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14 November 2018

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Two by Teffi

Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea, by Teffi (NYRB, $16.95)
Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi, Edited by Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson (NYRB, 14.95)

Teffi may well be the most important and powerful Russian writer that has yet to be discovered in the West. Immensely popular in her day (writing in Russia from the 19-aughts through the Revolution, and continuing in exile until her death in 1952), she was a decidedly liberal writer, but was admired by left and right alike for her ability to use humor and cutting insights to reveal profound truths about a society undergoing difficult and painful changes. Teffi (born Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya) wrote “feuilletons that got by without politics,” pieces that were funny without being silly, tragic without being maudlin.

Memories is generally considered to be Teffi’s masterpiece, and it certainly ranks in that class. The episodes are Chekhovian in their brevity and natural humor, and self-effacing almost to a fault. It is perhaps the most riveting account of flight from the Bolshevik Thermidor in print, yet because this is Teffi, the vivid dangers are spliced with hilarious character sketches and telling anecdotes. Memories could well be summarized by a line from a story in The Best of volume (to describe Russia just after 1905). It is “as if somebody had shuffled the pages of a diary, mixing up the tragic entries with stories so ridiculous that one can only shrug in disbelief.” (“New Life,” 1950-56)

But one should begin reading Teffi as she wrote and published before the Revolution. So that means starting with the works compiled in The Best of volume. It contains a luminous collection of everything from nostalgic early works about growing up, falling in love and first getting published, to incomparable first-hand profiles of Rasputin, Lenin, and many of the literary luminaries of her day. Some of these works truly need to be read twice: once to ingest them, and a second time to savor poetic passages like this one about life in Petrograd after the Revolution:

Everything is cold and awful. The electricity is only on for five hours a day. There’s no firewood. The buildings are barely heated. These great hulks of stone, six-storeys high, are now so icy that they seem to breathe out cold as you walk past. (“We are Still Living,” 1918)

Her deeply moving and far from humorous short piece, “The Gadarene Swine” is in the read it three times category, give how dense it is and so packed full of allusions. But she perfectly underlines its guiding sentiment:

These are heady days in the history of nations – days that have to be lived through, but that one can’t go on living in forever. (“The Gadarene Swine,” 1919)

Then it is time to pick up the gripping, funny autobiographical tale of emigration that is Memories. The further you get into it, the more unbelievable it seems that she survived the journey, so clueless does she make herself out to be. But of course she is far from clueless, and her humor has definite limits: “A joke is not so funny when you are living inside it. It begins to seem more like tragedy.”

In Memories, we follow Teffi across the Russian border, through Kiev, Odessa, Yekaterinodar, and finally to a sad and abrupt ending, as she watches Russia slip away from the rail of her steamer. So, in order to savor some of her later works in lonely exile, we must return to The Best of and her illuminating portraits of the Merezhkovskys and Ilya Repin.

Gradually accepting the exile she and everyone thought would be temporary, Teffi provides a first-hand view of how preeminent Russians adapted to their fate. Yet she never takes the “easy” route of ridiculing their helplessness or their eccentric ways. The reason, she notes, is simple: “This is cruel and wrong. We must not forget how difficult it is to be a human being.” (“The Merezhkovskys,” 1950)

That’s why everyone loves Teffi.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2016