I remember the first time I met Teffi. It was in the literary oasis of Watermark Books, King’s Cross Station (sadly no more, and funnily enough I haven’t visited London since it closed. Make of that what you will.) They had a table tucked at the back of the shop, filled with translated fiction, most of it published by independent presses. A table I approached with great excitement every time I visited, because I knew I would find something special. One time Teffi’s Subtly Worded was waiting to greet me. I opened it randomly and this is what I read:
I’m in love with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. I hate Natasha, first because I’m jealous, second because she betrayed him.
Teffi was talking about her 13-year old self, and her teenage literary crush. He was mine also; he probably still is. And that sentence was enough to secure a place for Subtly Worded and Teffi’s other works, published by Pushkin Press on my shelves.
For obvious reasons, in this centenary year of the Russian Revolution I decided to read Rasputin and Other Stories, a selection of essays, that shows Teffi to have been anything but the fool her nom-de-plume suggests. Born in 1872, Teffi lived through turbulent times; a liberal in the days of the last Tsar, not Bolshevik as Lenin came to power, and yet she survived. In the introduction this volume, Robert Chandler attributes this to the witty tone of her voice, which made it palatable to her foes, despite incisive and non-complimentary observations. Nevertheless she was eventually forced into exile in 1920, never to return to her homeland again.
The first 2/3rds of these autobiographical writings cover her childhood, her writing career up until her exile. We see her develop from a nervous ingenue – My first steps as an author were terrifying – to the confident investigative journalist gleefully thwarting Rasputin’s attempts to hypnotise her. The final 1/3 comtains memories of famous Russian authors.
Taking centre place are the two longest pieces; one chronicling Lenin’s ruthless takeover of the newspaper, The New Life, and the second, her two encounters with Rasputin. In both she is dropping the names of famous Russians like sweeties. She’s not being boastful – this was simply her world, and she is describing people and events as she experienced them. The pieces, written years after the events, are therefore lively, filled with quirky details that historians would pass over. For instance:
Lenin was living in Petersburg illegally. He was, of course, under official surveillance. ….. Nevertheless, he would come into the office, quite freely, day after day, simply turning up the collar of his coat when he left so as not to be recognised. And not one of the gumshoes on duty ever asked any questions about this character who was so keen to cover up his chin.
Teffi may pass herself off as a clown (in the essay My Pseudonym) and some of the pieces may have comic intent, but others are bitter, such as The Gaderene Swine, which describes the panicked flight of the Whites in 1919. Neither does she hold back when delivering her judgments of people. How’s this for a sardonic put-down?
Andrei Bely writes that Merezhkovsky wore shoes with pompoms, and that these pompoms epitomised the whole of Merezhkovsky’s life. Both his speech and his thought had “pompoms”.
Not the most precise of descriptions, but certainly not a very kind one. Though Andrei Bely was not without “pompoms” of his own.
Stories about her childhood and her early encounters with literature are full of charm. Her meeting with Tolstoy – she decides to go and plead for Prince Andrei’s life – shows none of the great author’s curmudgeonly side. I was delighted to find My First Tolstoy included in this collection too. Besides providing a link to my first Teffi, it added the -est onto an altogether fine reading experience.
This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.
It’s also a stop 2 of my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press reading project. Next stop: Israel