Layering Lives

Fiction by Tolstaya and Muñoz Molina


Regina Janes

It used to be thrilling to ferret out the biographical bits in fiction or to happen upon the obtrusive ones—Henry Fielding describing his children at play around him while he is writing Tom Jones, The History of a Foundling or thinking about the box he will inhabit when a great-grand-daughter weeps for Sophia or confessing the heroine is the image of his dead wife. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” drew more on interest in Emma Bovary than in Gustave Flaubert. At least since Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s La Habana para un Infante Difunto (1979), anticipated by Kenzaburō Ōe, the ratios have been changing. Fiction’s traditional pretense charts the travels of Lemuel Gulliver, surgeon, or the travails of Pamela Andrews, lady’s maid, as if they were real, so Sir Philip Sidney had to defend poets from being called liars. Recent convention mingles the invented and the ostentatiously autobiographical, much as fiction abuts fact in historical fiction, but these writers, and their publishers’ legal counsel, demand that their autobiographical insertions be regarded as “fictions,” not facts. Catherine Lacey’s “Violations” (Harper’s, March 2018) parodies this well-established convention.

The convention is formalized in the odd claim/disclaimer of this century’s copyright pages: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, [organizations,] and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, [businesses, companies], events, or locales is entirely coincidental” (emphasis added). This strange claim to the fictiveness of a “novel” or “stories,” so designated on the cover and the title page, doubtless proceeds from the legal department, and explains the addition of “businesses, companies” for George Saunders’ stories. Abetted by narrators whose “I” is, like Gulliver’s, inseparable from the name on the title page, the claim of fictiveness is patently fictive. The second sentence asserts blandly that names, characters, etc., are not the product of the author’s imagination, but are actual names, characters, and incidents reprocessed by the author. The third sentence’s “coincidental” thus means not what it purports to mean: bizarrely convenient accidental concurrences like those that resolve Fielding’s and Dickens’s plots, but the precise opposite: an exact correspondence with something outside the fiction, that coincides because it is identical.

In departures from both authors’ usual practice, two recent fictions kick this self-contradictory pretense around, mingling as fiction the autobiographical and the fictive: Tatyana Tolstaya’s Aetherial Worlds and Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Like a Fading Shadow. More than Muñoz Molina’s, Tolstaya’s work inclines to the literary equivalent of Robert Rauschenberg’s praise for Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (a found object or ready-made), its “recognition of the lack of art in art and the artfulness of everything.”

Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Like a Fading Shadow works an ingenious variation on integrating autobiography and fiction, separating them into independent strands and then braiding them. Intertwined but distinct are an account of James Earl Ray’s flight to Lisbon after murdering Martin Luther King, an account of Muñoz Molina’s traveling to Lisbon for his first novel thirty years ago, and an account of writing the Ray novel and thinking about writing and the past in the present. Two-thirds memoir, one-third fiction: the work begins with the third memoir-of-writing narrative, but nothing in the opening insists on the non-fictive memoirishness of this section. It could as well be metafiction. The opening line suggests a fantasy of fiction making as virtual reality: “I awake inside his mind. . . . ” The interleaved structure emerges only gradually. Experiencing this novel without forewarning, to feel how it unfolds when the reader is not looking for or expecting the joins and shifts, is of course precluded by the advertising campaign that makes its structural features a lure.

Muñoz Molina’s inventive project yields some predictable dubieties. Follow a fleeing James Earl Ray from his stunningly successful single shot through his foiled attempt to emigrate to Angola, eyed by powerful black men, and you will want him to escape. Admire his hold-ups and his car, and experience the thrill of the chase: Ray becomes the hero he wanted to be. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King’s infidelities hallow the narrator’s own, as he finds true love in an admirer of his prose. Absolution is achieved by acknowledging guilt, remorse paying all bills. A skillful story-teller, his pacing fast and reflective at once, Muñoz Molina is tripped up only by a translator who refuses to recognize that English differentiates “like” and “as.” With “como” always translated “like,” a vaguely Hispanic illiteracy lisps along. A few false steps are the author’s. He refers at the outset to “the novelist in us all.” The inclusiveness condescends; novelistic itch does not afflict everyone. There is also a curious soft sagging in the memoirs, a lack of tension in the prose.

