The Russian writer Teffi's satirical short stories, "funny on the outside but tragic" within, remind me of Saki's, but without his cruel streak. Her opening lines often contain an intriguing hook: "The Christmas party was fun.... There was even one boy who had been flogged that day-"
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.
This is a hugely enjoyable collection of stories by Teffi, a 'literary star' in pre-revolutionary Russia who was admired by 'such disparate figures as Vladimir Lenin and Tsar Nicholas II.' She's not particularly well known to modern readers, particularly in the west, and this volume goes some way to shining a light on this obscurity. 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.
This collection of short stories spans the period before the great war and revolution in Russia, and the period of exile of the author in Western Europe, until her death in the early 1950s. 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...
Born in St Petersburg in 1872, Teffi wrote and published prolifically both before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, before and after her 1920 migration to Paris, and before and after the Second World War. She died, in Paris, in 1952.
The stories in this volume represent most periods of her writing, from 1910 to 1952. There is no obvious correlation between date and length, subject matter and style (all of which vary widely), except that And Time was no More, dating from 1948 and placed last in the book, deals meditatively and sensitively with the subject of death.
Observations of and on death feature throughout the book. In Jealousy we read, 'In one little corner lived a dead beetle. ... It wasn't afraid and didn't run away. It was completely dead and living a peaceful life'. The Lifeless Beast recounts 'the woollen death' of a stuffed nursery toy, a ram. The ram's death, inflicted by an outsize rat, underlines the end of innocence as a small girl comes to the end of the nursery stage of her life against a background of the seemingly irretrievable breakdown of her parents' marriage. In Heart of a Valkyrie, the recently departed husband of a concierge acquires in death an individual identity denied him in life, and the status of a philosopher: "My dear André often used to say that coffee should be drunk very hot and with cognac."
In The Quiet Backwater we learn some important folklore relating to name days. Even the cow's name day must be remembered and observed, for if some unkind word is spoken to her on her name day it is a sin, and on high an angel will begin to weep. In Que Faire? the 19th Century Romantic poet Fyodor Tyutchev is quoted as having declared, "You cannot understand Russia with your mind."
The title story, Subtly Worded (1920), is one of two in which small amendments to a letter completely change its meaning. Its reference to censorship - which makes necessary the amendments - famine and executions in the Soviet Union is more explicit than in any other story in this collection. Duty and Honour performs a similar trick on a brief note to an illicit lover.
The Dog (A story from a stranger), in part a Civil War story, showcases Teffi's ability - frequently glimpsed in other stories too - to communicate the feminine point of view, especially in sexual attraction and courtship: the yearning; tentative outreach; the electricity of a potentially disastrous coupling; the resisted realisation and ultimate acceptance that a relationship has no future.
Sitting entirely in context with all that surrounds them are two 'stories' of great fascination because of what they purport to tell us about Rasputin and Tolstoy. Teffi claims only 'two brief encounters' with Rasputin, but at 46 pages the 'story' is the longest in the book.
A single encounter between the thirteen year old Teffi and Tolstoy was indeed brief. Teffi gained admission to the great man's Moscow home but, losing her nerve, abandoned her intention to plead with the author of War and Peace for the life of Prince Andrey and left only with his autograph on a small photograph she had brought with her.
Teffi admired Chekhov; you can tell, her drawing of character is subtle and her acute judgements of characters are never superficial. She was admired in turn both by Nicholas 2nd and Lenin, no matter that each was at least half philistine, anything both like has SOMETHING to recommend it. The stories are poignant and inventive, having a character asking Tolstoy to keep Andrei alive is touching but could have become mawkish in other hands; the way she watches her inability to pronounce the letter 'r' so eschews it rather than risk a 'w' is very acute . For anyone knowing about Rasputin, the waft of his strange magic in these pages is a reminder of Asiatic Russia, it is unsettling to have his spell conveyed. She is said to be stylish in Russian, not knowing Russian I cannot comment; the translation is elegant and droll, demonstrating an acute moral sense worthy of her literary idol. These are stories avoiding drama, rather they tell of a rich inner life that writer passes to her characters. I hadn't heard of her and was delighted to be given this well designed book with its charming cover. Recommended.
This is a collection of engaging, charming, and telling short stories. Here are deep studies of human pretence (The Hat, One of Us), hypocrisy (A Radiant Easter), brutality (The Corsican), self-deception (Will Power), jealousy (Jealousy), prejudice (The Kind that Walk), undeterred love (The Dog), madness and suicide (Thy Will), blindness (The Blind One), an intense study of death (And Time Was No More), life through the Russian revolution, meetings with Rasputin and Tolstoy. They capture an era, the effects of revolutionary change, and the depth of the human spirit. They evoke a deep thoughtful response.