The Russian writer Teffi, whose real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, enjoyed great popularity throughout the first half of the 20th century as she chronicled life in Russia before and after the Revolution and then as an emigre in Paris. But her work has faded into relative obscurity since. I had never heard of her until the 2014 publication of Pushkin Press‘s new collection Subtly Worded.
In new translations by Anne Marie Jackson, Robert Chandler and others, the stories gathered in this little volume radiate beauty and burst with the winking humor for which Teffi was always known. The latter quality, Jackson suggests in her introduction, may have weakened Teffi’s reputation as a serious writer over the long term. If there’s any justice, Subtly Worded will restore it in the English-speaking world.
The title story sums up in a few short pages the doublespeak people had to resort to under Stalin’s dictatorship, writing letters saying the opposite of what they mean and trusting the reader to understand the real message. “They say your death rate is terribly high. All this worries us like crazy” becomes “They say your birth rate is terribly high. All this calms us like crazy.”
But Teffi focussed with glowing clarity on people’s inner lives too. In “The Hat,” a woman goes on a date wearing, she thinks, her elegant new hat, and credits it with the fine impression she makes – only to discover she’d mistakenly worn the tired old chapeau she’d meant to reject. “The Blind One” contrasts a lovelorn woman’s gloomy impression of her surroundings – “The sea was grey and bled of colour…utterly stagnant and dead” – with the imagined vision of a blind girl in the same place: “It’s just too beautiful to describe…the grass is a darling green and the little flowers in the grass are white and red and yellow and deep blue. And above each flower dances a butterfly.”
Along with such brief and painterly stories come a couple of longer, more immersive ones showcasing Teffi’s ability to dress up autobiography as fiction in a way that’s somehow both obvious and artful. In “Rasputin,” based on her real encounters with that enigmatic figure, she conveys the public fascination with the mystic while also cutting him down to size. In “The Dog (A Story from a Stranger)” a fictionalized Teffi recounts sliding over the years through art scenes, political upheaval, and love affairs (and almost-affairs), while setting the whole story in a fantastical folk-tale setting.
Not every story here is as scintillating as the very best, but each, at minimum, hits home as sharp commentary on the extraordinarily eventful times in which the author lived. Teffi died in 1952, still an exile in France. In the astonishing “And Time Was No More,” from 1949, she envisioned her last moments. The morphine-hazed narrator sees people and scenes from past times in her life, and as her old nanny appears she finds she has little-girl hair again.
“You know,” I say, “today my hair is just like it was when I was four. And so is the snow. I used to love resting my head on the window sill and looking up to watch the snow falling. Nothing on earth creates a sense of peace and calm like falling snow. Maybe because when something falls it’s usually accompanied by some noise, by a knock or a crash. But snow – this pure and almost unbroken white mass – is the only thing that falls without any sound.”
Teffi’s stories made a lot of sound when she published them. After decades of obscurity, “a new generation of Russian readers began to discover and appreciate Teffi’s special genius” in the 1990s, as Jackson explains in the introduction. Now English-speaking readers can do the same, thanks to this wonder-filled little paperback from Pushkin Press.