A poet encapsulated


A Short Life of Pushkin by Robert Chandler

As an antidote to all of the fiction I’ve been reading lately, I felt drawn to picking up something more factual; and coincidentally a lovely review copy arrived that fitted the bill! Pushkin Press have just reprinted a slim biographical volume about the father of Russian poetry, Alexander Pushkin, by esteemed translator Robert Chandler, so it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it.

Pushkin, of course, is an author I’ve read before, mostly notably in poetry anthologies (I have a lot of Russian collections…) and also when I reviewed a nice edition of “Belkin’s Stories” for Shiny New Books. I had a vague idea of the outline of his life, but was keen to fill in the gaps – which this does in exemplary fashion.

The book divides Pushkin’s life up into short, readable chapters and takes us through the various stages. Chandler focuses on the events of Pushkin’s life, but also his poetic responses to it, and the book is laced with excellent quotations from Pushkin’s work which reflect what was happening to him. And certainly the poet did indeed have a colourful life; his heritage was fascinating, as his matrilineal great-grandfather was a Black African Page (Abram Petrovich Gannibal) brought over to Russia as a slave. He was a serial duellist (a fact that would eventually lead to his downfall), associated with the outlawed political group The Decembrists, spent time in exile, met the young Gogol and had a very complex relationship with the Tsar and the authorities. And then there’s the womanising… Pushkin was nothing if not erratic and Byronic in his outlook, and in fact Lord Byron was something of an idol!

Reading about the disordered nature of his life you wonder how the man managed to write any poetry, but he did, and the extracts that Chandler includes are excellent choices which stick in the mind and show just how much Pushkin’s emotional natural found its way into his work. Like many an artist he struggled financially, and the fact that his wife was required to participate in society (ah! Russian society – how much more I know about that after War and Peace!) meant that he was constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, and died in much debt.

As for his death – well, that’s still somewhat controversial, but it certainly affected me emotionally and made me wish Pushkin hadn’t been so hot-headed when it came to duelling. Chandler hints also that by that point of his life Pushkin was in a rather fatalistic mental state, which didn’t help, and part of me wishes he had had less terrible ups and downs in his life – but I suppose if he’d lived a quiet and sedate existence, then he wouldn’t have written the works he did! And it often seems that Pushkin spent much of his time restricted in different ways – exiled, confined to an area by the plague – and in each of these settings he responded by producing substantial amounts of work.

Author and subject

Chandler’s book is a brilliant introduction to Russia’s national poet; lucid, readable, erudite and scholarly, yet it has a light touch which conveys much information in an easily absorbed format. The verse quotations are powerful and moving, and Chandler regularly points out the influence Pushkin’s work has had on a diverse range of later works – “Amadeus” by Peter Shaffer and operas by Mussorgsky being just two examples. He also brings out in more detail the links with Gogol and the influence on Dostoevsky, and covers in detail the complexities of censorship and Pushkin’s relationship with Nicholas I.

One aspect that fascinated me in particular was the fact that Pushkin had something of a sideline as a historian; many of his works drew on Russia’s past and one of the reasons he needed to keep in with society and the Tsar was so that he could gain access to the state archives for his research. We take for granted nowadays the access we have to the Internet and so many archives and records that it seems unimaginable that a man would have to make so many compromises to be able to carry out his work.

Chandler is always even-handed in his treatment of the protagonists in Pushkin’s story (I *love* an unbiased biography!!!) and his refusal to condemn Pushkin’s young wife, Natalya Goncharova, is refreshing. I was interested to learn that she was a relative of one of my favourite Constructivist artists who bore the same name; the book is scattered with such interesting facts which I’ve not come across before.

At the end of the book, Chandler looks at Pushkin’s legacy down the years from Gogol shortly after his death and eventually reaching into Soviet times; and the attempts by various people and regimes to claim the poet for themselves. However, Chandler reminds us of Pushkin’s universal appeal and how he was popular with each level of society; his poetry is still alive and vital today, and the poet’s legacy is assured regardless of who tries to claim it.

