New Teffi Translations (part 2): ‘Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea’


I had originally intended to review ‘Memories’ and ‘Rasputin and other Ironies’ in the same post, but that was only because I’d forgotten how uncontrollably enthusiastic I get about Teffi’s writing.  You can read how much I loved ‘Rasputin’ here, today it’s time for ‘Memories.’

Actually, the above paragraph is a bit disingenuous, I also realised that it would take me longer to really pin down what I thought of ‘Memories.’ I may feel familiar with Teffi’s perfectly formed feuilletons and short stories, but this memoir is considerably longer and would demand a different kind of structure to these wonderful works.  Also, the highly self-conscious Teffi I know and love from ‘Subtly Worded‘ and ‘Rasputin’ appeared to be the perfect literary companion, but were the two of us going to remain friends after a full-length book together?

First things first, I love ‘Memories.’ I think it is an excellent memoir and a fitting showcase for Teffi’s talents.  I must confess though, this  conclusion has been the result of reflection; ‘Memories’ is the first book by Teffi that hasn’t won me from the opening page.  In fact, I’ve realised that the reason this volume is possibly her best is because it’s so challenging, the writer staying true to herself though all writing conventions are against her.

Teffi has already shown us that the traditional view of the Russian writer (philosophical, serious, spiritual and very male) is not wholly true.  The real achievement of ‘Memories’ is that she is equally subversive with the genre of émigré literature.  Such memoirs are not supposed to be funny.  Those who escape are not supposed to be quite so flippant.  Writers certainly aren’t supposed to remain true to their bohemian, scatty, impractical pre-revolutionary selves.  Throughout the book, I got the impression that Teffi did not want to write about her experiences as a refugee and exile, forced out of the cities that initially welcomed her as a celebrity, her publications a liability to herself and to those who performed them.  Instead, she is determined to hold on to her established role as literary clown.   A typical example is when she is one of many refugees crammed into a boat that they hope will take them away from the soon-to-be-invaded city of Odessa.  Teffi is criticised by fellow passengers for failing to help out with communal chores and the appropriately punishing and demeaning task of scrubbing the deck is mentioned:

Ah, Scrubbing the deck!  My childhood dream!
As a child I had once seen a sailor hosing the deck with a large hose while another sailor scrubbed away with a stiff, long-handled brush with bristles cut at an angle.  I had thought at the time that nothing could be jollier.  Since then, I’ve learned about many things that are jollier, but that stiff, oddly-shaped brush, those rapid, powerful splashes as the water hit the white planks, and the sailors’ brisk efficiency (the one doing the scrubbing kept repeating ‘Hup! Hup!’) had all stayed in my memory – a wonderful, joyous picture.
There I had stood, a little girl with blue eyes and blond pigtails, watching this sailors’ game with reverence and envy, upset that fate would never allow me this joy.
But kind fate had taken pity on that poor little girl.  It had tormented her for a long time, but never forgot her wish.  It staged a war and a revolution.  It turned the whole world upside down, and now, at last, it had found an opportunity to thrust a long-handled brush into the girl’s hands and send her up on deck.
At last!  Thank you, dear fate!

The scrubbing itself is laugh out loud funny and could easily fit into ‘Three Men in a Boat.’  It was hard to enjoy it though.  Refugee flight is not supposed to be funny.  Teffi shouldn’t be able to focus on the hardships of her journey with such humour.  The satire should be clearer (or easily absent) and not float temptingly almost out of the reader’s sight.  The reason I wanted to give myself a bit more thinking time before writing this review is that I still have difficulties with the tone of ‘Memories.’  I struggle with Teffi’s choice of anecdotes and detail.  I’m very disconcerted with her presentation of herself as the most incompetent and ineffectual political exile it is possible to imagine.  On an emotional level, I find it hard to enjoy a book that so carelessly disrupts my expectations.

