Saturday, July 26, 2008

Wish to be the most beloved

I have just finished White Walls, a collection of the short stories of Tatyana Tolstaya published as part of the NYRB Classics series, and like the narrator’s father in “See the Other Side,” I feel there is nothing better I can do than send you a “picture of a picture…with love fortified by exclamation points.” It is one of those books that at a dozen points between the covers I am struck by something and want to rush out, purchase a copy, and send it to someone who I know would be struck too. And then I finish it and want to send it to everyone I know whether they would be struck or not.

“Most Beloved” was without doubt my favorite; I read it entranced from start to finish, and don’t believe I drew a breath for the entire duration of the last three pages. Tolstaya’s words, though translated, (and so often I feel like translated words are wooden,) are lush and dizzying and wonderful.

Curiously, though, the story I feel most compelled to write about is the one with the ending that didn’t work for me. “See the Other Side” seemed like a memoir rather than fiction, and so deeply personal that the meaning was either hit or miss: either you shared the same compass points or you didn’t. Near the end of “See the Other Side,” I mentally parted ways from the narrator: her struggles weren’t mine, and so the ending seemed anticlimactic, as if it had gone off in the wrong direction. But even for that, I don’t think the story lost any of its power.

I wished I could be like the blind old man. Not that I would want to forgo the sight of the Byzantine mosaic–only it would be so worthy to be that sort of person who, even if he couldn’t see beauty, still had such unwavering faith in it that, wittingly or unwittingly, he illuminated it for all the rest.

On a parallel train of thought, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story that made me call up so much the events and people of my life. The narrator was grieving for her father and retracing his footsteps, and I was reminded of my grandfather. It has been nearly eight years now since he died. It’s curious, the random echoes and memories time preserves. Like a room illuminated by a flash of lightning–even if you were expecting it and counting down the seconds, you still only get a glimpse; you can only see one corner of the room, one picture on the wall, and that not well. A laugh here, an intonation of the word “Well…” there; a smattering of Rummikub tiles, spumoni ice cream, and moths beating against the window screens.

But tonight I’m rattling around in the backseat of an old red station-wagon and watching a steady, sturdy, tanned and gnarled hand on the steering wheel as the green world whirls by outside and The Pied Pipers, in their airy harmony, sing those nonsensical words about little lambs eating ivy.