law.

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Crucial Disappearances

Consider Rimma, in “Fire and Dust.” She’s still a relatively young woman when the story begins, but she has already seen crucial disappearances--"her radiant youth, the childhood of her children, the freshness of her hopes, as pale blue as the morning sky. . . . She had been promised every wreath, flower, island and rainbow, and where are they now?” Years pass, and Rimma is still living in a communal apartment, waiting for its last tenant to die, watching her once ambitious husband dozing in front of the TV, listening to the wild fantasies of her friend Svetlana, who has escaped into madness.

In the end, desperate for any break in the monotony, Rimma settles for a sleazy blouse bought on the black market. Ahead of her is only “the whole viscous flow of the future years--as yet unlived, but already known. . . .” For all its universality, Rimma’s story has uniquely Russian aspects--the old man, the ugly blouse, the dead-end jobs, all symbols of gratification perpetually deferred.

Every story has these small, poignant details; volumes of social and political observation in a phrase. In “Sweet Shura,” an old woman wears a marvelous hat decorated with snowballs, flowers and berries; “The cherries dropped down and clicked against one another.” Where do you find such hats today, except in the bottom of a trunk, hoarded for half a century? And the memories--"Finland in the spring. Crimes in the summer. White cakes, black coffee. Oysters--very expensive. Theater in the evening.”

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A Terrible Passivity

The ancient woman tells the young narrator about the lover who begged her to elope with him. The train ticket was bought and the valise packed, but a terrible passivity kept her from leaving home. Listening, the writer imagines a crack in the universe through which old Shura could re-enter her life and take that train; a gap offering an alternative reality.

In “Okkervil River,” an elderly bachelor collects the second-hand records of a once famous soprano, fantasizing the life they might have had together. When he discovers that she’s still alive, he seeks her out and pays a call, only to find a fat, coarse old woman who ignores him.

A lonely young boy in “Date With a Bird” is befriended by a neighbor who enthralls him with adventure stories. Vibrant and fun-loving, a wonderful contrast to his own staid family, she becomes the focus of his life until the day he finds her in bed with the uncle he loathes.

Though many of the stories deal with disillusion and resignation, the tone of the collection is vibrant; the plots inventive and the characters remarkably vigorous despite their anguish. Some books are the next best thing to a trip to their native ground, but “On the Golden Porch” is an exception; a distillation of atmosphere and personality so concentrated that it actually seems more intense than a first-hand experience; not just equal to being there but better.


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