I can’t recommend this excellent little book enough if you want to discover more about Pushkin’s life and work. There are bigger and longer volumes out there, but this distills all you need to know into 150 pages or so and gives a flavour of the poet’s writing too. For me, I gained a much wider understanding of Pushkin and his place in Russian literature, as well as thoroughly enjoying the journey through the poet’s life. I’ve read many of Robert Chandler’s translations with great pleasure, but I think this is the first book I’ve read which he’s written and it was a great joy – highly recommended!

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!


Bohemian Fables – and more!


The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil
Translated from the German by David Burnett

The second of the lovely Pushkin Collection volumes which was released on 2nd March is a fascinating collection of long short stories by German Bohemian author Johannes Urzidil, and it’s just as good as “The Hideout” was. Urzidil is another somewhat under-translated author; born in Prague before it was part of Czechoslovakia, he was part of the Prague Circle and a friend of Kafka and Max Brod. Urzidil fled the country in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and was initially helped to Britain by the author Bryher, before eventually settling in the USA. He continued to write and earned many awards for his writing.


Translator David Burnett (who also provides an informative introduction) has chosen to collect a group of stories from Urzidil’s oeuvre which were published in the 1950s and 1960s, and the first (the title one, The Last Bell) is stunning. It’s narrated by Marska, maidservant to the Mister and Missus, and as the story opens her employers have fled overnight, leaving Marska with their flat and all their money. Marska is afraid and excited by the situation in equal measure, but decides to enjoy the sudden windfall. However, she makes the mistake of inviting her wild half-sister Joska to stay with her, mainly so she can lord it over her; but this begins to misfire when the girls make the acquaintance of some of the occupying Germans. With a Nazi boyfriend, Joska starts to take control of the situation; Marska, by contrast, retains much of her humanity and attempts to warn some neighbours of the danger they’re in. As things go out of control, Marska is forced into dramatic action…

The second story in the volume, The Duchess of Albanera, is a very different piece of work. Set in pre-Czechoslovakian times, it tells the story of a lonely bank clerk who falls in love with a painting. Living alone and set in his ways, a chance encounter with the portrait of the Duchess leads to him grabbing and stealing it in a sudden act of madness. Chance favours him and he isn’t spotted; and back at his flat he has conversations with Duchess in the painting who, it transpires, is a bit of a Lucrezia Borgia. It’s a fascinating story, which ruminates on love and loneliness, how people really are, and the effect our actions can have on others.

Next up is Spiegelmann’s Journey, a story of a travel agent who’s never travelled; yet the stories of journeys he constructs are more real than any trip he plans for others. Unfortunately his tall tales captivate a lonely woman, but when they travel on the only journey he ever takes, to his home town, the truth will out. Is it significant, in a story published in 1962, that the only trip he has ever made is between the city and his home town of Birkenau? Probably it is, although the dream-like, allusive nature of Urzidil’s writing often defies simple classification and it could be coincidence. Certainly, the rural, idyllic Birkenau presented here is not what you would normally associate with the name.

The old clerk was the true soul of the office. He knew the porous boundaries of the law, he was familiar with the injustices of the justice system as well as the justice of injustice. Tiny paragraphs pulsed in his veins instead of blood corpuscles. He constructed his boss’s pleas in such a way that the state prosecutors, no matter how sound their arguments, feared for their reputation if Dr. Umtausch took on the defence.

The final two stories in the collection, Borderland and Where the Valley Ends take place in rural settings, beautifully evoked by the author. The former tells the story of Otti, a child of nature living with her father near the woods; she seems to have an almost mystical link to the elements around her, able to tame plants and animals, as well as predict events and divine emotions. However, her passage into adulthood will destroy this, and it is a change in her life with which she’s unable to cope. And “Valley” is a quirky look at a feud that breaks out between two halves of a settlement divided by a river, which is triggered by the theft of a cheesecake; the disagreement leads to outright conflict and murder and shows how small happenings can lead to cataclysmic events. In both of these works, Urzidil references the great Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, whom he’d already written about earlier in his career.


