Fans of Teffi in this country have had to wait only two years since the publication of Subtly Worded, her remarkable collection of short stories, for two further volumes to appear. Memories, her memoir of the Civil War, and Rasputin and Other Ironies, a collection of shorter reminiscences, are both, like Subtly Worded, published by Pushkin Press and translated by the excellent Robert Chandler and colleagues.
From these books we gain a much better sense of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya (as Teffi was born) as a person. No longer do I think of her as the female Chekhov or the Russian Saki, but simply as Teffi – or rather unsimply, since she is both robust and vulnerable, sensible and absurd, compassionate and satirical. I wish that the portrait of her by Ilya Repin, described in her essay on the painter, had survived (perhaps even to feature in the ‘Russia and the Arts’ exhibition now on at the National Portrait Gallery in London). It would have been fascinating to see which of these qualities Repin managed to capture.
The wry perceptiveness that was apparent in Subtly Worded is evident again in several pieces here: in ‘The Merezhkovskys’; in ‘Liza’, a portrait of a quixotically mendacious friend; and in ‘How I Live and Work’, which paints a picture of her messy Montparnasse desk. In her account of Lenin, whom she encountered when working for his briefly legal Bolshevik journal New Life in 1905, she shows herself keenly aware of his single-mindedness, impersonality and lack of pride, despite her obvious loathing of him (he axed the journal’s literary section on the grounds that it was irrelevant to workers).
These two books also reveal new sides to her. One is her Christianity: in Memories we learn that her most treasured possessions are her icon and her cross. In ‘Before a Map of Russia’, a poem written in exile and printed at the beginning of Memories, she describes making the sign of the cross in front of a wall map of her home country (‘I gaze at your countenance as if at an icon’). Her faults also become clear. She isn’t an intuitive mother to her daughter, Valya (‘We were not well matched’). She values female beauty and disdains female ugliness to a degree that will feel odd to many readers today.
She can also be unworldly. When faced with officials, she cannot remember the day or even the year. She also forgets her name. She has a horror of public speaking and gives an account, worthy of Kingsley Amis, of checking in on a performance of one of her plays, only to discover when she arrives at the theatre that she is supposed to be giving a talk on the new medium of cinema, about which she has nothing whatever to say. She rushes home, takes her phone off the hook, buries herself in her bed and tells us only, ‘How fortunate it is that everything in the world comes to an end.’
Her unworldliness can also make her passive. When her acquaintances are frantically arranging to flee Odessa, she stays in her hotel room, eventually to be told, ‘Really, madame, it’s as if you’ve been living on the moon.’ Perhaps she is in shock. But there is, in her passivity, also a hint of the prima donna. Not only has she had the privileged upbringing described in such essays as ‘Love’ (included in Rasputin and Other Ironies), but she is also a literary superstar, and when her evacuation is not other people’s priority, she is bemused. Nonetheless, she is deeply aware of the horror around her. Memories is an astonishing work that, like Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the Don, and for many of the same reasons, deserves to be turned into a film. It is both a thriller and an unforgettably personal account of one of the worst periods in Russian history.
Just ten years later, Teffi was writing for her fellow Russian expats in Paris about events and people they had frequently known themselves. The scrupulous footnotes provided in these editions are essential to fully appreciate her writings in this period. Teffi relishes prolepses when she can (telling us that so-and-so would, at some future point, be executed), and the footnotes multiply these, summarising fates that Teffi herself could not then know.
The book describes her visit to Kiev in 1918 to give some readings and escape Moscow until Bolshevism receded. Rather than receding, however, Bolshevism extends further south, pushing her and fellow Whites to Odessa, Novorossiysk and Yekaterinodar: ‘south, always further south, and always without any deliberate choice’. From there (though the book does not relate this), she sailed to Constantinople, and eventually reached Paris.
Her trademark ability to capture humour even in the midst of danger comes across strongly. An actress arrested by the Cheka for reading out one of Teffi’s short stories is released when the judge recalls that this story was once recited to ‘comrade Lenin’. A friend, buying back his possessions from the peasants who have looted them, discovers that his portrait of Teffi is hanging in an icon corner, with her having been mistaken for a ‘holy martyr’. She observes with underplayed irony how communism takes over the boat on which she flees Odessa, since manual labour must be done by the fine-clothed passengers and food must be rationed according to need.
Her descriptions of horror cling finely to the motions of the perceiving mind. At one point, terrifyingly stuck in a shtetl that is under Bolshevik control, she wanders too close to a killing ground and sees, at the edge of her vision, a human arm being gnawed by dogs. She vividly conjures up the febrile atmosphere in Ukraine, to which half of Russia’s artistic talent has fled: ‘For a moment all this seems like a festival. But soon it begins to feel more like a station waiting room, just before the final whistle.’
Finally, she evokes the confusion in Ukraine at the time when Bolshevik Russia seemed to be threatening the newly independent state (in fact the Bolsheviks eventually relied on local supporters to attain power there), when the nationalist movement was floundering and when the Western powers, having intervened in their own perceived interests, decided to withdraw. A mess then and a mess now. Modern Ukraine could do with some reporters as wise and humane as Teffi, though I would not inflict it on them.