Tatyana Tolstaya’s Aetherial Worlds is more aggressive. Without half trying, she generates the “novelist-in-us-all” impulse that Muñoz Molina supposes as she deploys different kinds of writing. Family tales, art criticism, literary biography, metaphysical speculation, and now and then a story: everything—except the story—comes from or returns to an obtrusive narrator overlapping the name on the title page. Like Gulliver’s own, her first sentence is autobiographical, the product of memory and experience rather than imagination. Gulliver tells us, “My father had a small estate in Northamptonshire… .” Unlike his, her first eight words are true of the actual author: “My grandfather Aleksey Tolstoy, a famous Russian writer… .” The challenge is in finding the fiction.

Batting away the autobiography, all those contingent facts, the reader searches for the false. Since seeming truths may be mere fictions, the quest narrows to the certifiably false. It seems to rise up in references to other worlds, to life after death, to angels and evil eyes, the title itself embodying a promise of alterity, “Aetherial Worlds.” But the title story is perhaps the volume’s least “aetherial,” its most literally grounded. The narrator buys, sells, and rents property, struggles with her job teaching creative writing, and drives to and from Princeton, New Jersey (named), and an unnamed liberal arts college too many hours north (Skidmore, in Saratoga Springs, NY, identified on Wikipedia and other sources). So perhaps story means not fiction, something made up, but something told, where truth and falsehood, fact and invention, are fungible.

But that does not quite work either. The collection’s third story throws in a wrench with the declaration that the lover, last seen drowning in Lake George, is invented. But the stranger on whom he is based is real. Or so it seems. Maybe. What is real, what is not, rather than the naïve query of stupid readers, alternates, hesitates, returns, deliberately called into question. The author protects herself from naïve identification of all the narrator’s “I” statements with the author—maybe it’s true, maybe not– without giving up the special biographical interest that derives from identifying the author with the narrator. Thirty years ago, in Immortality (1990), Milan Kundera complained that readers care now only about authors’ biographies, not their works. Mash-ups of life and fiction have the cake they eat. The first story, that began with “[m]y grandfather” the famous writer, passes through “my” pre-laser vision surgery to “my first-ever short story,” to end in front of a door that may or may not open, but when it does (and it will), “you won’t know what you will come across until you enter.” That opening door accesses both imaginary worlds and the real futures that lie before everyone, “you” all. As the fiction plays back and forth with an asserted reality that belongs extra-textually to the name on the title page, it invites imitation. Can I turn some fragment of my experience into a significant figment that I could call a story?

Other stories, “Emanuel,” “The Square,” are barely distinguishable from essays; can simple thinking be a story? Can outrageously opinionated opinions be a story? Some narratives warn of the difficulties of coaxing words into proper shapes, shapes that speak. It is harder than it looks to effect the transit between worlds, past, present, real, imagined, living, dead. But we have indeed returned to an older meaning of “fiction.” We are back to “formed,” “contrived,” leaving behind the medieval-modern “invented.” “Fact” once meant an act, something done, or a crime (“accessory after [or before] the fact”), meanings as obsolete as the prevailing one (“true”) threatens to become. These fictions bend fact to shape or affirm the factuality of the undone. The characteristic Tolstaya shaping layers narrative fragments, observations, expostulations, gnomic addresses that lead from a prickly material reality to a heart-breaking, heart- stopping apprehension of shared limits, longing, desire. The balance of discourse and representation, of self- and other-centered narrative varies prodigiously. Some readers may be able to identify “the earnest eyes of liberal intellectuals,” but no one needs to. A comical consequence is that outrageous discursive pronouncements on gender, for example, (or art), are justified and contradicted by the represented behaviors of men and women (or artfulness).

None of this would be evident from scanning the stories’ titles, volume in hand in the bookstore or scrolling down the screen. Translated by Anya Migdal, Aetherial Worlds presents some very odd titles—adverbs and prepositions, such as “There,” “Nowhere,” “Without.” Some refer to men, as in “Father,” “Emanuel.” Titles referring to women include “A Young Lady in Bloom,” “The Invisible Maiden,” “Judith with the Sword,” move from the childishly romantic (Rose in Bloom) and on through the gothic to the grotesque and murderous. The gothic reappears in the “and” titles, namely “Smoke and Shadows,” “Doors and Demons.”