The stories make fantastic reading in more ways that one; unreal elements creep into most of them, and they often have the dreamlike quality of a fairytale or fable. The later works in the collection might seem on the surface quite different to the earlier ones (particularly the title story) but they all share a common theme in that they focus on the misfit or the outsider. In “The Last Bell”, Marska is not part of the society being created by the invaders; she is an outsider because of her upbringing (where she and Joska suffered early abuse from an ‘uncle’) and unlike her half-sister, she sets herself apart from the Nazis in her attempts to help others. Schaschek the bank clerk is a loner – let’s face it, not many of us sit down and have reciprocated conversations with characters in paintings! – and his lack of interpersonal skills makes him happier with that relationship than a real one. Similarly, Spiegelmann is a fantasist, painting pictures of impossible journeys; it’s only when he’s faced with the reality that his journeys cannot exist that his world breaks down. Otti likewise is unable to deal with growing up and losing her ‘powers’; living a normal life in the normal world is beyond her. And Alois, the ‘village idiot’ in the final story, is the cause of the conflict that eventually wipes out a rural way of life. These latter stories in particular paint a world before the hell of WW2 overtook Urzidil’s part of Europe and there is an underlying threat in all of them from barbarian invaders.

So another powerful book from Pushkin Press and another wonderful new author that I’ve discovered. Apparently Urzidil only wrote one novel, preferring the shorter form (of which he was obviously a master); he also wrote essays and monographs, as well as translating works from Czech and English into German (including works by H.D., companion of his rescuer Bryher). Hopefully more of his work will make it into the English language because on the strength of the stories here, it will certainly be worth reading!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

Going Underground


The Hideout by Egon Hostovsky
Translated by Fern Long

The trouble with reading and loving European literature is the realisation that there are stacks of books which have never been translated. However, fortunately for readers like me, there are wonderful publishers battling to bring us more of these works rendered for the Anglophone reader. The book I’m writing about today is one of two excellent works issued by Pushkin Press today (my review of the second will follow soon), and it really is a remarkable piece of writing.


The author, Egon Hostovsky, is new to me, but the little biography on the book flap tells me that he was “one of the foremost Czech writers of the twentieth century”. He was apparently related to Stefan Zweig and like the latter (and so many others of his countryfolk) he fled the Nazis and the Communists; unlike Zweig, he managed to make a home in New York, working for Radio Free Europe and continuing to write. From a quick look at his Wikipedia page, it seems that little of his work has made it into English and so more kudos to Pushkin for publishing this book.

“The Hideout”, first published in 1945, is narrated by an unnamed Czech engineer and is set in 1942. As the book opens, he begins a letter to his wife, Hanna, which he’s been promised will be conveyed to her after he’s carried out some unspecified action. He’s left his wife and family, and also his country, and as he begins to tell his tale we find out that he is in hiding, has killed a man and is wanted by the Nazis. As the story unfolds that we learn the facts about what happened, and initially it seems a case of a typical mid-life crisis. The engineer’s daughters are growing up and this is unsettling; he feels a certain distance from his wife Hanna, and is attracted by Madame Olga, a beautiful Jewish woman. However, things are not quite as straightforward as this; the engineer has invented a gun sight which could be useful to his country; but when Hitler signed the Munich Agreement,allowing the annexation parts of Czechoslovakia, he destroyed them, an act which infuriates his boss (who obviously has some kind of interest in passing the engineer’s plans on to the Germans).

So the engineer runs off – to Paris, ostensibly on business, but also to follow Madame Olga and because rumour reaches him that the Germans have a warrant for his arrest. But things do not go well with Madame Olga; she is prepared to become his kept woman, which he considers, until he hears of the fall of Czechoslovakia. From that point onward, he hits a downward spiral; unable to return to his home and homeland, he lives on the money he has and attempts to rework his invention to offer it to the French Government. Alas, they are uninterested and things become worse as the money runs out and the Germans invade France. The engineer has no choice but to run to another friend who can hide him in the French countryside. But the hideout he finds is a dark, damp cellar where he must exist in silence and with no light, in constant fear of discovery. Whether there can be any escape for this hunted man remains to be seen…

And the pavements thundered and thundered in augury of the tribunal with the trumpeters of death. Remnants of ruined homes, piled on the roofs of cars, slithered down blind alleys. And from mouth to mouth flew the story that armed monsters were dropping from the clouds. A terrified whisper became the new rhythm of Paris. No one recognised the countless costumes of betrayal, whose breath you felt from the mouths of strangers and of friends.

