Isaac Levitan, Golden Autumn, Slobodka, 1889 (The State Russian Museum)

After reading Aetherial Worlds, Tatyana Tolstaya’s new collection of short fiction, I looked up “aether” in a 1727 edition of Cyclopedia or Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences. I thought her choice of the antiquated spelling might say something about her use of the word throughout the book, whose Russian title uses легкий (lyögki), meaning “light,” or “easy.” Modern dictionaries say the Greeks called the substance between heavenly bodies ether or aether. The Cyclopedia weighs the ancients against Newton and Descartes at length, concluding:

In effect, Aether, being no object of our sense, but the work of imagination, brought only on the stage for the sake of hypothesis or to solve some phenomenon, real or imaginary; authors take the liberty to modify it how they please.

This seems appropriate. There’s no pixie dust in Tolstoya’s universe. Its zones are often dark and foreboding. At times, the most aetherial aspect of a story is the way Tolstaya turns it inside-out to reveal its meaning.

Tolstaya is a formidable figure in contemporary Russian culture. Five of her books have been published in English, including White Walls, which combines two collections and The Slynx, a novel. She’s also a political commentator, a historical novelist, the granddaughter of Aleksey Tolstoy, and an indirect descendant of Leo Tolstoy. She invokes her lineage in the first line of “20/20,” the story that opens Aetherial Worlds. As a young man, her grandfather quit engineering school, driven by the uncontrollable flow of stories in his mind. She too possessed “this ability to daydream,” but she had no plans to become a writer until age thirty-two, when she underwent pre-laser surgery for myopia. Convalescing in darkness, she discovered a “second world…a multi-faceted underside of so-called reality, a dungeon full of treasure, an aetherial world through the looking glass, a mysterious box with passcodes to all enigmas.” She wrote her first story soon after.

Few of the eighteen pieces of Aetherial Worlds fit conventional genre or narrative forms, making it hard to characterize them individually, or even the book as a whole. “Aspic” starts with the second-person narrator bringing home ingredients for a New Year’s jellied consommé: “The chopped up legs in the shopping bag are pulling your arm down, and it seems as if at the very last moment they’ll refuse to get in the elevator. They’ll twitch, break free, and run away, clacking across the ceramic tile: clippity-clop, clippity-clop, clippity-clop. Maybe that would be for the best? No, it’s too late.” The parts are soon boiled down to “a lake of gold with fragrant meat.” The bowls cool on the balcony. There, the narrator confides: “Might as well stay out on the balcony, bundled up in your shawl…If you feel like senselessly crying, do it now, while nobody can see you. Do it violently, about nothing and for no reason…Because how to reach this there and where this there is—no one knows.” Like that, we are in the heart of a woman who can’t bear to mark another year. Is this an essay? A short story? Or something else?

Few of the eighteen pieces of Aetherial Worlds fit conventional genre or narrative forms, making it hard to characterize them individually, or even the book as a whole.

At an April colloquium at New York University’s Jordan Center for Advanced Russian Studies, Tolstaya said she now writes predominantly autobiographically, because “it’s more honest to write about yourself.” Indeed, only one story, “The Window,” a satirical, third-person fable in a dystopian vein, fits the form and subject of her earlier fiction. The protagonist, Shulgin, learns of a magic window that doles out free stuff. When a disembodied voice names an object, the recipient must answer, “Deal,” and the object appears. Shulgin quickly learns that to get anything worthwhile, he has to accept whatever the window offers; soon he has appliances, rooms, and a hyper-sexed nanny who threatens to ruin his marriage. But the window is a stickler, a “totalitarian regime…absolute control and no free market,” the overwhelmed Shulgin complains, though not “totally inhumane.” Eventually, he gets the window to reverse the process: he names an item, the window says “Deal,” and it vanishes—starting with the nanny. He’s just about to speak his wife’s name when he realizes in horror that she would vanish too. Even Communism made more sense than this.

The loveliest piece in Aetherial Worlds is “The Invisible Maiden.” From its opening line it recalls Proust’s elegiac descriptions of summers in Combray: “We would arrive at the dacha in several shifts.” The dacha fills and empties as people come and go, but death remains a haunting presence. The title refers to a nanny who drowns:

That invisible maiden, lying on the lake’s shore, on the grass behind the grown-ups fussing, leaning over her, and blocking the view with their legs—was all of them: Nina, Klavdia, the other Nina, and Zoya… on her back, on her side, and facedown; propped up against a tree, covered with a blanket, naked, wearing a blue wool swimsuit, or a cotton one with orange dots or tiny flowers; in her underwear—pink satin or white cotton—or, for some reason, with a long, white nightgown clinging to her pale young body.