But the uncommon flavor of Tolstaya’s work is vividly displayed in a story called “Judith with the Sword.” Tolstaya’s Judith is a marble statue that a painter assigned to buy a bedroom set for his wife drags home from Moscow to his provincial town Ryazan (does it exist? 122 miles southeast of Moscow, with a museum, a cathedral, a monastery, and a park). The movers break the tip of her sword, his wife leaves him, and takes the children; he remains with his statue, and does not dust under the wardrobe. That story is the filling between narrative layers that begin “at the end of the 1980s.” Interviewed, the narrator-writer proposes a twentieth-century Russian epistolary history, written in a real letter for every year, even the years when letters lied because everyone always lied then. That declaration provokes an unknown man to donate the saved letters of a chatty transit ticket collector; the letters are returned as useless, but this tale, now retold, was remembered, though all the names have been forgotten. The story ends with everyone gone, inexplicable love alone remaining, and a gnomic sentence, a command, addressed to whom? “Stay silent, but stay.” Addressed not to the reader, nor to the characters, but perhaps to one reader whose identity we do not know and do not share and who may not even read the story. Perhaps to the dead. Grammatically, the addressee is love, enfolded in the untold stories, but separable from them. Fittingly, the line sits alone on the last page, facing the rest of the story, but not part of it.

All this tale retelling leaves unanswered why “Judith with the Sword”? Does Judith as head-severing national heroine and seductive widow signify, or is this unresponsive Galatea’s extra-marmoreal identity simply an accident of the found letter? And is this found letter an object or a fiction? Anyway, it is lost now, whether or not it was ever found. So many covert, untold stories lurk here, none recovered or recoverable. The man’s relationship to the statue and his marriage—was the wife as silly, sensual, vacuous, competitive as the narrator suggests? What is at stake in fixating on a statue at the expense of other relationships and obligations and expectations? Would any marble statue serve, or is there something peculiar to Judith? The letter writer and the man who had her letters—who were they and what connected them? The strange final verbal gesture commands love, but perhaps like the wife fails. Or stands like the statue, indifferent. Elsewhere the narrator remarks on once believing that tears and love could make someone stay. Still elsewhere, that the untold parts of a story most signify. Returning if possible to Judith, the reader perforce creates alternate fictions, midrash, that fill out and connect and amplify and clarify and alter and moralize relationships and events. Whatever the relevant or irrelevant connotations of Judith, the reader creates them from the materials the author provides, weaving other fabrics into other self-portraits. Or as Swift’s Tale of a Tub has it—put seventy critics in seventy separate rooms with a copy of this work, and their seventy interpretations will all be manifestly deducible from the text.

Among the layerings that interest Tolstaya is that between life and death. Predictably, her take is unpredictable. Common binary folk want to know whether there is or is not a life after death, yes or no, if you please. Fundamentalists of both persuasions affirm there is or there is not, while others cling hopefully to ambiguity. Modern western fictions toying with the afterlife delicately detach belief from the realm of possibility. Blessed with the Soviet Union’s institutional national atheism, Tolstaya passes, seams showing, to and fro between worlds that are and are not there and are not not there. Russia’s drenching in religion repels and attracts. While Tolstoy (not grandfather) is slapped for his selfish Christian banalities, she seems won over by the homoerotic fantasy of The Death of Ivan Ilych, when “his dying hero is born into death as if into a new life… . Enlightened, he leaves us for a place where, seemingly, he’ll be given consolation” (“The Square”). There follows a brief riff on God, who exists if we want him to, and does not if we don’t want him to, but who is nevertheless “within us, like still water in a well.” Certainly God depends as much on people’s denying him as on their believing in him. What he can’t survive is indifference. Or the extinction of the species in which alone he dwells.

