Teffi was one of the most enjoyable discoveries of my year of Russian Reading in 2015. The wonderful thing is that it appears I’m not alone; it seems everyone loves Teffi, has always loved Teffi and was just waiting for 2016 to come along so that Pushkin Press could release two new volumes of her life-writings for the English-reading public.
Unusually, I wasn’t even worried that these new books would disappoint after the ridiculously high standard set by my first Teffi collection, ‘Subtly Worded’ (reviewed here) Given that ‘Rasputin’ actually repeated a couple of the more celebrity-heavy stories from SW, I knew that there would be familiar territory to enjoy as well as, hopefully, delightful new literary treats in store.
If you don’t know ‘Subtly Worded,’ then ‘Rasputin and other Ironies’ is worth reading for the title story alone, which narrates Teffi’s own encounters with the enigmatic man of mystery. Equally brilliant is ‘My First Tolstoy’. It seems that the ageing Tolstoy was somewhat plagued by aspiring young writers who would accost him at all times of the day and night to breathlessly explain their own theories of fiction/Russia/history/whatever. The thirteen year old Teffi was a part of this brigade when, as a hero-worshipping teenager, she managed to meet the great man. With typical irreverence however, she wasn’t going to show herself a kindred spirit in talent or ambition, her plan was somewhat more critical; she wanted to explain why he needed to change the ending of ‘War and Peace’ (she couldn’t stand the death of a certain, adored, prince).
Overall, all of the stories in the collection share the same mocking fascination with the public and artistic life that forms the core of these longer chapters. ‘Rasputin and Other Ironies’ has been curated with meticulous care, organised into clear sections to show different facets of Teffi’s life and interests, from her own experiences as a writer and celebrated member of Russia’s cultural elite to her absorption into post-Revolution émigré society.
One thing that comes across strongly in all the stories is Teffi’s own narrative persona. Self-deprecating, naive, talented and incompetent when it comes to practicalities, Teffi is the kind of writer who can turn the description of a messy writing table into a thing of splendour.
It’s only three and a half feet across, but on it I have an inkwell, some writing paper, my face powder, some envelopes, my sewing box, a cup of milk, some flowers, a Bible, sweets, manuscripts, and some bottles of scent. In layers, like geological strata. The Augean table. Remember how Hercules had to clear the Augean stables? Well, if Augeas’s stables were in such a state, what do you think his writing table would have been like? Probably just like mine. So, how do I write? I put the cup of milk, the Bible and the bottles of scent on the bed, while the sewing box falls of its own accord onto the floor. I need to keep everything essential close at hand – and anyway there’s nowhere else to put anything. Though I suppose the flowers could go in the cupboard.
Underlying the humour is the fact that this table is not in Russia at all, it’s a room opposite Montparnasse station, where Teffi is living as a refugee. ‘Many people ask if it’s possible for a small pension to provide one with complete comfort. To which I modesty reply, “Well, I wouldn’t say quite complete.” Teffi’s stories are witty and funny; underlying the self-deprecating humour however, is a command and strength not just of the written word, but also of character. There is a steely brilliance to many of the chapters that ensure they will be remembered, even if individual jokes are forgotten.
The whole collection is translated wonderfully by Rose France, Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson. It’s a great way to get to know (or get to know better) one of the great voices of twentieth-century Russian literature. It’s also a lovely introduction to Teffi’s life writings – next up will be a review of her full length ‘Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea’. It will interrupt my scheduled plan of non-fiction reading for 2016, but I think it’s worth it, because Teffi is always going to be a writer who’ll disrupt the neatest to-be-read pile. I’m just so pleased to discover how many readers (and translators) agree with me.