Recent Reads – Subtly Worded by Teffi


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.


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!)

The Birthday of Marcel Proust


As Melusine pointed out in my comments yesterday, today is the birthday of Marcel Proust – a great writer, as I’m finding out, as well as a time-absorbing one!


“If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less, but to dream more, to dream all the time.”

Happy birthday, Marcel!

Woolf on Proust


Virginia Woolf

“How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.”

Virginia Woolf on Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

Abandoned! plus my first Daunt Book!


Yes, I’ve failed – and abandoned a book (well, at least for the time being…)

This is the book in question:

black sun

and it comes with glowing reviews and I had high expectations of it. It’s a biography of a star of the Jazz Age, Harry Crosby, and I thought I’d sail into it and love it – no such luck. I’ve been struggling like mad and at 70-odd pages in I’m feeling totally disconnected from the subject of the book and with no real sense of what the author feels about him or is trying to convey. Oh well – wrong book at wrong time maybe. So I’m going to put it aside and try this:


My first Daunt Books book (if you see what I mean!) I can’t remember where I stumbled across it – probably on some person’s love blogs – but it sounds my sort of thing and is a very pretty French-flapped book. Daunt Books seem to be very nice, and maybe I’ll get further with this one!

As for Harry Crosby – he’s going back on the shelf till I decide I’m ready to tackle him again!

Reading Proust : Within A Budding Grove


Looking back, it seems that I spent a substantial amount of June reading the second volume of Proust’s massive novel sequence – called “Within A Budding Grove” in my translation. In the same way as the first book affected me, it’s taken me a while after finished to get my thoughts together – so all-encompassing is the writing that you come out at the end of the book feeling rather stunned (in a good way). But here goes.


WABG is divided into two sections: “Madame Swann at Home” and “Place-Names: The Place”. The first charts the course of young Marcel’s friendship with the Swanns and of course their daughter Gilberte. Miraculously, his dreams come true and he’s invited to the Swanns’ house, becoming Gilberte’s special friend, but also it seems a kind of friend to Odette, who seems happy to spend time in his company. He also gets to meet his favourite novelist, Bergotte. But the course of love never did run smooth, and Marcel’s love for Gilberte somehow goes wrong – their emotions towards each other seem to change in a way that mirrors the earlier relationship of Swann and Odette. At the end of this section Marcel has somehow moved on, but not after recording in detail the ups and downs of the relationship.

The second section sees Marcel finally travelling to Balbec in the company of his beloved grandmother, and spending his summer by the sea. Here he has a number of momentous meetings – with the painter Elstir; his old friend Bloch; his wonderful new friend Saint-Loup; the moody and strange de Charlus; Mme de Villeparisis (who brings entrée to many levels of society); and most importantly, with Albertine and her group of girl friends, who dominate much of his time at Balbec.

Claude Monet, La Plage á Trouville,

Such a simplistic summary for what is an intense and involving piece of work! I think it’s definitely true that if you get through the first part of Proust you’ll be ok with the rest of it, because I found myself much more comfortable with the style and depth here. The writing is beautiful of course: Proust paints the most incredible word pictures. His rendering of Odette taking her springtime walk through the Bois is so incredibly precise, down to the ribbons on her clothing,;and you end the book with vivid images burned into the brain – the changing seas of Balbec; the landscape; the fluid group of young girls. Proust goes into immense detail but it is this that conveys the reality as perceived by Marcel

And this is something that it seems to me important to remember. With these books, there is no omniscient narrator – everything happening is filtered through Marcel’s perceptions and we are never sure if it is the Marcel of the time or the older Marcel who is really having these thoughts or making these distinctions – particularly as he will sometimes shove, somewhat jarringly, into the narrative reference to a future event of which we are not yet aware but which he has already experienced. Again, this gives the constant sense of shifting time and helps to reinforce one of the strongest themes in WABG, that of chance and seemingly random events bringing about what we wished for in unexpected ways – which can be something of a surprise, as Marcel always seems to be setting himself up to fail.

“….In the gentle breeze that blew around the column of playbills, I had recognised, had sensed the reappearance of, the eternal common substances, the familiar moisture, the unending fluidity of the old days and years.”


This does mean as a reader I often ended up questioning myself about Marcel and his motives. He is an odd concoction really, and as many commentators have picked up, there is a curious agelessness about him; one minute he’s portrayed as a young rake visiting prostitutes, the next a fragile young invalid being undressed and put to bed by his grandmother, dependent on her presence through the wall. And he’s often attracted by older women, in a way that links back to his obvious mother-complex (as portrayed in the first book) – his fascination with Odette almost comes across as stronger than that for her daughter.

“But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through – awkward indeed but by no means infertile – is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind.”

