Shamefully, you would think, from reading my posts, that only men were writing in Russia during the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course, this is nonsense. Several of the great poets of this period were women and, as shown in novels from ‘What is to be Done‘ to ‘Mother‘ to ‘Petersburg‘, women played an active role in the cultural and political creativity of the time. Thank you so much to Pushkin Press for their 2014 edition of Teffi’s short stories and an equally big thank you to Bruno for telling me about it! I can finally stop feeling guilty about the complete gender bias in my Russian Reading, a guilt that was all the worse for an inner conviction that it reflected my ignorance more than the literary reality of the period.
If this makes it sound like Teffi should only be read as because of her gender, I apologise. It’s only a reflection on my joy when, knowing nothing but her gender, I got the recommendation to try her short stories. Teffi should really be read because she’s wonderful, a Russian Dorothy Parker who brings her light touch to both the tragic and commonplace. I’m going to make a real effort to limit how much I quote, but just to give a taste of her wit, one character is introduced as ‘a widow of middling years, she was middling too, in appearance, although the story does not require us to dwell on this.’
‘Subtly Worded’ contains 23 stories written from 1910 to 1949 and covering Teffi’s life first in Russia and then as an emigre in Paris. They were sold to me for their humour, and they are indeed very funny, but as I’m learning to expect, a lot of the laughter is there to cover tears. Take the title story, which deals with the linguistic gymnastics of letter writers from Russian in the 1920s. It opens ‘Letters begin to appear from the Soviet Union. More and more often. Strange letters.’ One letter is quoted: ‘Everything’s splendid here. Anyuta has died from a strong appetite … Misha Petrov led a secluded life for only two days, then there was a careless incident with a firearm he happened to be standing in front of. Everyone feels awfully delighted.’ The short story shows Teffi learning how to reply to such a letter; the humour is pointed, bleak and laugh-out-loud- funny. The end brings it back to reality: ‘The letter was sent. Lord, have mercy on us. Lord, save and preserve us.’
Like any great short story writer, Teffi reflects on the issues around her and her society. This too short collection is ordered chronologically, allowing the reader to appreciate the pre-Revolution writings first. I was going to list my favourite stories in this section, but it got ridiculous because I’d basically be copying out the contents. They’re wonderful and should be ranked with Katherine Mansfield for the power with which they condense key moments of provincial and city life. I could happily read a whole collection of them alone, but this volume moves on into ‘Part 2: Rasputin, Revolution and Civil War’. It’s enough to tempt anyone to skip ahead, because Teffi knew Rasputin, she met him more than once and chronicles their relationship in the longest story in this collection. This section also contains a monologue from someone surviving the food shortages in St Petersburg during these years, as well as two extremely odd and funny stories about the cultural implications of the socialist Revolution
There are stories about clothes, stories about childhood and stories about writing. We learn what it was like for a star-struck young Teffi to meet the ageing Tolstoy (in order to ask him to change the end of ‘War and Peace’). They all show a world-class story-teller in her own right. Incidentally, if you’re wondering about the name, Teffi was actually called Nahdezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya. According to Anne Marie Jackson’s helpful introduction, Teffi had trouble getting an early play performed ‘she felt she needed to come up with an attention grabbing pen-name, a name that might belong to either a man or a woman.’ Teffi is certainly a name that deserves better recognition amongst English language readers. Discovering her has been a true highlight of this project.