(The engineer’s reaction to the invasion of Paris by the Nazis)

“The Hideout” is a fine piece of writing, brilliantly conveying the engineer’s confused state of mind, in excellent translation by Fern Long. As I was reading I initially accepted the engineer’s story on face value until I realised that I had encountered the classic unreliable narrator. His tale is plausibly told, but gradually suspicion and paranoia creep in; we hear of the lack of food and human contact, of his teeth beginning to fall out, until it becomes clear that the man is suffering from a kind of sensory deprivation. When we see his limited encounters with others, their responses reveal quite how far away from a stable, sane mind-set he’s moved.


The book also paints a chilling picture of fragmented nations during WW2. Czechoslovakia was a nation which had a short life, from its formation in 1918 (when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire) until its absorption into the Soviet Bloc in 1948. It was a multi-ethnic state where different nationalities did not always rub along together particularly well, and the engineer’s story reflects the fragile friendships and alliances that would be torn apart by the war. In particular, his encounter with an old school colleague shows how divided they are by ideology and ethnicity.

A thread of symbolism runs through the book, as the pursued engineer has gone to ground literally underground in the earth of the cellar, and it is here that he finally encounters the French underground resistance. They will have a decisive effect on his future, although the ending is ambiguous, as ambiguous perhaps as the whole book has been, with only the engineer’s version of things to rely on; a version often revealed as erroneous by the reactions of others to him. Whether he will be able to carry out his task, whether his letter will ever reach his wife – well, we don’t know. But the book gives an unsettling vision of the effect of the Nazi aggression on individuals, the dehumanising effects of war, and how you can run but there’s one person you can’t escape:

A person can’t escape himself, people, God and the world all at once. No matter how he hides himself, he’s still in the play. Every move he makes is measured and weighed somewhere.

On the strength of “The Hideout”, I can understand why Egon Hostovsky is so highly regarded. This short work conveys so much in its pages and acts as a stark reminder of the dangers of extreme readers and totalitarian regimes – a warning we need to bear in mind in times when intolerance is increasing and we run the risk of failing to learn the lessons of history. Another excellent and timely publication from Pushkin Press.

Lament for a lost world


City of Lions by Jozef Wittlin/Philippe Sands


Lvov (or Lwow or Lviv or Lemberg – it’s had many names), a city currently part of the Ukraine, is one of those places that’s suffered over its history from the ever-changing borders of Europe. At times part of Poland and the USSR, occasionally independent, and with a population made up of numerous races with numerous languages, it had a particularly difficult time in the twentieth century during the various conflict that punctuated that era. Jozef Wittlin, a Polish author new to me and best known for his novel “Salt of the Earth”, spent some time living in Lvov, and his essay “My Lwow” opens this intriguing volume just published by Pushkin Press. Knowing their record of rediscovering lost authors and works I was very keen to read this book, and the publishers were kind enough to provide a review copy.


Wittlin, a friend of Joseph Roth, had an unsettled life, moving through countries like Austria, Poland and France. His piece (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) is an evocative, emotional memoir of the Lvov he knew and loved and lived in, a place where races and creeds existed side by side and despite the ever-changing political landscape managed to make a life. As he describes it:

Balabans, Korniakts, Mohylas, Boims, Kampians – what sort of motley crew is this? That’s Lwow for you. Diversified, variegated, as dazzling as an oriental carpet. Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans are all Lvovians, alongside the Polish, Ruthenian and Jewish natives, and they are Lvovian “through and through”.

However, all that was changed by the coming of Nazism, and the Jews are either murdered or expelled from the city. Wittlin himself was in Paris when WW2 broke out and eventually escaped to New York where he spent the rest of his life, and where he wrote this memoir in 1946. It reads as a cry from the heart, as Wittlin recalls the places, sounds and smells of the city he loved and to which he could never return.

