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Subtly Worded (Pushkin Collection) Paperback – 19 Jun 2014
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'Made me fall in love... [Teffi] can write in more registers than you might think, and is capable of being heartbreaking as well as very funny. I wish she were still alive, and I could have met her. But then I realised she would have seen right through me. I can't recommend her strongly enough' Nicholas Lezard, Guardian, Paperback of the Week
About the Author
Teffi was a phenomenally popular writer in pre-revolutionary Russia - a favourite of Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin alike. She was born in 1872 into a prominent St Petersburg family and emigrated from Bolshevik Russia in 1919. She eventually settled in Paris, where she became an important figure in the émigré literary scene, and where she lived until her death in 1952. A master of the short form, in her lifetime Teffi published countless stories, plays and feuilletons. After her death, she was gradually forgotten, but the collapse of the Soviet Union brought about her rediscovery by Russian readers. Now, nearly a century after her emigration, she once again enjoys critical acclaim and a wide readership in her motherland.
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Top customer reviews
To some extent tracing her own life from inquisitive child, through vivacious girl to philosophical old woman, her themes are varied, but tales from before the Russian Revolution tend to focus on people's characters and situations: the way those who have been badly treated take it out on the next person in the pecking order, ending with the child who kicks the cat which can only "pour out her grief and bewilderment to the dustbin"; the young woman who goes out in a burst of confidence, believing that her new blue hat will make her attractive. Teffi was good at portraying children: the little girl so struck by a toy ram's "quite human... meek face and eyes" that she "sticks his face into a jug of real milk", until an empathetic grown up explains, "Live milk for the living. Pretend milk for the unliving".
I am most impressed by the tales from her exile in Paris, after the Russian Revolution. "Subtly worded", source of the collection's overall title, is particularly clever, revealing how expatriates have to dissemble in letters back home to "guarantee" that their correspondents will "not be arrested and shot" for having received them. Advice is on the lines of "You should have written as a woman. Otherwise your brother will arrested" for his relationship to a man "who has evaded military conscription. Second, you shouldn't mention having received a letter, since correspondence is forbidden. And then you shouldn't let on that you understand how awful things are here."
A thread of the supernatural and folk tradition runs through some tales: Moshka the carpenter, reputed to have been dragged off by the Devil and returned from the dead as one of "the kind that walk". The fact he is Jewish adds a sting to this tale of rural prejudice.
Stories from her final years when she was poor and ailing are poignant, yet still questioning: in "And time was no more" an old woman, modelled no doubt on Teffi herself, observes, "the beauty of flowers attracts the bees that will pollinate them but what purpose does the mournful beauty of sunset serve?" If the stars give a person in pain a sense of his own insignificance, why should he be expected "to find comfort" in this "complete and utter humiliation"? There is something refreshingly honest and enduring in these thoughts.
It is good that the reprinting of these stories goes a little way to restoring her former considerable fame.
Teffi's stories cover a huge range of themes, often comic but always with a slightly unsettling, darker undertone. In one of the longer stories, Teffi relates her meetings with Rasputin and, in the process, provides a truly vivid and memorable portrait of the man, suffused with her own scepticism.
The volume presents us with snapshots of pre-revolutionary Russia and the post-revolutionary émigré society in Paris. Many of the stories are fictional, but the worlds presented in them are very real. Teffi sympathetically and humorously portrays the day to day worries and cares of these people. All of the translations retain the writer's extremely lucid, ironic and knowing style. A hidden gem and an absolute treat.
The stories are written as simple, elegant narratives, but are underpinned by sparse and masterful plots and a deep understanding of the psychology of the characters. They concentrate on the personal, and at times are almost as chatty as Maeve Binchy, and yet convey the very different social contexts within which they are set.
Her Rasputin tales are perhaps the best known, and even today, her description of his conversation and touch sends a shiver down the spine.
There are two stories written from the point of view of six year olds, their anguish counterpointed by the timelessness of old Russia, which are perfect in themselves as stories, and could also be used as a demonstration of childhood attachment in psychology classes now. Another moves from before the war to the civil war and beyond, with an innocent, and rather unobservant girl as the teller of the tale. Her self centered, teenage actions and perspectives provide the spring for the plot and enable us to experience the impact of the cruelty of war, the drama and terror of revolution, the fevered marginal lives of artists and spivs at the time, and the separation and loss of war and civil war. Even the surreal is real. The title story is clever, but to my view a little obvious. Maybe the theme has been repeated too often since.
Among the stories of exile which display the dislocated world of the Russian exiles, is one which penetrates the soul and world of a French concierge on the loss of her husband, M. Vitrou. As one who lived in Paris for a while in the 1980's I can vouch for the authenticity of the portrayal of this wonderful French institution.
For me, the most touching story is the one about a young girl who has read War and Peace, falls in love with Prince Andrei, and visits Tolstoy to ask him to allow Prince Andrei live. I read War and Peace at the same age, many decades after this story, and I too fell in love with Prince Andrei...