Teffi: An Introduction by Robert Chandler
Posted 7th September 2021 by Robert Chandler
“There are writers who muddy their own water, to make it seem deeper. Teffi could not be more different: the water is entirely transparent, yet the bottom is barely visible.” Georgy Adamovich
“A joke is not so funny when you’re living inside it. It begins to seem more like a tragedy.” Teffi
Like Vladimir Nabokov, Andrey Platonov and many other great Russian prose writers, Teffi was a poet who turned to prose but continued to write with a poet’s sensitivity to tone and rhythm. Like Chekhov, she fuses wit, tragedy, and a remarkable capacity for observation; there are few human weaknesses she did not relate to with compassion and understanding.
This small book gives the reader a sense of the breadth of Teffi’s work. It includes witty satirical gems from her years in pre-Revolutionary Petersburg, wry evocations of the vicissitudes of the lives of her fellow emigrés in Paris, a short memoir of her meeting Tolstoy when she was thirteen; and fine examples of her unique ability to evoke the inner world of a child. Perhaps most remarkable of all is “And time was no more,” a stream-of-consciousness evocation – written three years before her death in 1952 – of the morphine-induced hallucinations of a dying woman.
In the Guardian, Nicholas Lezard described the title piece as “a fascinating – and true – account of her meetings with Rasputin, which demonstrates that writers were the only people Rasputin was scared of; and also that Teffi was utterly clear-eyed and her writings trustworthy as testimony.” Teffi’s portrayal of Lenin is no less convincing.
This is Teffi’s account of her last journey across Russia and Ukraine in the early days of the Russian Civil War. She travelled from Moscow, via Kiev and Odessa, to the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk – and by ship to Istanbul. Memories is very personal; Teffi writes about her own thoughts and feelings and the people she met. At the same time, she had an acute awareness of the political currents swirling around her, many of which have now resurfaced. Much of Memories is startlingly relevant to the conflicts in present-day Ukraine. Teffi’s ability to fuse comedy and tragedy in a single paragraph – even in a single sentence – is astonishing. Throughout the memoir, irony, tragedy, absurdity, and high spirits interweave, sometimes undercutting one another, sometimes reinforcing one another.
This new collection foregrounds Teffi’s treatments of Russian folk religion. In “A Quiet Backwater,” a laundress gives a long disquisition on the name days of flowers, insects, birds and animals; she explains why the Feast of the Holy Ghost is a day on which “no one dairnst disturb the earth.” “The Kind That Walk” is a penetrating study of antisemitism and xenophobia. “Baba Yaga” is about the archetypal Russian witch and her longing for wildness and freedom; Baba Yaga’s loneliness and pain is that of the lonely, ageing Teffi. In the words of Anna Razumnaya (Los Angeles Review of Books): “Conceived as a gathering of Teffi’s stories featuring witches, shapeshifters, mermaids, vampires, and a host of minor spirits and deities of the Russian home and its surrounding natural landscape, Other Worlds stands as a masterwork of high non-reductive psychological realism worthy of Henry James, portraying a world we recognize to be very much our own, intimately familiar, inhabited, the one and only we have. (And those spirits and deities, I assure you, are entirely real, too.)”
Other Worlds by Teffi (tr. Robert Chandler) is out now with Pushkin Press.