Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya

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Edition: Knopf Publishing, 2018, 256 pages.

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.

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The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas

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Edition: Noir Press, 2018, 175 pages.

The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas, translated by Marija Marcinkute, is a short story collection published by Noir Press, a small UK publisher that focuses on bringing contemporary Lithuanian literature in translation to the English reading audience. I first came across their books when I was putting together my list of Baltic fiction in translation, and I was very excited to check out their latest release: a short story collection by Lithuanian-Ukrainian author Jaroslavas Melnikas.

I’m happy to report that this book did not disappoint. Based on my reading experience, most short story collections turn out to be a mixed bag, with some high and low points, but, in the case of this collection, I was pleasantly surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed all 8 of these stories that generally follow protagonists, who are preoccupied with some existential or philosophical dilemma. For example, the title story, The Last Day, presents a version of the world in which everyone can find out the exact date of their death, and the story explores how this knowledge might affect people’s lives and relationships.

My favourite story in the collection was definitely The Grand Piano Room. I don’t want to give too much away, but it read like a Soviet man’s daydream/nightmare, a surreal and clever allegory of communal living during the Soviet era. I don’t know if that was the author’s intention, but that was my interpretation of this bizarre story. It felt like I was witnessing the gradual disintegration of the protagonist’s dream life, and, consequently, his mental state, when confronted with reality. It’s a very effective and darkly humorous story that also serves as a great example of one of the aspects that I enjoyed the most in this collection; Melnikas does not spell things out for the reader but leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Many of these stories examine the theme of identity, and the layers of self-deception that people construct to deal with, or escape, the realities of everyday life.

Another major theme in this collection is the concept of fate. Some of the narrators in these stories are searching for some higher purpose in life, however, they seem to be more inclined to put their lives in the hands of someone else (be it God, or some other entity, or just another person) instead of taking responsibility for the course of their lives. The most notable example of this is the narrator in On The Road, who is willing to follow mysterious instructions that tell him to go to various places, without providing a clear reason why, because he feels that these “missions” give him an important purpose in life.

The last and longest story in the collection, It Never Ends, is a haunting story about a man, who starts to frequent an old cinema that is showing an avant-garde film about the life of a girl named Liz that, supposedly, never ends. Here again, we meet a narrator who is searching for some purpose in life in all the wrong places. At the cinema, he develops an unsettling relationship with another regular audience member, a very strange young woman, who is just called “the scarecrow”. I’m still not sure that I understood everything that happened in this story, but it will stay with me for quite some time.

Overall, The Last Day is a compelling, unsettling and insightful short story collection that definitely deserves much more attention. If you enjoy stories that inspire you to think about life from a philosophical perspective, I highly recommend you give this collection a try!

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The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai

No, history has not ended, and nothing has ended; we can no longer delude ourselves by thinking that anything has ended with us. We merely continue something, maintaining it somehow; something continues, something survives.

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Edition: Tuskar Rock Press, 2017, 320 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Many reviewers have pointed out that the short story collection The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes, might not be the best place to start exploring Krasznahorkai’s bibliography, however, this was my first introduction to his writing, and these stories have convinced me that I definitely need to read more of his work.

The collection includes 21 stories, a mix of shorter and longer pieces, most of which are written in Krasznahorkai’s characteristic prose style of single, continuous sentences that supposedly more closely reflect the way our minds actually work. These are bleak visions of the world and the thematic thread that seems to connect most of these stories is the desire to escape.  The characters in many of these stories exist in a constant state of frustration and are yearning to escape something, but they somehow find themselves stuck in the same place. For some reason the imagery and dreamlike quality of some of the stories immediately reminded me of David Lynch’s works which often try to illuminate the strange and undefinable in the very mundane, however, Krasznahorkai’s seems to have a much bleaker view of the world.

In one of the most notable pieces in the collection, Nine Dragon Crossing, a simultaneous interpreter, who yearns to visit a waterfall, wanders the streets of Shanghai on foot and gets stuck inside the very complicated intersection of elevated roads called Nine Dragon Crossing. This leads him to ponder the fate of language and the place of human beings in an increasingly modern world that seems to be speeding up more and more. Moreover, Krasznahorkai’s dense, looping prose style feels like a protest against the fast flow of information that we must adapt to.

[…] the desired speed was attained, and only he – and here it was the simultaneous interpreter speaking again, the livid-faced condemned man of Nine Dragon Crossing – only he alone didn’t understand why we needed such speed, speed that moreover would soon have to be increased, god is there no one, he now cried into the artificially illuminated firmament of Nine Dragon Crossing, no one who understands that we simply don’t need such speed?! […].

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Another highlight of the collection is the story That Gagarin, which speculates on the effects that the first space mission in 1961 had on the life of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and reflects on a possibly deeper meaning of Gagarin’s words upon seeing the Earth from space: “I see Earth. It is so beautiful.” An emotionally moving story that I consider to be one of the strongest pieces in the collection.

In the evocative Journey In A Place Without Blessings, a diocesan bishop addresses the congregation for the very last time while disassembling the church because they have failed to understand and follow the Scriptures. A story that is powerful in its simplicity.

Some of my other favourites from the collection are György Fehér’s Henrik Molnár, Wandering – Standing, He Wants to Forget, Universal Theseus, and I Don’t Need Anything From Here, a one-page monologue that I think best describes a sentiment shared by most of the protagonists of these stories who yearn to transcend this world:

[…] I would leave this earth and these stars because I would take nothing with me, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.

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The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Her dreams were large, of trains a mile long and ships that climbed to the stars, of learning the languages of squids and slime-molds, of crossing a chessboard the size of a city. That night and for years afterward, she had envisioned another dream land, built from the imaginings of powerful women dreamers.

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Edition: Macmillan-Tor/Forge, 2016, 172 pages.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe follows a middle-aged mathematics professor Vellitt Boe, who teaches at a Ulthar Women’s College in the dreamlands, on a quest to find and bring home one of her students, who fell in love with a man (a dreamer) from the waking world. She believes that the dreamer has managed to transport the girl from the dreamlands into the waking world, so Vellitt journeys across the dreamlands seeking a way to enter the waking world.

I didn’t know before starting this book that the story is a re-imagining of HP Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I wish I had read the original story before reading this so that I could have appreciated more the author’s treatment of the original mythos. Nevertheless, it was interesting to go on this journey with Vellitt through the enchanting dreamlands, full of strange creatures and capricious gods, learning more about her past travels and struggles, before she settled down to teach at Ulthar College. It’s an imaginative and beautifully realised world, and Vellitt is an intelligent and experienced woman, who is comfortable with her age and learns from her past experiences, that was very refreshing to read about.

Johnson knows how to immerse the reader into a story so that the reader feels that he’s actually going along with Vellitt on this journey. It’s a brief yet compelling story, exploring feminist themes in a fantastical world and Vellitt is a strong, well-developed character that you want to follow on this journey.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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