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TATYANA TOLSTAYA: A LITERARY SUPERSTAR

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The voice on the phone is low and musical; a voice of such deep timbre that it causes the slightly accented words to vibrate in your memory -- the way a cello note reverberates briefly after the bow has been lifted. There is humor in the voice, too, and a wry sensibility. It is the voice of a born storyteller and it imbues everything, even street directions, with a magical quality:

You must go up the hill and down the hill and, oh, you keep on going, I don't know how long -- it is such a complicated street! -- and you will see on your right a building like Versailles -- oh, it is Versailles, the apartments, anyway -- and you come and you come and you keep coming and I will be waiting for you, I don't care what time, whatever time suits you.

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Tatyana Tolstaya greets you at the door of her white frame house in Towson with an apology: "Pardon me for not cleaning up," she says, referring, one assumes, to the random clutter that has settled comfortably like a thin layer of dust over most of the furniture. But she laughs as she says it, a clear tip-off to the lip service aspect of her apology.

First impression: Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya -- the woman whom Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky calls "the most original, tactile, luminous voice in Russian prose today" -- does not base her self-worth on the Good Housekeeping philosophy of neatness and order. And she is honest enough to allow a guest to observe her as she normally lives.

In fact, you might say the essence of this warm, opinionated, funny, brilliant, politically incorrect and unblinkingly candid woman -- the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy and the granddaughter of another writer, Count Alexei Tolstoy -- is best summed up by the items scattered across her dining room table:

An opened pack of Benson & Hedges; an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts; a cutting board holding a pickle with a bite out of it, a sliced onion, a cut tomato and a ripe-smelling ball of cheese; a glass of fizzing Seltzer water; a "joke" cigarette lighter the size of a gallon of milk; an array of Lancome cosmetics -- lipstick, eye shadow, mascara, blusher and the like; and underneath all this, spread out across the table, the pages of an American newspaper she has been reading.

What is represented on this dining room table, of course, is life: food, pleasure, vanity, domesticity, vice and the life of the intellect. And although Tatyana Tolstaya is far from home -- far from Moscow and Mother Russia -- there is a clear sense that wherever she sets up shop, she carries her life with her.

But her fame travels less easily from culture to culture. Although Ms. Tolstaya's short stories have appeared in the New Yorker and Knopf has published a collection of them under the title "On the Golden Porch" (paperback edition by Vintage Books), her name -- outside of literary circles -- is not exactly a household word.

Back home in her own country Ms. Tolstaya, 40, is a genuine literary superstar.

"When you're talking contemporary Russian literature at its very top, you're probably talking 10 names -- and Tatyana Tolstaya is one of them," says Ellendea Proffer, owner of Ardis, a Michigan-based publishing house that specializes in Soviet and Russian works. "The quality of her work is remarkable."

All the more remarkable when you learn Ms. Tolstaya began writing only eight years ago. After graduating from Leningrad State University and working at a number of publishing jobs, something strange happened. But, look, since she is the storyteller, let Ms. Tolstaya tell us what happened:

"It may sound strange, the thing that started me writing. But in 1982 I had an eye operation and I couldn't read or work for three months. Couldn't cook, couldn't read or watch TV. Had to be in total darkness. So you sit like a rat somewhere. And three months of doing nothing is an enormous amount of time. But when it was all over, suddenly I started writing. I never wrote before, but somehow the writing worked."

She pauses, takes a drag on her cigarette, reflects a bit, then says something that suggests the writing was not as sudden or random an act as it seems: "When I look back, I realize that for me the most important thing, always, in life was to name things. To pronounce them inwardly. To verbalize the reality. Until I find an expression, I don't feel the fact of the thing. So the literature went out orally, so to say, but I never thought about writing it down."

The first story she wrote down, she says, "was about something that I experienced in my childhood. We had a house in the country and when I was very small I used to visit the house of my neighbor next door. I thought it was just a palace. But when I grew up and he grew older, all the impressions changed. Just everything. And the first impressions, the snapshots of your childhood, are very important."

Ms. Tolstaya's work immediately found a wide audience in the Soviet Union. "She was an instant success," says Vassily Aksyonov, a well-known Russian writer who teaches at George Mason University in Virginia. "Her very first publication -- two short stories I believe -- was spoken about by everyone. Everybody was convinced that a new literary name was born."

"It surprised me greatly," says Ms. Tolstaya of her quick literarascent. "It was too easy. I am not an ambitious person -- I don't know why -- so I accepted the success for granted. And I didn't enjoy it as I should."

Her dazzling style -- a literary high-wire act combining linguistic brilliance with lyrical power -- also came easily, she says, taking you back to that first story and how she wrote it:

"I didn't think, 'I'll sit down and write a story.' I wanted to do something with the impression that was twisting in my head. I started writing. I tried this way; I tried that way. But after two or three pages I understood how it should be written. And then I realized that this is my style. . . . Without my realizing it the work had already been done and it wanted to pour out. It was already concocted somehow."

Her work has been compared to Nabokov -- a comparison she understands -- and Chekhov -- a writer with whom she feels she has little in common. But everyone agrees that the Tolstaya style is dazzling, emotionally charged and richly complex.