On reflection, therefore, I must conclude that Teffi is an even braver and more powerful writer than I had given her credit for in my enthusiastic responses to her shorter works.  It’s one thing to give the reader what they want, it’s another to refuse to be cowed by conventions about what writing should be.  I’ve heard it suggested that Teffi’s lack of recognition during recent decades has been because the world took her at her own self-deprecating estimation.  I think it may go further.  Little as the world may have wanted to accept a superficial, impractical woman as the voice of Russian culture, I think it’s even harder to accept a cheerful, positive and fearless émigré.  I’m speaking for myself here, I found ‘Memories’ a personally challenging read because it was so determined not to pander to my preconceived expectations.  Last month I raved about ‘The Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands‘ because it unexpectedly provided me with a narrator who fulfilled all my unspoken requirements for a plucky, disadvantaged adventuress.  This month’s biography gave me far less immediate satisfaction, but has left me with an equal level of reverence for the writer’s skill and bravery in confronting those who want to limit her to following others, rather than carving out a place in history for herself.  Like every other book by Teffi, ‘Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea’ is an absolute must-read and I can only look forward to more translations of her works becoming available in the coming years.  Highly, highly recommended.


This entry was posted in Biography, Reading in translation, Russian Reading, Teffi and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to New Teffi Translations (part 2): ‘Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea’

  1. Melissa Beck says:

    I just fell in love with Teffi when I read the volume from NYRB classics with the Rasputin story. This collection is up next on my list! She is a brilliant writer and deserves to be more widely read. I am glad that NYRB and Pushkin are translating her into English.

    • It’s just wonderful that we’re finally able to see what a great writer she is – and genuinely one whose style and concerns have not aged. Can’t wait to hear what you make of ‘Memories.’

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Great review – and yes, it’s unusual to see such a light-hearted approach initially, but there is a steely undercurrent. Teffi’s not afraid to see the horrors around her, and although she puts a positive spin on things, nevertheless the darkness is there.

    • I agree, it’s a surprisingly fearless book, especially given the highly human and fallible narrative persona Teffi creates in her writing. Now I’m just hoping for more of her translated fiction in the near future…

  3. Thank you! Your reservations make this a particularly interesting review. I think you may be onto something when you write, “I’ve heard it suggested that Teffi’s lack of recognition during recent decades has been because the world took her at her own self-deprecating estimation. I think it may go further. Little as the world may have wanted to accept a superficial, impractical woman as the voice of Russian culture, I think it’s even harder to accept a cheerful, positive and fearless émigré.” But I wonder if it may be more a matter of there being so many emotions present that it is difficult to respond to all of them at the same time. Kaggsy is right – the darkness is certainly there, and there are many passages – the last chapter, above all – that bring tears to my eyes if I read them aloud.

    • There is certainly a lot of darkness in the book, and the moments when the sadness shows through are all the more moving for their brevity and contrast to the often madcap adventures of the escape. I was really struck with how Teffi refuses to dwell on so many of her hardships, like the ridiculous description of her well-wishers as she suffers from pneumonia in Kiev. As readers, we can see the horror of the situation, but the narrator herself refuses to be cowed and describes it instead as a huge joke.
      You’re right, it’s a very complex presentation of the refugee experience, and one that doesn’t shy away from presenting the full range of emotions – then leaving it to the reader to work out how to respond to them all. It’s certainly a book I’ll be revisiting to see how my own impressions change over time. Of course, I’m hoping that my Teffi collection will only grow over time … hoping for even more of her works to be translated so that I can enjoy and be challenged by them!

      • Thank you again! We’re currently translating two stories for an anthology of Russian women’s writing to be published next year by Dedalus, in the UK. But it’ll be a few years before we manage another whole book – she is not an easy writer to translate and the work cannot be done in a rush. All the best, Robert

  4. Pingback: A real-life Zweig novella: ‘The Tongue Set Free’ by Elias Canetti | Shoshi's Book Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s