The bursting of the girls into Marcel’s life opens up his insular eyes to the possible pleasures of boating and going to the races; it is this contrast which makes us realise quite how restricted a life he’s lead. It is brought home starkly at the end how much of an invalid he actually is, having to rest in the mornings in order to be well enough to go out later in the day – something dealt with more discreetly throughout the book. Albertine and her friends represent young life and health, with their appetite for fun and games and their constant energy. Initially when meeting the young girls as a group, it almost seems as if it doesn’t matter which one Marcel falls in love with; and indeed much of the book is a meditation on love, whether it’s general or particular, and whether we really love the object of our desire or whether we simply are in love with being in love. Again, this harks back to Swann and Odette.


As I read on, deeply involved in Marcel’s world, I did wonder whether he was actually that likeable a person! He’s very much a fickle friend, abandoning Bloch for Saint-Loup and then both of them for the girls. Is he as naive as he makes out, or just selfish? Characters’ motivations are always unclear – at one point Albertine invites Marcel to visit her when she’s in bed, then becomes angry when he tries to kiss her. Was she leading Marcel on or is she also naive? Or is this a class issue, and Albertine simple does not behave in a way Marcel would expect? Then again, Marcel seems to be rather cruel and indifferent to Andree who obviously has a liking for him.

One minor (or maybe not so minor!) point which hit me was the strangeness of the names of the various girls with whom Marcel associates – Gilberte, Albertine and Andree are all feminised male names. Is this significant, I wonder, or am I just reading too much into Proust. But then, part of me thinks you can *never* read too much into Proust, such is the depth and the complexity of his work. It’s not surprising whole books are written on the subject, and I can only scratch the surface here and record my impressions.

“Sunrise is a necessary concomitant of long railway journeys, just as are hard-boiled eggs, illustrated papers, packs of cards, rivers upon which boats strain but make no progress. At a certain moment, when I was counting over the thoughts that had filled my mind during the preceding minutes, so as to discover whether I had just been asleep or not (and when the very uncertainty which made me ask myself the question was about to furnish me with an affirmative answer), in the pale square of the window, above a small black wood, I saw some ragged clouds whose fleecy edges were of a fixed, dead pink, not liable to change, like the colour that dyes the feathers of a wing that has assimilated it or a pastel on which it has been deposited by the artist’s whim.”

Running through the book is the sense of change ; whether this is just because of seaside behavior, or because Marcel is getting away from the stuffy Parisian milieu in which he moves, is debatable. However, time seems to be moving on, people are loosening up a little and the old society strictures are not as binding as they were. Knowing as we do now the state of Proust’s own health, and the eventual fate of his life, confined to the cork-lined room, we can’t help but read the book with that knowledge in mind; it tinges the sense of freedom with sadness.

And speaking of cork-lined rooms. I really must again commend the wonderful website here which I’m finding essential as a companion to my reading of Proust – if you plan to do the same, I’d strongly suggest you take a look at it.

I’ve come to the end of my second volume of Proust somewhat breathless at the complexity and depth of his prose, and thoroughly involved in Marcel’s story. If nothing else, his writing is just gorgeous and some of his descriptions of the landscape, sea and sky around Balbec are the most evocative I think I’ve come across.

Reading Proust *is* a commitment best undertaken when you have time, and I think I shall leave the next book until the summer holidays. Nevertheless I do have quite a feeling of achievement – this is the furthest I’ve ever read into Proust’s work before and I’m loving the experience!

Shiny New Goodness!


Just a little heads-up that the new issue of Shiny New Books, the wonderful online reviews mag, has arrived here!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245It’s great read, packed with reviews, interviews and fascinating features! I’ve been lucky enough to be involved and have provided a few little items – of which I shall reveal more later – so do go and take a look – if you’re anything like me, you’ll end up with a much expanded books wish list!!

…so of course, I had to get the set…


… although I’m not sure if they’re regarded as a proper set as such – but they feel like it to me! I’m rambling on, of course, about Lawrence Durrell’s books about Greek islands – “Prospero’s Cell”, “Reflections on a Marine Venus” and “Bitter Lemons”. I picked up PC recently as I mentioned here, following the rather wonderful piece in “Slightly Fixed”. Of course, I felt the need to have a set and here they are:

Aren’t they lovely? And yes, they’d beautiful old Faber paper editions and they were a deliberate choice. The books are available in more modern editions, but I have a huge love of old Fabers – my original copies of Sylvia Plath’s books were these, and I have many others in my collection by authors from Eliot to Charles Williams. I’ve always loved the design and  the typography, the individual look of the books. It’s strange, but if you put in front of me a nice old-fashioned Faber edition of a book like these, or a modern shiny new one, I’d very probably choose the Faber!

However, several books *have* left the house recently, to a local school fete – so I don’t feel entirely guilty……. 🙂

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