One of the most startling events in Tatyana Tolstaya’s “Night,” a tale filled with amazing and surprising images, is Alexei’s apparently sudden interest in becoming a writer. Alexei is a middle-aged retarded man whose occupation as a builder of cardboard boxes keeps him and his mother, Mamochka, housed and fed—not a typical candidate to pursue the life of a writer.
Tempting as it may be to dismiss Alexei’s unexpected declaration that “I’m going to be a writer” as the ramblings of a half-wit, Tolstaya does not disregard his comment. Tolstaya closes her story with Alexei responding to his frightening experience on the streets of Moscow by frantically demanding paper and pencil from his mother so he can write about what happened.
While there is only dangerous water waiting for anyone who attempts to imagine what goes on inside the head of a writer, Alexei’s sudden declaration of literary ambition and his acting it out at the end of the story bear a striking resemblance to Tolstaya’s similar declarations when she decided that she wanted to become a writer. Is Tolstaya, through Alexei, telling her readers about the lives of writers (and intellectuals) in Russia and about the life she herself chose after working nearly ten years at another career because she was “frustrated by the lack of good new literature,” according to Marta Mestrovic’s interview with the author in Publishers Weekly! In Tolstaya’s own words, she decided at the age of thirty-two, “If I couldn’t find the literature I wanted to read, I should write it myself.”
Before rejecting Alexei’s confident statements about becoming a writer, a close look at his character is necessary. Does this man with the mind of a child have any qualities, as Tolstaya has created him, that would serve him well as a writer? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.
Alexei is the possessor of an almost boundless imagination, something every good writer needs. When the story opens, he is just waking up and leaving the night world of dreams populated with dragons, dwarves, and crows. In fact, Tolstaya indicates that Alexei is the director or playwright of his dreams when she writes of Alexei’s waking, “the nocturnal guests, gathering their ghostly, ambiguous props, have interrupted the play until next time.”
Nothing is too extreme for Alexei’s imagination. When Mamochka is dressing, he imagines her as a building. When she finishes putting on all of her clothes, she becomes an erected “palace.” And from his point of view, the apartment building becomes a ship with Mamochka at the helm and “well-dressed travelers”—his neighbors—”laughing, exchanging remarks with one another on the deck.” His mind free-floats through the day, rejecting nothing as too absurd and making connections that most people do not, or cannot, make.
Even a trip from the bathroom to the kitchen is embellished by Alexei’s rambling but fertile mind, which transforms the people he sees along the way into lions, rhinoceros, whales, and “the big-eyed, big-tailed Sea Girl.” And Alexei’s excursion into the dark Moscow streets, despite proving dangerous and frightening, allows him to imagine more bizarre creatures and events. He sees people as wolves standing in doorways and believes that if he can walk backwards, they will not harm him. Soon, he believes himself to be a wolf and behaves as a wolf might, pouncing and running after people.
With regard to his becoming a writer, another feature in Alexei’s favor is that Tolstaya draws him as someone who creates and is proud of what he creates. Each day Alexei sits down at a table and works, gluing together cardboard boxes. Even though they are simple boxes, Alexei maintains a healthy degree of pride in his creations. He bemoans that fact that his mother forces him to sell his work to the pharmacy, and he decides on the afternoon of the story to hide two of the boxes under his mattress. He plans on sneaking them out later that night so he can admire them. Here he is taking the same ownership of his work that all writers must. Alexei loves his boxes so much that “he doesn’t like to part with them.”
In fact, Alexei’s pride in his work is so developed that he has become incensed, even violent, over the carelessness people have shown toward his creations. In a remembered incident, Alexei sees his neighbors throwing the boxes away after they leave the pharmacy and becomes furious when he spies one of his boxes in the trash, ripped up and holding a cigarette butt. “A fearful black rage then filled Alexei Petrovich,” and he cried out to his neighbors, “Who did this? Who dared do this?”
By closing the story with Alexei rushing to put his memories and thoughts down on paper before he forgets them, Tolstaya has emphasized her concern for what a writer and intellectual is and for how these people lived in Soviet Russia. In her Publishers Weekly interview, Tolstaya tells Mestrovic that intellectuals and writers had to separate themselves from the mainstream of Soviet society. They avoided conventional careers and took whatever jobs they could find. “You have no obligations…. Whether you work a lot or not at all, your salary is the same…. Only you yourself matter, your friends matter, good books matter,” she says.
In a sense, Alexei reflects this sentiment. He is estranged from society because of who he is and how he behaves. He is cloistered in his apartment, working, and leaves only rarely; primarily, he lives in his mind. The outside world is a bit frightening, but on occasion he is compelled to visit it, such as when he ventures out during the night of the story. The original purpose of Alexei’s trip to the outside world is to buy the ice cream his mother denied him earlier in the day, but he ultimately succeeds in discovering material for his writing. When he explores the streets, he is beaten up for behaving in an abnormal fashion—he takes off his clothes and begins running after people—but the result of the experience is that he now has fodder for his work. “He has understood the world, understood the Rules … [and] hurriedly writes the newly acquired truth in big letters.”
But it is also in the story’s ending that Tolstaya’s references to writers and writing become unclear— perhaps intentionally. When Alexei has his epiphany after exploring the night world, his writing is simply a single word, “night,” written over and over again. Is this repeated word the shaky but exuberant foundation of a beginning writer’s efforts? Or is it simply the product of a confused and childlike mind trying to make sense of what it does not understand?
There may be another way to look at the character of Alexei—that he is not serving as any kind of positive representation of a writer or intellectual but stands for what Tolstaya found boring and lacking in Russian letters and literature. For, in addition to noting that the lack of good literature prompted her to begin writing, Tolstaya also remembers in her Publishers Weekly interview that at about the time she graduated from college many Russian intellectuals began leaving the Soviet Union. “Life became more and more boring,” she recalls, and “the percentage of uninteresting people increased.” Maybe Alexei is similar to those people Tolstaya found boring, writing the same thing over and over again, with nothing new to say.
However, Alexei ultimately shares too many qualities with writers and intellectuals, and Tolstaya too obviously cares for this character for him to be considered an object of ridicule. She acknowledges her fascination with unconventional people in the Publishers Weekly interview, explaining that she is captivated by “everything I see as a deviation from the normal logic—old people, sclerotics, children, stupid people.” In her characters, she wants to create “a typical person, always a bit crazy,” and, in a sense, she has done that with Alexei and his mother. They have a very ordinary life, defined by waking up, getting breakfast, and earning money. But Alexei is special in a strange way; his dreams are a large part of who he is, and the line in his mind between the dream world and the real world is smudged. Thanks to Tolstaya’s lush writing, both worlds contain fantastic images. If Alexei lives in a world where lions and rhinoceros line the path to the kitchen, can it be an impossible stretch for him to become a writer?
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Tatyana Tolstaya, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on “Night,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.