"Simplicity isn't the problem you run into with her writing," says Jamey Gambrell, who for the last few years has been translating Ms. Tolstaya's work (all of which is written in Russian) into English. "Her writing is complex, very rich, full of metaphors and images, all combined in sentences that can go on for a page."

"She [Tolstaya] is a perfect stylist who thinks of each sentence," says Mr. Aksyonov. "Each sentence in her stories is charged with a certain electricity. They're not just empty wires, so to speak; they're under the current, some inner current which flows through her prose all the time."

Of course, one expects a great deal from a writer who is descended from such a distinguished literary family -- Leo Tolstoy is a tough act to follow -- and Ms. Tolstaya says the expectations that come with the family name have both advantages and disadvantages. "It helps because they don't throw away your manuscript immediately. They think, 'Aha! What did she write?' But on the other hand they want to show you that if you are a Tolstoy, then you cannot dare to write as good as he did." She smiles, puffs her Benson & Hedges and then wryly delivers the punch line: "And in my case, they are not disappointed."

Ms. Tolstaya is not interested in examining who may have influenced her writing, although she admits to a Nabokov connection. Nor is she interested in "feminists in academic circles who try to divide literature into men's literature and women's literature. It insults me. . . . In literature -- or when you evaluate some piece of art -- you shouldn't pay attention to who is the author, a man or a woman. Because talent is talent."

She dismisses the idea that "only women know how to write about women" as being "totally wrong because talented men wrote more powerfully about women than non-talented women writers." She cites Leo Tolstoy's emotional portrait of Anna Karenina as an example: "It's a very ideological book and he doesn't like the way his character behaves and he wants to punish her . . . but when he describes her feelings, it's as if he were a woman."

In life as well as in literature, Ms. Tolstaya has little respect for the ideas put forth by Western feminism: "The end of feminism I meet -- the academic end with theories and the generalization and so on -- I don't like. In the Soviet Union, feminism is close to zero. We are in what I call the post-feminist society. . . . What most [Soviet] women want right now is not to work at all. They want home. They have no homes. There's no apartments and no houses for most of our population and they want that. Women want a kitchen, women want a cradle for the baby."

"I don't think she understands feminism," says Francine du Plessix Gray, who interviewed Ms. Tolstaya for her 1989 book "Soviet Women." And while she calls Ms. Tolstaya "one of the shrewdest observers of Russian society I know," Ms. Gray does not agree that Soviet women are living in a "post-feminist society. I think her country never went through a feminist history. I think they skipped a whole period that was about the essence of feminism and therefore don't understand it."

Tatyana Tolstoy, her husband and two teen-age sons have been living off and on in the United States since 1988. Over the years, both have taught and lectured at various universities. "We want to stay here as long as we can get jobs," she says, "because we not only survive here -- good conditions for living and for writing -- but also I can help my relatives." For the last year, her husband, Andrei Lebedev, has been a visiting associate professor in the classics department at Johns Hopkins University.

The couple met in 1968 while both were students at Leningrad State University.

"We met in a wonderful way," says Mr. Lebedev, who will teach again next year at Hopkins. "We met in the fields where they collect potatoes. There was a shortage of workers -- as there usually is -- and they forced students in the first month of classes to collect potatoes. So we spent the first month speaking together in the field." He laughs. "Very Soviet, you know."

Tatyana Tolstaya, who says she finds Americans the "most kinpeople in the world" and the United States an easy place in which to live, write and make friends, still misses her country "very greatly, very much." Her father -- an eminent physicist -- her mother and six brothers and sisters remain in the Soviet Union but "their conditions are very bad. It is very bad for everyone. The situation there worsens. It was possible to live there two years ago -- difficult, but possible. Now I'm not sure it should be called life."

Clearly, Russia -- and the history of Russia -- still burns in this

woman whom Francine du Plessix Gray calls "a saving remnant of the intellectual aristocracy that has survived the revolution and endured."

Other things endure also in the storyteller who sits in a small house in suburban Baltimore so far away from home. She speaks, unfolding a world before you. The child she was appears; she is remembering:

I remember the joy of living, many people, lots of laughter, many interesting things happening and, especially in summer, just endless fields and woods in a very beautiful place outside of Leningrad.

"To never go back to my country," says Tatyana Tolstaya, "is something I don't even want to think about. But, of course, it's a nightmare that is somewhere here in my head."

THE TOLSTAYA FILE

Born: May 3, 1951; Leningrad, U.S.S.R.

Education: Graduated from Leningrad State University with a degree in philology.

Family: Married to Andrei Lebedev, a visiting associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University who teaches Greek literature and philosophy. Two sons: Artemy, 16; Alexei, 14.

Books published in English: "On the Golden Porch" -- hardcover published by Knopf; paperback edition by Vintage Books. Knopf will publish her new book, "Sleepwalker in a Fog," sometime later this year.

Worst things the United States has exported to the Soviet Union: f,tem Beauty contests, McDonald's restaurant and pop culture.

On Americans: "Americans are the most kind people I know. When you stop someone in the street to ask a silly question, they smile and want to help you. With Russians, forget it. What I see as a flaw in the culture is that people here don't read and they're not interested in books."

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