The nannies in the story epitomize the play between constancy and impermanence, youth and age, life and death, at the story’s heart. The young ones are interchangeable. The old ones are almost but not quite part of the household, supporting characters who after years of loyal service have no claim on family resources, their vulnerability captured in the story’s closing scene. The narrator visits an old nanny in the city and finds that the woman has nothing—not even a refrigerator to hold the sausages she has brought: “That’s why her room was so spacious and full of light.”

“Father” has a similar quality. The figure of the title appears in his daughter’s dreams wearing clothes from an old suitcase. She recalls his explanations of the universe, and his dread of death, which “put him in a foul mood, as if it were an execution...” As an adult, she soothed him, saying: “… there is no death, there is only a curtain, and that behind that curtain is a different world, beautiful and complex, and then another, and another.” Before dying, her father promised to send a sign. “A certain agreed-upon word. Telling me what it was like. He never lied to me. Never. And he didn’t lie to me this time.” In her dreams, he wants to speak. But of course, we never learn the word.

In “Official Nationality,” Tolstaya defines the Russian character by faith of a different kind:

“We should attach this part with screws, otherwise it might fall off…”


“Ah, let’s hope it doesn’t.”


But why? Why wouldn’t it fall off? Vibration, gravity, mathematical probability—all these say it will! And it always does! Always! But again and again, a Russian refuses to screw in....

Instead, a Russian “lives every minute, every second, in expectation of a miracle… he expects Grace, for that’s what Grace is—a manifestation of goodness and benevolence perpendicular to all probability and merit.”

A Russian “lives every minute, every second, in expectation of a miracle… he expects Grace, for that’s what Grace is—a manifestation of goodness and benevolence perpendicular to all probability and merit.”

At the NYU colloquium, Tolstaya said she chose stories for Aetherial Worlds that Americans could understand easily. I wish she’d given us more credit. For example, “Doors and Demons (aka I Have the Worst Luck in Paris)” and “Faraway Lands: A Letter from Crete to a Friend in Moscow” read like pieces travel magazines commission from celebrated writers on places no one can say much new about. 

And it took me several reads of the title story to understand why Tolstaya centered her collection around a ramshackle house in “Bumblefuck, New Jersey” (near Princeton). Its concerns are terrestrial. The narrator buys the place upon her arrival in the United States in 1992 to teach classes at a college that’s 220 miles away. The house is a money-pit, but she loves it: “We don’t know where happiness comes from, but places do exist where it’s sprinkled in heaps. Each time I take off, I leave happiness behind.” Meanwhile, ridiculous Americans traipse through her life—contractors, lawyers, students (inspired, idiotic, indifferent). There’s a poignantly brief reference to divorce. “Meanwhile, my family quietly fell apart—everybody going their separate way.” When she moves closer to the college, she rents the house to a lunatic. He ends up wrecking it but pays nothing thanks to absurd tenant protections. We meet a parade of potential buyers, and then the narrator returns to Russia.

Throughout the story, the word “aetherial” recurs, like a musical theme. The home’s unfinished patio is “this airy, translucent box promising entry into an aetherial world.” She sleeps there despite cold drafts: “There’s entry here into aetherial worlds.” The miraculously honest American carpenter “attempts no entry into aetherial worlds with the aid of moonshine….”

Such didactic, insistent labelling was annoying at first. Yet it made me persist. And then, eventually, I saw the house—with its porous lines between inside and outside—as barely there. Could one say the same of its owner? One senses that she wants to sink her roots in “my earthly pod, one of my shells” but is unable. “I should know by now that the right place is inaccessible; maybe it exists in the past, over the green hills, or maybe it’s drowned, or perhaps it hasn’t materialized yet,” she says.

In this story, one of the best in this haunting book, Tolstaya goes round after round with intangible forces she doesn’t name: homesickness, culture, isolation, absurdity. Formidable as she is, those forces prevail. “Yanked out the needle from my heart and walked away,” the narrator says in the last line. It’s a fatalistic Russian shrug that captures the book’s tone. A miracle may happen, or not.


Aetherial Worlds
Tatyana Tolstaya (translated by Anya Migdal)
Knopf, $25.95, 256 pp.

Julia Lichtblau is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.

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Published in the September 7, 2018 issue: View Contents
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