Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

Last year I bought Subtly Worded, a collection of short stories by Teffi (a pen name for the Russian author, Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya), published by Pushkin Press as part of their Pushkin Collection series. I had been planning to post this review in August to link up with Biblibio’s Women in Translation event, but I accidentally pressed ‘publish’ while drafting it yesterday! Consequently, my #WITMonth has started a little early…


Teffi was born in 1872 into an esteemed and cultured St Petersburg family. During her literary career she wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of 40 she was publishing mostly short stories. In 1919, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Teffi left Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Paris where she became a prominent figure in the émigré literary circles.

The stories in Subtly Worded are grouped into five sections covering various periods in Teffi’s life starting with her early stories written before the Russian Revolution through to later stories of life as an émigré in Paris. The collection closes with a series of haunting works from the period prior to her death in 1952. As with other short story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn – rather, my aim is to give a flavour of themes along with some thoughts on the collection as a whole.

Teffi began her literary career by writing a series of satirical pieces and her talent for wit is evident in the early stories included here in Subtly Worded. ‘Will-power’, the story of an alcoholic who puts his inner mettle to the test, is tinged with irony. And in ‘The Hat’, one of my favourite stories from this collection, we are introduced to the poet without any poems:

The poet was someone very interesting.

He had not yet written any poems –he was still trying to come up with a pen name—but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious, perhaps even more so than many a real poet with real, ready-made poems. (pg. 35)

‘The Hat’ also offers a sharp and witty insight into the ability of a stylish new hat (or any such article of clothing) to alter a woman’s mood. In this scene, Varenka is admiring herself in her new hat, ‘a deep-blue hat with a deep-blue bow and a deep-blue bird, a true bluebird of happiness.’ She is anticipating the arrival of her friend, the poet with no poems.

She can be arch, she can be tempestuous, or dreamy, or haughty. She can be anything – and whatever she does she can carry it off with style. (pg. 36)

This story, which ends on an amusing note, seems to typify much of Teffi’s work from this period.

There are one or two more poignant pieces too. ‘The Lifeless Beast’ tells of a young girl who feels desperately lonely at home due to a breakdown in relations between her mother and father. Her only friend is a soft toy – a stuffed ram that she longs to bring to life.

He always looked at Katya with gentle affection. He never made any complaints or reproaches and he understood everything. (pg. 43)

But as the weeks pass by, and the ram turns grubby and worn he becomes a metaphor for the parents’ decaying marriage.

The second group of stories, those covering the period 1916-19, are especially interesting. ‘One Day in the Future’ takes a satirical look at the Communist movement. It describes a world where the old social orders are a reversed: doctors are reduced to the roles of servants; vice-admirals act as couriers; draymen and watchmen are elevated to a higher status.

His doorman had once been a singer at the Imperial Theatre. With the graceful magnificence of Verdi’s Don Carlos, he flung open the doors before Terenty.

The cabby was a good one, even if he was a former botany professor. Though that may have been why he talked with such enthusiasm about oats. (pg. 81)

One of the most fascinating pieces in the whole collection is ‘Rasputin’, an account of Teffi’s own encounters with this legendary figure. Here’s how she describes him:

Lean and wiry and rather tall, he had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to have been gathered up into a long fleshy nose. His close-set, piercing, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes. Whenever he said something, he would look round the whole group, his eyes piercing each person in turn, as if to say, “Have I given you something to think about? Are you satisfied? Have I surprised you?” (pg. 104)

Rasputin is drawn to Teffi and cannot understand why she fails to respond to his charms – he is clearly not accustomed to meeting such resistance from anyone, let alone a woman. Teffi detects something deeply unpleasant and chilling about the atmosphere surrounding Rasputin: ‘the grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark beyond our knowledge.’ There is the sense that one could quite easily fall under his hypnotic spell and never be able to break free from it.

In the third section, the stories from Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s, we learn a little of Teffi’s life as an émigré. ‘Que Faire?’ perfectly captures the mood amongst the community:

We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him. (pg. 139)

This sense of mutual wariness seeps into everyday conversations amongst the lesrusses in which everyone’s name is prefaced by the phrase ‘that-crook , a habit that gives rise to comments such as this:

“Some of us got together at that-crook Velsky’s yesterday for a game of bridge. There was that-crook Ivanov, that-crook Gusin, that-crook Popov. Nice crowd.” (pg. 140)

Several of the remaining stories in this section are shot through with a strong sense of nostalgia, a deep longing for the days of Teffi’s childhood in her beloved homeland.

