'Subtly Worded', by Teffi - Review

By Moore, Charlotte | The Spectator, July 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Subtly Worded', by Teffi - Review


Moore, Charlotte, The Spectator


Subtly Worded Teffi

Pushkin Press, pp.240, £12, ISBN: 978-1782270379

Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya was a literary celebrity in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg. She chose the pen-name 'Teffi' because it was androgynous, and because it was the kind of name a 'lucky' fool would have; in Russia, fools were held to tell truths, albeit obliquely. 'Teffi' wrote for newspapers, most notably the Russian Word . By 1911 she was writing more fiction than journalism; her short story collections achieved instant popularity. In 1919 the Russian Word was closed down. Teffi was evacuated, ending up, like so many 'lesrusses', in Paris. She never returned to Russia, except in her stories.

Teffi's fame evaporated almost immediately after her death in 1952. Pushkin Press has issued a newly translated selection of her stories in a neat, chunky little volume. The stories follow both Teffi and Russia through their cataclysmic half century. Despite almost unimaginable changes, the essence of both the author and her mother country survives.

Teffi's early reputation was as a comic writer, but it must be said that something is lost in translation. Zoshchenko, the great Soviet humorist, wrote, 'Just try retelling one of her stories, even the funniest, and it will no longer be funny', and it casts no aspersions on the six translators to report that this is usually the case. Teffi's wit, sometimes Saki-esque, is always evident, but her characters -- bullied servants, alcoholics, neglected children, ageing peasants -- teeter on the edge of an abyss. 'The Lifeless Beast' is one of the best accounts I've read of a child damaged for life by adult cruelty, but the pain is too real to be funny

After the Revolution, the abyss yawns wider. Teffi's satire becomes more blatant as the social order is reversed -- 'the cabby was a good one, even if he was a former botany professor' -- and the arts are used as a frantic distraction from the reality of living on horsemeat or flatbread made from face cream or window putty. Not every 'story' is fiction. Teffi's description of her real-life meetings with Rasputin is one of the most striking sections in the book. She recognises that the best way to convey the strangeness of 'that black, bent, terrible sorcerer' is to present the encounters in the guise of fiction: 'he lived in legend, he died in legend, and his memory is cloaked in legend'. …

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