The book is by necessity fragmented, reaching back to Wittlin’s youth and bringing back to life the characters from the past. It’s also marked by a deep sadness, and a lively recollection of a distinctive Lvovian will suddenly be undermined by the revelation that he did not survive the Holocaust. The slightly erratic nature of the narrative, where Wittlin pieces together his impressions, means that these parts of his tale have even more impact.


His essay is followed by a piece by Philippe Sands; a notable lawyer and defender of human rights, Sands himself has a Jewish heritage and his journey to modern Lvov is in search of traces of his grandfather Leon. He relates how he’s become almost obsessed with visiting the city, dragging along any friends and family who’ll visit with him, and he finds echoes of not only Wittlin’s Lvov, but that of his grandfather Leon and many other notable Jewish Lvovians who are now forgotten. His writings cover a time when he was making a notable documentary “My Nazi Legacy”, and he reveals how much of the horrors of the Holocaust are ignored and unacknowledged in Lvov; Sands has to go out of the city to find any remembrance of the brutality of the Nazis. Shockingly, he relates how he comes across modern-day Nazis; and his encounters with two sons of Nazis (for the documentary he’s making) are equally chilling, as one is stricken with guilt, disowning his father; the other thinks that his conduct is excusable and understandable…

The essays are a fascinating pairing, with Wittlin’s elegiac tone and nostalgia for his city perhaps blurring the reality a little. Sands refers to his predecessor’s tendency to ‘create idylls’ and certainly the modern writer is very clear-eyed about how difficult it could be for Jews to survive in Lvov before the rise of Nazism. As Sands points out, control of the city changed eight times in the three decades between 1914 and 1944, and finding any sort of stability during that period must have been difficult.

The combined effect of the two pieces collected here is to paint a wonderfully evocative picture of Lvov now and then. Much of the old city has gone, and the older photographs capture a lost world; the modern photos by Diana Matar bring to life a city still struggling with its past. I finished reading the book with a sense of sadness for the thriving European cultural world that was destroyed by Nazism, and also great frustration that we should live in a world where there are still apologists for that regime. Lvov is of course once more in the middle of a conflict, with the East and the West pulling it in both directions, and “City of Lions” is a timely and excellent release by Pushkin Press. Highly recommended!

A Family Story


Affections by Rodrigo Hasbun

July has been Spanish Literature Month and while I’ve been following all the wonderful posts by other bloggers, I thought I would fail miserably to join in this year. However, I’ve managed to squeeze one Spanish language book in, and it’s one that’s been receiving a lot of coverage. “Affections”, written by Rodrigo Hasbun and translated by Sophie Hughes, is published by Pushkin Press, who very kindly provided my copy via a giveaway on Twitter; the book is also the winner of an English PEN award. Hasbun is a Bolivian author, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that the book is set there; though the subject matter is anything but predictable…


“Affections” tells the story of Hans Ertl and his family; Ertl is a photographer, famous for his involvement with Leni Riefenstahl and her “Olympia” film, on which he worked. Post-war Germany is therefore not a particularly comfortable place for him, and he takes his wife Aurelia plus daughters Monika, Heidi and Trixi off to Bolivia (a country known for housing exiles, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Before long, he has set off on an expedition deep into the Amazon rainforest, in search of a lost Inca city, Paititi. Monika and Heidi accompany him, and this signals the start of the family’s disintegration. However, Bolivia itself is not a particularly stable place in which to live, and as the girls grow older a revolution takes place. By this time each daughter has taken her own path away from the family, and their fates will be very different depending on their beliefs and actions.

Hasbun has produced a remarkable book here; although short (142 pages) it has considerable depth, and the inventive structure is very revealing. There is no linear narrative; instead, short chapters told from differing viewpoints move the story on very effectively. Monika’s chapters are sometimes in the second person; Heidi relates in the third person; there is a character called Reinhard, Monika’s brother-in-law, who tells his story in short bursts, each section starting with the word “Yes” and ending with // to divide them up; and sometimes an omniscient narrator steps in. What might have been a disjointed story actually works very well; each new vignette cleverly fills in the gaps in the lives of the rest of the characters, letting us know sometimes almost in passing of fates dramatic and prosaic.