Death, Tolstaya proposes, does not exist: “there is only a curtain, and … behind that curtain is a different world, beautiful and complex, and then another, and another; there are roads and rivers there, wings, trees that rustle in the wind, spring with white flowers: I’ve been there. I know all about it, I promise” (“Father”). That promise is made to her vain, dying, unbelieving, death-hating physicist father who finally relents, chooses for the moment to believe her, and promises to return with a secret word, an agreed-upon sign. (That literary motif was popularized 300 years ago in Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s Friendship in Death, 1728. Observing that the dead do not return, with or without signs, goes further back, to ancient Egypt’s harper songs.) And return he does, in dreams, not explaining, but amused. The promised world behind the curtain remains un-manifest, but remains. Tolstaya is impatient with all possible other worlds held out or preached by the world’s visionaries, including her own. It is not their visions but their envisioning that draws her.

In “Emanuel,” Tolstaya introduces someone who knows all about the other side of the curtain, who also has been there, before her. In 1757 (the year William Blake was born), he revealed that the Last Judgment and Second Coming had already occurred: Emanuel Swedenborg, metallurgist, chemist, visionary, titled Swede, saw heaven and hell in enlightenment London. Minor details differentiate Tolstaya’s account from a standard potted bio. When after his vision of 1745 Swedenborg begins to write “with inhuman speed,” the cliché acquires hesitation-inducing detail, viz. “in Latin, with a quill.” His account of the hereafter displays not just exhaustive, but “exceedingly” exhaustive “and boring” detail.

Tolstaya summarizes: at first, people don’t realize they are dead; they just keep doing what they always have, though everything is oddly brighter. Then spirits come to explain that the dead must decide where to go—the realms of the heavens or the hells, or the in-between realm of the spirits. Heaven is for the very few capable of selfless and exclusive love of God; in the hells sinners wallow luxuriously in the fumes of the sins they enjoyed on earth; spirits are content with their lesser positions and enjoy mortals’ highest bliss, happy married love, without children. She recounts the anecdotes of clairvoyance that gave Swedenborg credibility and interested Kant, and she marvels at their triviality. In Gōttborg he saw a fire raging in Stockholm; through a dream, the widow of the French (in Tolstaya Dutch) ambassador found the receipt for a silver service she was sure, but could not prove, had been paid for; he shared a secret from the dead with a princess; he predicted the date of his own death. Tolstaya wonders why a fire should matter if the last judgment is already upon us and why spirits should concern themselves with a widow’s being double charged. What interests her really is Swedenborg’s experience of other worlds, not unlike that of schizophrenics and epileptics. God decides, bestows, embraces, and she does not need to observe that what decides, bestows, embraces comes from within (self) and gains its power from being thought and experienced as outside (other).

In this collection, the narrator is almost always in transit and always in motion, except when everything—and everyone—stops. And then moves on again. In the final story, the narrator has sought out a mosaic in Ravenna, pictured on a postcard sent a long time ago, with a message that points to the picture on the other side, “see the reverse.” Like many pilgrimages, it is a disappointment: the experience of the person who wrote the postcard is not reproduced. The testimony, the witness, does not communicate; there are no tongues of fire, only intermittent artificial illumination. But then something else happens, and it becomes sublimely unclear what is reverse and what front. In the middle of the crowded, busy, watchful world we live in, Heaven fails us, but it draws us on.

In Kundera’s fiction, his named “Kundera” has (deliberately) no character at all. Muñoz Molina is also more effective describing anything but himself and his feelings. Tolstaya’s unnamed narrator jets like the fountains at Versailles with character and created characters. Materialistic, rooted in smells and textures and grit and grime and pain and sloppiness and prickles, her world spills over with drunks in the train station and uncooperative cab drivers and a blind man eating pizza, memories, dreams, reflections. The voice at once engages and withholds—you have all of me, and nothing at all. These artificial autobiographies, Kundera’s, Muñoz Molina’s, Tolstaya’s, create ample opportunities for critics awaiting the “real” memoir, ready to feast when it appears, disappearing into mirrors reflected in mirrors. Whatever the future of the technique, Tolstaya’s version creates a desire to hear what she will say next—whoever she is, to whomever this voice belongs.