Section IV contains two Magic Tales from the 1930s, including ‘The Dog (A Story from a Stranger)’. This is another highlight of the collection, a haunting story that feels grounded in truth. In this extract, Teffi recalls a time during the Civil War.

That evening I wept for a long time. I was burying my past. I understood for the first time that all the paths I had taken, all the paths I had followed to reach my present position, had been entirely destroyed – blown up like railway tracks behind the last train of a retreating army. (pg. 218)

The final stories in this collection are deeply melancholic in tone. Once again, there is a strong sense that Teffi is drawing on her own life experience. This is especially clear in ‘And Time Was No More’, a poignant tale of dreams reaching back into the author’s time in St Petersburg.

Subtly Worded is a fascinating collection, notable for the sheer variety of stories it contains. What makes these pieces particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience. Subtly Worded is another gem from Pushkin Press, one of my go-to publishers for interesting literature in translation.

Grant (1streading) and Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) have also reviewed this excellent collection.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 3/20, #TBR20 round 2.

49 thoughts on “Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Naomi. I think it’s a really interesting collection, quite eye-opening in many ways. Are you thinking of reading something for this year’s #WITMonth?

      1. naomifrisby

        I am! I don’t know if I’ll be able to do much early stuff as suggested by Meytal, although I have got some Margarita Karapanou. I’ve got a couple of Deep Vellum titles which I should’ve read ages ago, ditto Ferrante book three and I bought Alina Bronsky’s first book and La Femme de Gilles on Friday. I’ve also still got a stack of books left from last year. We’ll see how far I get in the chaos that is my life at the moment though!

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Great stuff, lots of intriguing choices there! I’ve never heard of Margarita Karapanou…just about to go and check her out. The Alina Bronsky sounds like a winner – I recall seeing quite a lot of praise for it at the time. Oh, and I’ll be fascinated to see what you make of number three in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series…let me know what you think once you’ve read it.

          Funnily enough, I’m just about to start Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles! I nearly included it in my first round of #TBR20 but decided to go for something lighter in the end. :)

  1. MarinaSofia

    The poet without any poems sounds a bit close for comfort… but yes, I can appreciate the irony! Sounds really interesting, thank you for the introduction. Difficult to get hold of?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Well, luckily that description doesn’t apply to you! The poet WITH poems. I think you’d enjoy this collection, Marina. I’m not sure how easy it would be to get hold a physical copy in France, but it is available in ebook format.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui – this is a beautiful collection and I really enjoyed it when I read it. Teffi has definitely been unjustly neglected. Interestingly, I just read a book in which she had a cameo in the Stay Dog Cabaret in pre-Revolution St. Petersburg singing bawdy songs! :)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen – your review definitely piqued my interest. How intriguing to hear of her cameo appearance in the book you’ve been reading. (Which one, out of interest?) I get the feeling Teffi was quite a character in her day; you can see it in her account of those dinners with Rasputin…

          1. kaggsysbookishramblings

            I will eventually – I’m just a wee bit behind with the reviews, but it will turn up on here in due course!

  3. Jonathan

    This does sound like an appealing collection of stories. I was lucky enough to see this as a kindle daily deal for 99p a year or so ago. I wonder if Pushkin have any plans to publish any more as there doesn’t appear to be too much of her work available in English.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s such an absorbing collection, all the more fascinating for the diversity of pieces included here. I think it would make a good contrast to the Checkov collection you’ve just reviewed as the tone is quite different, especially in the early stories which have a lightness of touch.

  4. gertloveday

    She sounds like one of those writers who simply have to reflect the conditions of their time to be interesting. A fascinating group of people in Paris between the wars, and it;s interesting how often the Russians figure in it.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’re probably right – it’s the events of the time and Teffi’s own personal experiences that bring certain aspects of this collection to life. The (semi-)autobiographical pieces are the standouts. It would have been fascinating to hear more about the literary set she mingled with in Paris, and I wonder if there might be other stories from that period (other than those included here).

  5. Claire 'Word by Word'

    The Hat immediately reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s story Cellists in his excellent collection Nocturnes:Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, in that story, a woman claims to be a world famous cellist, her pure talent unspoiled by ever having played a note.

    You have to understand, I am a virtuoso,” she tells him. “But I’m one who’s yet to be unwrapped.”

