I prefer novels to short stories. I love long, enthralling nineteenth-century novels with vividly imagined characters. But I wonder if the short form is more accessible to today’s readers, as they become more engrossed in the minuscule worlds of tiny phones.
At any rate, the Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya’s new collection of short stories, Aetherial Worlds, is my favorite new book of the year. I have long admired Tolstaya, the granddaughter of the science fiction writer Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoy; she is a spellbinding writer of genre-crossing literature. NYRB has published two of her books, The Slynx, a dystopian masterpiece, and White Walls, a collection of surreal and fantastic short stories.
Her new book, Aetherial Worlds, is a collection of elegant, wide-ranging stories, some realistic, some satiric, others surreal, still others fantasies. In two of my favorite stories, the history of a house is central to the narrative.
In “The Invisible Maiden,” the narrator recalls childhood summers in the ramshackle dacha her mother fixed up, which was large enough to house seven children, the nanny, and two old women called “the grannies.” But the crazy unplanned house, she tells us, was built by “an imbecile” named Curly.
Curly’s stupidity manifested itself variously; for example, all the rooms on the first and second floors, save for one, faced north, and not a single ray of sunshine ever found its way to them. And so the house grew moldy and rotten, all the quicker because Curly, unable to refrain from stealing building materials, constructed the dacha with no foundation. In the faraway corner of the garden he erected a roomy Finnish outhouse with two seats—a two-holer—but as he absconded with the partition wall, an interesting opportunity presented itself: you could now visit the shitter in pairs. Curiously, no one ever took advantage of this.
The narrator describes not only their summers at the dacha but their fates as the years pass. I especially love the character Aunty Lola, an impoverished old woman who regards the dacha as her real home because she lives the rest of the year in a tiny converted janitor’s closet in a communal apartment. The women of the older generation, including the nanny, have very different beliefs, habits, and histories from those of the younger generation. Tolstaya describes their experiences and eccentricities in detail.
The title story, “Aetherial Worlds,” is also the story of a house. The narrator has moved from Russia to New Jersey to teach creative writing at a small college. She buys a house near Princeton, “a long gray unfinished barn with a leaky roof, tucked away in the back of an overgrown plot in an unprestigious rural corner.” Originally owned by an African American woman, the house has a gorgeous garden, and the narrator feels the ghost walking around the property.
She loves the house, which is entirely hidden by greenery in the summer, but teaching is a challenge. Most of the students are lazy and cannot really read books. When she asks an especially recalcitrant student to tell her what a story by Salinger or Hemingway is about, he answers, “I dunno. I didn’t like it.” She tries to be tactful when she criticizes them, because her job depends on student evaluations. She learns the art of “psychological buffoonery” and to use simpler vocabulary. She explains,
And so the instructor must find more nurturing and beguiling ways to make the student realize he is a lazy ignoramus (if that is, indeed, what she wants him to realize), so that very student will be forced to admit it to himself and his friends will be able to corroborate it. Any earnest appeal to principles, to conscience, to exemplars worth aspiring to, or other such highfalutin crap that’s so popular in my homeland, doesn’t work here at all. Here one must provide nonstop entertainment for the group while simultaneously making each and every student feel they are number one, the subject of boundless and incessant care. All this without familiarity. And without fulsome praise. If a professor attempts to weasel their way into a student’s favor with too much fawning or too high a grade in the hopes of receiving a good evaluation, the student will only come to despise them and, upon getting the last word, shit all over them.
The years go by, and she does teach two brilliant student-writers, one of whom is autistic and believed by most to be mentally challenged. (Later, he goes to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.) But the fairy-tale house with its garden is at the center, until she decides she wants to live near the college and rents it to a young man who claims he wants “a sterile environment.” And what happens next defines America for her in a nightmarish way.
Other stories are whimsical or satiric. In “Without,” she speculates on a world without Italy. “Greeks would be everywhere, there having been no Romans to conquer them–though that would, most likely, have been done, with great satisfaction, by the Persians once Alexander the Great died.” In “The Window,” the character Shulgin learns that his neighbor is getting free appliances from a mysterious window in a Soviet building: when the shutters swing open, regardless of whether they call out “coffee grinder” or “a package,” you must yell back, “Deal!”, or your life will become magically nightmarish.
Fabulous stories, of many different genres.