For there is plenty of drama here. Ertl was a real person, and his daughter Monika was a real guerilla, involved in the Bolivian revolution. It was a harsh conflict that brought about the death of Che Guevara (mentioned in passing here) and many, many others; and Hasbun does not hide the horrors that went on although he never lingers. As time goes on, the world changes and the surviving members of the family deal with the many disappointments in their lives – failed marriages, death, poverty and lack of direction. The family is eventually scattered, with Hans Ertl left in the end with only memories – and as Trixi remarks, these are a place where “things get distorted and lost.”

r hasbrun

At the start of the book, Hasbun places a disclaimer, acknowledging that although the Ertl family were real, his book is a fictionalization of their lives, and it’s certainly a most effective one. As for the title, I guess it refers to the affections felt within a family, which aren’t strong enough here to keep it together; other loves, other passions and beliefs draw the girls away from their father. The dislocation they feel at being pulled away from their native country probably contributes to the disintegration of the Ertls and Aurelia, in particular, never seems to fit into South America. And Hans and Monika, described as a “phantom” and a “mystery” in the book, seemed to be constantly searching for something unachievable and almost undefined. There’s so much bubbling under the surface of the narrative which keeps drawing me back to it – the relationship between Hans and Monika who seem in many ways very alike; again the closeness of Aurelia and Trixi, drawn together by being left out of things; and the middle-child syndrome of Heidi, fleeing the nest to try and make a more normal family of her own. As I said, there’s an awful lot there in such a short book!

Before I read “Affections” I’d never heard of any of the Ertl family, so I read this as pure fiction which I think is a good way to do so. It’s a rich and haunting portrait of a family living through unusual times and events, then slipping into a variety of dark fates. A remarkable achievement by Hasbun, particularly in such a short book, and highly recommended!

For other views, you can read the excellent posts by Jacqui, Grant and Stu.

Some newbies hit the shelves…


It’s a busy time of year for me at work, and I’ve been struggling a little to keep up with the reading; and so I’ve tried to stem the amount of books coming into the house. But that usually fails a bit, and there *are* a few new arrivals I’d like to share with you! πŸ™‚

I’m still taking donations to the local charity stores and doing quite well at not bringing replacements home. However, these two slipped into my bag somehow – well, they really couldn’t be left behind…

simenon st exupery

The Saint-Exupery is a title I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and such a beautiful Penguin edition in lovely condition couldn’t be ignored. As for the Simenon, well I’m intrigued – it’s one of his non-Maigret titles and is set in a Soviet port in the 1930s, where the new Turkish Consul has an affair with a local woman and has to deal with the consequences. I’m really keen to read this one soon!

The other arrivals are all new books, which is rather fab! First up, a prize in a giveaway from the lovely Pushkin Press:


Again, this one sounds really good and I can’t wait to read it. The other books are all review ones, planned for forthcoming editions of Shiny New Books:

PMP new

New Penguin Modern Poets – what more can I say????


Grand Hotel – very excited about this one too, as it’s being raved about.

And finally, the reason I’m not reading much else at the moment:


600 pages of Dostoevskian loveliness! So if my reviews are not so frequent for a while, you’ll know why! πŸ™‚

Fleeing the Russian Civil War


Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

As I mentioned in my review earlier today, when I covered the wonderful “Rasputin and Other Ironies”, there is a second Teffi book arriving today from Pushkin Press, in the form of her stunning memoir, “Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea”, translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg. Teffi left Russia for good in 1919 and this volume, first published in instalments in Paris between 1928 and 1930, tells of her flight from her homeland.


The story opens in an autumnal Moscow, cold and suffering from food shortages. As people scavenge to survive, Teffi is offered temporary relief via a rather elusive impresario nicknamed Gooskin. The latter has a plan to take Teffi to Kiev and Odessa, doing public readings, as there is reputedly more food there (and they’ll also be in less immediate danger from the conflict). However, getting out of Moscow is not so easy in the middle of Civil War and the obtaining of passports takes some wangling. However, Teffi is a much-loved figure in Russia and the necessary permissions are eventually obtained. So in the company of Gooskin and some fellow performers, Teffi takes leave of Moscow and begins a long and tortuous journey that will eventually lead her into exile.

