Tuesday 16 April 2024

At the Tolstoy Museum by Donald Barthelme

Tolstoy and his wife Sophia.

Now that I am becoming familiar with Barthelme's general proclivities, it seems that I prefer his more experimental and playful side. "At the Tolstoy Museum" makes for a good companion piece to "The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace" since both contain a somewhat linear narrative, deadpan humor and a dash of surrealism. Similarly, they possess a charmingly innocuous quality, leaving only a faint imprint.

This story's formalistic style is a tour guide through a museum dedicated to the famous Russian author. The narrator informs us from the very beginning that museum patrons are prone to weeping as they stare rapturously at thousands of pictures of Count Leo Tolstoy or read his writings on display. It is difficult to tell if this a satire of sycophants or a genuine paean to his literary greatness. Maybe it's both. 

As the reader is taken along this tour, the narrator inserts random yet amusing facts about Tolstoy, including commentary about the museum architecture. He even interrupts the narrative flow to recount a story he once read by Tolstoy about a bishop visiting an island of hermits to teach them about Christianity. Whether or not Tolstoy actually wrote this story (probably not), is irrelevant. These digressions, tangents, fragments, collages and intertextuality are all part of the Barthelme's postmodern style. Yet, this story is far less experimental and surreal than one might expect. The ending of the story coincides with the ending of the tour, comprising of a single sentence in parentheses: "(Closed Mondays)." 

Well played Donald, well played. 

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