[— Waking dreams

Sue Wilson talks to Tatyana l Tolstaya, whose writing captures : the mad, magical quality of Russian l


For those accustomed to the lean. pared-down economy ofstyle which characterises much current Anglo-American fiction. Tatyana Tolstaya‘s writing comes as something of a shock. An unashamed voluptuary where language is concerned. she positively revels in its sensuous power. filling her pages with long passages of lush. gorgeous description. image piling on image in a baroque tapestry ofwords. ‘A long communal corridor ran through Natasha‘s dwelling: overhead in the half-dark swam washbasin tambourines. dusty Aeolian bicycle harps. and over the exit. rising like a plague cemetery up in l arms. the black skulls ofelectric meters huddle

together‘: ‘On the first morning at the dacha. the

damp glassed-in verandah still swims in green.

underwater shadow. The front door is open wide. Q cold creeps in from the garden: the pails are in

place. empty and resonant. ready for a run to the lake. to the smooth. blinding lake. where the i reflected world fell upside down in the early hours i ofthe morning. The old pail gurgles. a distant echo l gurgles. You ladle the deep. cold. silence. the stilled. smooth surface. and sit for a while on a l

fallen tree.‘

In her just-published second book. seven short , stories and a novella entitled Sleepwalker in a Fog. Tolstaya. a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy. refers at one point to ‘the Russian word. so powerful and I

l Tatyana Tolstaya: ‘I'm trying to understand I what’s happening while going along with

poisonous and yet loving and lithe'. and her love of this language. the urge to explore its expressive possibilities. was one of the major reasons for her starting to write. ‘The call of the language is very strong.‘ she says. ‘Although. because of historical circumstances. Russia has always been set back from the rest of Europe. the Russian language is extremely well-developed and amazingly rich. lt preserves a very complicated. expressive

i grammatical structure; it is very flexible and beautiful. Also. Russian-speaking people cover a huge area. so there are many different dialects. as well as great differences within society. which created different levels of language a village

language and a literary language. lots of different slangs— and this rich diversity means that it has lots ofpossibilities for literary expression.‘

Thanks to Jamey Gambrell's impressive translation. this richness survives in the English version. The range ofstyle and mood in this relatively slim collection (under 200 pages) is breathtaking— the florid romance of pastoral nostalgia. the raw immediacy ofchildhood experience. wry. intellectual irony. the desperation of anonymity in a chaotic. absurd world and the magical. phantasmagorical ' atmosphere ofdream. nightmare or fairy-tale. The i last. in particular. recalls Tolstaya’s description. elsewhere. of life in Russia today. ‘Russia is an enormous lunatic asylum . . . Nightmares and nighttime fantasies materialise into solid reality while solid. tangible objects turn out. upon closer inspection. to be insubstantial illusions. . . Through the swirling fog the fantastic formulae and moduli ofchaos appear. . . God forbid that you approach them equipped with the clear light of logic and reason.‘

The stories. with their oblique. associative weaving together of inner and outer worlds. conscious and subconscious. dream and reality vividly capture this slippery. kaleidoscopic quality. but Tolstaya says she is attempting to do more than merely hold a mirror to Russian society. ‘The notion of holding a mirror means that you are different. that you see how crazy others are. but remain separate from it. whereas I‘m part of it; I'm trying to understand what‘s happening while going along with the whole crazy crowd. Many people who think the way I do have a more than three-dimensional approach they feel what is going on. they understand the craziness ofother people from the inside. but at the same time they understand the opposite. the common sense view they are like amphibians. they can breathe both air and water. that‘s fine for them. but it can be difficult to explain to those who are strictly fish. or strictly birds.‘

Sleepwalker in a Fog is published by Virago at . £13.99

the whole crazy crowd’

Remember, remember

Recollections of childhood can provide a rather shaky foundation for fiction, ruined as the results often are by an excess oi misty-eyed, sickly-sweet nostalgia for an age of lost innocence. The heroine of Amanda Prantera‘s Proto Zoe, however, starts out with precious little innocence to lose, while possessing a shamelessly voracious appetite for new experiences, and these semi-autobiographical short stories, following Zoe’s career between the ages of seven and nineteen, present a refreshingly different, hilariously ironic and unsentimental picture of growing up.

Prantera is the author of four previous novels, which were critically well-received but slow to sell. ‘I think people find them a little daunting,’ she says, ‘although I don’t think they are— they just look a bit off-putting.’

, Certainly her choice of material —one l book centres on an episode in Roman 1 history, exploring notions of historical and political ‘truth’, another carries the weighty title Conversations With Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years After His Lordship’s Death isn‘t exactly tailored to the bestseller lists. So it was ‘to help the other books along’, she says, that she decided to write - something in a more lighthearted vein. It wasn’t only a career move, however; Prantera was also looking for a fresh challenge. ‘llaving written four 3 pretty well imaginary novels, I’d come to appreciate, in other people’s writing, the ring of truth, or authenticity, that comes from direct, § actual experience, which fiction doesn’t otherwise have,’ she says. ‘I wanted to tackle that, as opposed to 5 making something up again, and it just happened that I seem to have collected these few episodes in my past which tied up nicely into short stories. I’d never tried writing short stories before, but there’s something about the form which needs a certain pungency, a kick I in the fail, a very definite structure, I think, and i chose the episodes bhecause they had that kind of pattern to t em.’

V g 5 adults’ fallibility, first love, confusion ,.,, } oversex—Prantera’s skill at capturing ! the heedless amorality of childhood 1 l existence andthe irrepressiblyblithe ! spirit of her heroine blow the dust off j the rites-of-passageframework. ' , Writingthe bookturned out to be

i something of a learning experience for Prantera herself. ‘lt's the first time I’ve l used a female voice all my other : books have male narrators,‘ she a ' explains. ‘It involved coming to terms ; with a part of myself which perhaps

before I was almost ashamed to

' express, my generation having always ,8 v been told that women were is; ' intellectually inferior, that I should 1 keep quiet. I had a subconscious

. "' ,2


E for putting forward intellectual ideas.

: But when i started writing in a female voice it was actually very easy, very comfortable. So my next book will also have a female narrator, I think it's something l’ll probably continue for a

1 while now- I just wish I’d been able to do it earlier.’ (Sue Wilson)

Amanda Prantera The stories do contain plenty of funny and thought-provoking surprises, and while many describe archetypal ‘Iessons in life' —the cruelties of pecking-order politics at a school, a first encounter with death in the shape of a stillborn foal, the discovery of

Proto Zoe is published by Bloomsbury

at £13.99; The Side of the Moon, Prantera’s last novel, has just been

I reissued in Sceptre paperback at £4.99

- The Listfifl— 21 May 199i65

1 feeling that only a male voice was valid ;