    I’m going to have to look out for more of Pushkin’s titles, I love the sound of this one and am intrigued by their collection. A lovely review and well chosen quotes, thank you Jacqui.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a great comparison, Claire. I haven’t read Ishiguro’s stories, only a couple of his novels, but I’ll take a look at Nocturnes. (I love the idea of stories of music and nightfall, it sounds rather evocative!)

      As for Pushkin Press, I don’t think you can go wrong with their books. I’ve yet to be disappointed.

  6. shoshibookblog

    I’m so excited about this book! I’ve got it waiting for me just a few Russian authors down the line. It’s good to have such a great preview of the treats ahead – thank you!

  7. realthog

    I accidentally pressed ‘publish’ while drafting it yesterday!

    Ah! So that’s what happened. I arrived here yesterday to find a “Page Not Found” message. Great review of what sounds to be a spiffy book.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, sorry about that, a complete fluff-up on my part! I’ve got a backlog of reviews to finalise at the moment, so I was hoping to schedule this for the first week in August to tie in with Women in Translation. Oh well, the best-laid plans and all that…I’m just about to start another book for #WITMonth so let’s see if I can avoid messing things up a second time! ;)

  8. Brian Joseph

    This sounds so good.

    All the sections that you describe sound very interesting.

    In particular Rasputin sounds fascinating. He was such an intriguing and find some aways ominous figure. It says something that in almost every account of him that I read there is a reference to his eyes.

    I agree that the physical book looks marvelous. The cover is so clean and neat yet elegant.

    I once hit the dreaded “Publish” button prematurely. I pulled the post right away but it seems some folks received a copy in their email and/or blog readers. That can be frustrating!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I’m woefully under-read when it comes to the Russians, but I really enjoyed these stories. I’d never heard of Teffi until Pushkin published this collection, another neglected writer I’m glad to have discovered.

      The Rasputin piece is a highlight. There are quite a few references to Rasputin’s eyes: “his eyes quietly darting everywhere” and “I encountered two eyes as sharp as needles”. He does come across as a rather sinister figure. Teffi’s having none of it though. At one or two points during these dinners, Rasputin places his hand on Teffi’s shoulder in an attempt to influence her (it seems to be his usual technique for exerting power over others). On sensing her resistance, he lets out a low moan as if in physical pain. It’s a chilling image, one that prompts Teffi to reflect: “Howling inside him was a black beast… There was much we did not know.”

      It’s so easy to press ‘publish’ by mistake, I’m surprised I haven’t done it before, to be honest. I pulled it yesterday afternoon but didn’t have time to proof-read it at the time. Thought it best to repost it this morning once I’d had a chance to tweak the intro on the link to #WITMonth. :)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hope you enjoy it, Guy – I’ll be interested to hear what you think. A lot of care and attention has gone into the curation of this collection, plus there’s an excellent introduction by the lead translator, Anne Marie Jackson.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I look forward to reading your review, Stu. Interesting comparison with Saki. I’ve yet to read any of his work, but I bought ‘Improper Stories’ off the back of Max’s review last year. His stories sound delightful – I’m sure I’ll enjoy them too.

      I loved the dry humour in Teffi’s early/mid-period stories, but the pieces in the final two sections evoke a strong sense of melancholy. The closing story ‘And Time Was No More’ is beautiful, sad and nostalgic all at once.

  9. Scott W

    I have this on the list. There’s a nice portrait of Teffi in Eric Dussert’s Une forêt cachée, a monumental French work regarding forgotten authors, in which he notes that Teffi’s stature among Russians exiled to Paris by the revolution, for whom she served as “the Great Writer in all her splendor,” was enormous. Dussert compares her to Anatole France. He also complains about the lack of translations of her work available in French (an exception, apparently, is a beautiful version of the Baba Yaga tales as told by Teffi), but points to several works available in English.

    As regards Naomi’s comment above, I’d like to add my support for Margarita Karapanou as a possible substitute for Teffi after your trigger-happy accidental posting.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s good to hear, Scott – I think you’ll enjoy it.

      How intriguing! I would have liked to hear more about Teffi’s time in the literary circles in Paris. She comes across as quite a formidable figure, especially in the ‘Rasputin’ piece. I get the sense that she lived a fascinating life. The lack of availability of French translations is a shame, particularly given her move to Paris.

      As for women in translation, I’m about to start Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles, which has been patiently waiting for its moment in the sun. