Sadly, despite the huge piles of books on Mount TBR, the lure of new volumes doesn’t get any less – and this rather lovely book is really something special. I first came across Teffi’s work in “Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida”, a nice Penguin Classic collected by translator Robert Chandler, and which featured two of her stories: “Love” and “A Family Journey”. So when I saw that a selection of her work was coming out from Pushkin Press I was naturally *very* keen to read it!

subtly worded

Teffi’s real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya and she was born around 1872. Labelled a humourist, she had the distinction of being a favourite of both Tsar Alexander II and Lenin – which not many people could claim! She survived war, revolution and civil war, finally escaping to Paris where she spent the rest of her life, until her death in 1952. All through her life she wrote and published, her last stories being written not long before she died. She’s become unjustly neglected over the years but luckily Pushkin have brought this wonderful collection of pieces to us so she can be rediscovered by a whole new generation of English-speaking readers.

“Subtly Worded” contains a variety of pieces ranging from early pre-revolutionary stories through recollections of Rasputin to later stories and finally her last, thought-provoking works. And what wonderful works they are!The early pieces are gems; short, human stories with a sting in the tail and a hidden nugget of truth. “The Lifeless Beast” is a particularly powerful tale, telling the story of a young child whose world falls apart because of marital strife. Her only joy is in her toy ram, the beast of the title, and as her parents’ marriage disintegrates they are menaced by drunken women and rats in the cellar – the latter perhaps a metaphor for the circling evil in the world. It’s a striking and moving story. Even the slighter pieces, like “The Hat” which comments quite tartly on how much a person’s attractiveness is enhanced not by what they wear but on how they feel and project themselves, has a point to make. These are not just flimsy stories – Teffi always has something to say. The title story itself is a clever little masterpiece about the impossibility of communicating with friends and family left behind in Russia without endangering them or talking gibberish.

Some of the pieces are autobiographical and “Rasputin” in particular is intriguing. Teffi recalls her encounters with the mysterious monk who had so much influence on the Russian royal family and in many ways was a cause of their downfall; it’s a vivid, fascinating memoir and the monk comes across as a chilling personality. But the shorter piece, “Petrograd Monologue” gets across in a few pages the hardship and starvation suffered by the Russian people, which in the hands of a lesser writer would have taken more words and to less effect – it’s clever and subtle and very compelling.

The later stories, written when Teffi was an émigré in Paris, have a stronger sense of melancholy. She tells the tales of the ex-pats, struggling to adjust to life away from their homeland, trying to make a living in a strange and hostile city. These are funny and poignant at the same time, and you can tell that Teffi misses her Russia, the Russia of the past, in stories like “Ernest with the Languages” where she conjures up a Russian estate from her youth. There is also a section of magical tales, and some of these are quite chilling. The last few stories, from Teffi’s last years, are particularly moving, the last one in the volume relating her hallucinatory dreams under morphine as her life ebbs away.

“If a person in pain gazes  up at the stars as they ‘speak of eternity’, he’s supposed to sense his own insignificance and thus find relief. That’s the part I really can’s understand at all. Why would someone who’s been wronged by life find comfort in his complete and utter humiliation – in the recognition of his own insignificance? On top of all  your grief, sorrow and despair – here, have the contempt of eternity too: You’re a louse. Take comfort and be glad that you have a place on earth – even if it’s only the place of a louse.

Teffi’s work has been mainly translated here by Anne Marie Jackson, along with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. Whoever chose the stories has made some wonderful selections, spanning the entire breadth of her works, and Jackson has done a grand job in giving Teffi a distinctive voice in English; in fact, all the translators have, because the tales work together seamlessly and it’s impossible to tell which translator did which story without looking.

Nadezhda_Teffi

There is an art to short story writing, and Teffi possessed it in spadefuls. Comparisons are being made with Chekhov but they’re odious (comparisons, that is). Teffi doesn’t need to be compared with anyone – she’s a great storyteller in her own right. As Jackson points out, Teffi is particularly good at capturing the voice and thoughts of children and really is a master of the short story form, capturing the essence of things in just a few pages.

Pushkin Press are doing such a wonderful job bringing us lost European authors, and they’ve performed a sterling service with this one, as Teffi has been unjustly neglected. She deserves to be known outside of Russia and thankfully we have wonderful translators and publishers who can bring her work to us! Highly recommended! And now I’ve just got to try to find where I’ve hidden my copy of “…from Pushkin to Buida”!

(Review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press – for which many thanks! And as always with Pushkin, this is a beautifully produced volume, with French flaps, a lovely textured cover and quality paper – well done for producing books that are intrinsically objects of delight!)

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