Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for April 28, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Tatyana Tolstaya

Remind me to leave ten minutes at the end of class for the course evaluations.

This week we’re finally reading a couple of authors who are still alive! Tatiana Tolstaya – born 1951 in Leningrad (now again called St. Petersburg); her grandfather was Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy (“красный граф” - 'the Red Count') – they were not-too-close relatives of the more famous Leo. A privileged intelligentsia childhood shows up in teh details of a lot of her stories: nannies, cooks, long summer vacations at the dacha. Tolstaya graduated from Leningrad State University in 1974 (majored in philology and classics), moved to Moscow and worked at a publishing house; she made her literary debut in 1983, just before glasnost' began. She's had two very well-received collections of short stories, translated into English, from which we’ve read one story each for today. (On the Golden Porch (1989-90) provided my first, bitter, experience with a wonderful work of literature going out of print.) She has also taught several semesters at various colleges and universities in the US, and has made a few snidely scornful comments about her students (like Nabokov in this way as well?) and U.S. colleagues, and American culture in general. (In 1997, when Helena Goscilo published her study The Explosive World..., T.N.T. had become a permanent resident and was teaching half-time at Skidmore – see how close to home!)

Tolstaya is a wonderful stylist, with many ornamental features that distinguish her sharply from both folklore and Socialist Realism; Soviet critics complained in early reviews that she was “cold” to her characters, mocking them. (Does that recall reactions to the end of Ratcatcher? Would people have the same reaction to a male author?)

“Rendez-vous with a Bird” – the hero’s a child (Petya = Pete). Where and how does what you know about Russian fairy tales (or traditionall culture in general) help you read, interpret, understand this story? And what is there that is clearly non-folk/fairy tale? (Tolstaya obviously represents élite culture – much more literate/literary than oral -- while Nina Sadur comes from the other direction, as you’ll see when you read for Wednesday).

Goscilo says this story is structured around an Edenic/folkloric paradigm. “The profoundly mythicized world of “'Rendezvous' […] dramatizes the child protagonist Petia’s transition to adulthood through his access to knowledge of mortality and the flesh” (p. 21). After a rude encounter with sexual “knowing,” he falls down under a tree (Eden!) and everything becomes grey and horrible – “The Petia who returns home at story’s end has been painfully educated out of blithe, carefree ignorance forever” (p. 22). (and, pp. 24-5, the “auxiliary myths” of Atlantis and the Flying Dutchman.)

The exotic neighbor Tamila defines herself in folklore topoi (Goscilo again): “Tamila elaborates a comprehensive mythology to elucidate both the universal human condition and her own mythic origins. She patterns her autobiography on the conventional fairy-tale plot of a young maid (innocence) dwelling on a mountain (associated with the sacred, the spiritual, ascension) who is carried off by a dragon (symbol of ‘things animal,’ ‘the primordial enemy,’ identified with the snake).” (p. 22) Note the many magic or unusual objects around her! As well as her indifference to everything Petya's mother represents and wants from him.

“In her cosmic scheme, the trinity that oversees human life consists of three of the four mystical ‘birds of paradise’: (1) Finist, the ‘bright falcon’ of fairy tales, who, Tamila relates, used to visit her until they quarreled. That detail presages ominous developments, for it signals that the phoenix-like rebirth through love evoked by the legendary bird will remain outside the story’s events, as indeed it does. (2) Sirin, the sweet-voiced death-bringer, with whom Petia and his grandfather have the metaphorical rendezvous that supplies the story’s title. And (3) Alkonost, whose magic egg brings its possessor eternal misery” (p. 23).

And everything Tamila said, which just seemed like game-playing at the time (to the reader at least, if not to Petya), was true: “possession of Alkonost’s egg does lead to Petia’s experience of gnawing misery, his induction into the adult world of strife; Tamila’s snake does witness Petia’s access to knowledge; a rite of passage enabled by its owner; the removal of her toad-ring does have negative consequences for both Tamila and Petia, exposing her in her demythicized aspect as an earthly creature of ‘forbidden’ appetite, and plunging Petia into the pain-ridden sphere of adulthood. And in Tolstaya’s universe, adulthood is synonymous with adulteration” (p. 24).

“The Poet and the Muse” – who is the Muse here? This heroine (?) is a grown-up, and what’s more she’s 35 years old and a doctor. What are the fairy-tale elements here? What stories or cultural stereotypes control the plot? Wording from “Finist the Bright Falcon” – except it’s 7 pairs of iron boots, not three! But like that story, this one reverses standard gender roles. From Nina's first encounter with Grishunya (affectionate diminutive form of the name "Grigorij"), it's a reversal of the stereotype of a man discovering some luscious babe asleep – voyeuristic, plus a hint of necrophilia. (Goscilo compares it to Clarissa: possessing an object through its violation; as in Clarissa, the object can win only posthumously.)

Tolstaya’s not at all a member of the folk (what could be further than the family of a count!?), though many of her stories idealize childhood in a way that's not so unlike a Slavophile idealization of the Russian people – what’s her entitlement to use fairy-tale material? Then again, what was Leo Tolstoy’s? What do references to folk culture add to her stories? (Exploiting a late-Soviet nostalgia for what’s been lost – the genuine heights of élite culture, or else the wide-eyed naivety, magical imagination and intensity of experience and perception of childhood: so the fairy-tale offers her a perfect set of long-gone beautiful attributes?) How does her style differ from what we see in Afanas'ev?

Thinking you can have, you deserve these things (as Nina does, since her perspective rules the narrative voice)? The painful separation of life from imagination.

What relationships do you see between the two stories and ”Finist”?


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Wednesday, April 30, 2008.