Teffi: Subtly Worded, transl. Anne Marie Jackson et al. (Pushkin Press, 2014)
Imagine Dorothy Parker combined with Marina Hyde, with a dash of Chekhov and a sprinkling of Anna Seghers – and you might have something like Teffi, a Russian journalist and short story writer from the early 20th century. Had she lived today, she would no doubt be a star of social media, an influencer with her pithy, succinct and witty comments. She was a star twice over in her lifetime – first in her homeland (admired first by the Tsar and then by Lenin), then in exile in Paris in the 1920s, had perfumes and chocolates named after her, was the toast of political and cultural circles in several European cities. Towards the end of her life and after her death, her star waned somewhat, but she has now been rediscovered both in Russia and abroad.
Subtly Worded is a selection of her literary work from 1910 to 1952 and, although Teffi was celebrated primarily as a humorist and satirist during her lifetime, this collection certainly proves that she was not a one trick pony. Some of her shortest early pieces are slight, laugh-out-loud funny and hugely relatable – such as ‘Will-Power’ (about a man whose doctor has told him to give up the booze). There is gentle mockery of vanity in ‘The Hat’, in which a young woman believes she is irresistable to her poet boyfriend (‘who had not yet written any poems, he was still trying to come up with a pen name, but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious’), but only when she is wearing her new hat… and then she realises she was wearing the wrong one all along. The stories told from the point of view of children (‘The Lifeless Beast’ or ‘Jealousy’) ring very true and are made up of equal parts of innocence, humour and heartbreak. She does not sentimentalise childhood, nor old age. Her characters are infuriating as well as touching.
The sting in her humour becomes more noticeable during and just after the Russian Revolution. These stories may have just one string to their bow, so they feel more like satirical newspaper articles, but they certainly hit the mark. She observes how ideals get derailed by famine in ‘Petrograd Monologue’, narrated by someone determined not to mention ‘food’, yet thinking of nothing else. She recounts the indiscriminate persecution of the cultural elites and suspicion of education in ‘One Day in the Future’ – an exaggeration that was not too far from the truth in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe in the 1950s and during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
On his return journey he overtook several carts loaded with firewood. Their drivers had the most improbable backgrounds: one had been a tenor with the Mariinsky Theatre, another an academician, the third a staff captain, the fourth a gynaecologist. […] At home, he had an unpleasant surprise. In the dining room his ten-year-old son was studiously learning the alphabet. Terenty tore the book out of the boy’s hands and ripped it to shreds.
‘You mangy pup!’ he yelled. ‘So you thought you’d start reading books, eh? Learn the sciences, eh? So you wanna end up a goatherd?’
Yet she is equally scathing about the airs of misplaced superiority and nostalgia for the glories of the past of Russian aristocracy. She lampoons them in ‘One of Us’, in which Mrs Kudakina, wife of a general, laments the disappearance of les nôtres (people like us) and their replacement by les autres (people not at all like us), yet proves incapable of truly distinguishing between the two.
Teffi is a keen political observer, and the description of her encounter with Rasputin is eye-opening. He tries his hypnotic powers on her, and, although she doesn’t succumb to them, she can understand how others might. However, she is careful to distinguish between personal charisma and the charisma of power. All those ‘sucking up’ to Rasputin for the hope of political advancement or at least for being spared severe punishment – their behaviour is reprehensible yet what other choice have they got? Teffi seems like a precursor of the Me Too movement when she says:
… there was something in the atmosphere around Rasputin I found deeply revolting. The grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark and beyond our knowledge. One could get sucked into this filthy mire – and never be able to climb out of it. It was revolting and joyless… The pitiful, distressed face of the young woman who was being thrust so shamelessly by her lawyer husband at a drunken peasant – it was the stuff of nightmares, I was seeing it in my dreams. But he must have had many such women – women about whom he shouted, banging his fist on the table, that ‘they wouldn’t dare’, and they were ‘happy with everything.’
Once in exile, she casts her lucid eyes on the emigrant community and they don’t escape unscathed, as in ‘Que Faire?’, perhaps one of her best-known and most-quoted pieces.
We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him.
This lack of solidarity in exile has been observed by other ethnic communities – especially when they are escaping from a country in political turmoil, because they are never quite sure on which side their new acquaintance might be (or might have been in the past). Add to that the envy of someone else’s success abroad, a success that would have been inferior to yours if you had still been experiencing the ‘normal’ (i.e. long gone) state of affairs in the ‘motherland’…
This is an impressive collection, showing a full range of emotions – from flighty to serious, from mockery to genuine compassion, from sharp insight to sentimentality. There is depth and sadness here too, a lot of reading between the lines, but also sheer impish humour. Something for everyone in fact – her ‘idol-like’ status becomes more understandable.
This was my 20th book of the #20BooksofSummer challenge and my third review for #WITMonth.