And it’s a journey that’s fraught with problems; Civil War Russia was a dangerous and insecure place to live in, with vicious and cruel fighting taking place. Those on both sides were not just conscripts or regular soldiers; they were people deeply committed to their cause, who had come through the horrors of the first world war and were now battling for an ideology. So the country was desperately unstable, with pockets of conflict everywhere, and the traveller never quite knew whose hands he or she would fall into next.

Now that something had been arranged, I realized just how much I wanted to leave. Now that I could gather my thoughts, I felt frightened. I could see what life would be like for me if I stayed. It wasn’t death itself that I was afraid of. I was afraid of maddened faces, of lanterns being shone in my eyes, of blind mindless rage. I was afraid of cold, of hunger, of darkness, of rifle butts banging on parquet floors. I was afraid of screams, of weeping, of gunshots, of the deaths of others. I was tired of it all. I wanted no more of it. I had had enough.

In engaging prose, Teffi takes us on the journey with her, as the troupe carefully make their way to Kiev, and then Odessa. There are run-ins with troops and border guards; encounters with fans; ghastly lodgings and influenza; and all the time the spectre of pursuit and troops. Because make no mistake, despite Teffi’s light tone, she’s travelling through a very dangerous landscape where brutal and unspeakable things have been, and are still, happening and where humanity is losing its grip.

Teffi during WW1

Teffi during WW1

Teffi is never anything less than an engaging narrator, and reading this I couldn’t help wishing she was somebody I had been able to make the acquaintance of. She’s always resilient, trying to put the best spin on everything, but the moments of humour and irony are counterbalanced with the horrors being experienced in Russia at the time; and Teffi is clear-eyed enough to know exactly what is happening in her beloved homeland.

And then there I was, rolling down the map. Fate had pushed me on, forcing me wherever it chose, right to the very edge of the sea. Now, if it so wished, it could force me right into the sea – or it could push me along the coast. In the end, wasn’t it all the same?

Eventually, Teffi reaches the end of the road; in Novorossiisak, despite trying to hang onto some normality and making appearances at a nearby town, it becomes clear that there is nowhere else to go but abroad. Constantinople is the next stop for Teffi and we take our leave of her as she bids an emotional farewell to the homeland she would never see again. It’s a poignant moment, especially for the reader who knows that Teffi will travel on, eventually spending the majority of the rest of her life in Paris. In essence, the whole of the book is a long farewell to her former life and it’s quite obvious that she never really managed to accept the loss of her Russian life or the fact of Bolshevik rule.

I close my eyes and gaze into the transparent green water far beneath me…. A merry shoal of tiny fish is swimming by. A school of tiny fish. Evidently they are being led by some wise fish, some fish sage and prophet. With what touching obedience the entire shoal responds to his slightest movement. If he moves do they all. And there are large number of these fish. Probably about sixty of them. Circling, darting this way and that way, wheeling about… Oh little fish, little fish, can you trust this leader of yours? Are you sure your foremost philosopher-fish is not simply a fool?

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough; if you want a glimpse into the chaos of the Russian Civil War through the eyes of a great writer, this book will give you that. It will also show you the highs and lows that human beings can reach, how friendships can come from unexpected sources, and how fragile the thread holding our lives is. Teffi’s writing is vivid and evocative, and while I was reading “Memories” I was living the experiences alongside her, both good and bad. Thank goodness she survived to tell her tale….


As an aside, kudos have to go to Pushkin Press again for producing yet another perfect book. A beautiful object to look at and read, printed on quality paper with a lovely jacket, it also has a map showing Teffi’s route, exemplary notes by Robert Chandler and an excellent foreword from Edythe Haber, who’s apparently working on a biography of Teffi (squee! very excited!). Additionally, there’s a fascinating list of other memoirs from the era that are worth reading (and I might just be investigating those at the moment….) Really, this is exactly how a book should be – other publishers take note! πŸ™‚

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: