Longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature
Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya, beautifully translated from the Russian by Anya Migdal, is a collection of 18 short stories that skilfully cover an array of different topics such as love, loneliness, loss, travel, art, literature, the writing process, and identity, both individual and cultural.
The stories that stuck out to me the most were the auto-fiction and essayistic pieces dealing with questions of identity and the range of conflicting emotions that come with being an expatriate. Since the author has spent long periods of time travelling and living in other countries, I assume that she drew inspiration for some of the stories, such as Smoke and Shadows and Aetherial Worlds, from her own experiences. Her insightful observations on Russian identity, compared to other nationalities, were particularly amusing to read because Tolstaya has such a delightfully biting sense of humour. I just adore this type of writing that manages to be in equal parts lyrical, thought-provoking, and sarcastic.
In one of the stand-out stories, Official Nationalities, the author reflects on the three defining features of Russian people, one of them being the concept of “Let’s hope.”:
This “Let’s hope” is a built-in denial of causality, it’s a lack of belief in the material nature of our universe and its physical laws. Remember this and carve it in stone.
“We should attach this part with screws, otherwise it might fall off along the way.”
“Ah, let’s hope it doesn’t.”
In a similar way, Faraway Lands offers an interesting meditation on the behavioural differences between a Russian and a (Western) European man via the classic concept of “the drinking man:
European literature, cinema, and anecdotal observations all paint the same picture: a lonely, middle-aged man, drinking alone but with dignity […]. He is contemplating his loneliness, we surmise, the meaninglessness of existence, the impossibility of emotional attachment, and the passing of the more-or-less good ol’ days. […] Meanwhile – as you rightly know – a Russian man who is lonely and sad in a bar is unimaginable. Upon entering any establishment for the purpose of drinking, he immediately seeks out company, instantly infiltrates it, and, without delay, forges a quick, if shaky and dangerous, friendship while stepping on everyone’s toes and violating personal boundaries that his drinking buddies didn’t even suspect existed.
The characters in many of these stories seem to be longing for some kind of escape and seeking a special, magical place or, as the title suggests, aetherial world, which exists somewhere in their peripheral vision, and might be perceived, if only they looked closer and inwardly, without getting distracted by other things. Interestingly, this concept of an aetherial world appears in the collection in different forms. In the title story, Aetherial Worlds, it refers to an unfinished patio overlooking lush gardens, while in another story, 20/20, the aetherial world is described as a kind of nowhere place:
It’s the most important place in the world — nowhere. Everyone should spend time there. It’s scary, empty, and cold; it’s sad beyond all bearing; it’s where all human communication is lost, where all your sins, all your shortcomings, all lies and half-truths and double-dealings emerge from the dusk to look you in the eye with neither disapproval nor empathy, but simply and matter-of-factly.
One of my favourite stories in the collection was The Square which is a fascinating reflection on the famous painting The Black Square by Kazimir Malevich. It discusses the significance of this iconic painting in the context of art history and the development of modern art by defining the fundamental differences between “pre-Square” and “post-Square” artists.
This collection was my first read by this author, and I think it served as a great introduction to her writing. As with most short story collection, I enjoyed some stories more than others, but, overall, I highly recommend this collection and look forward to exploring more of her work in the future.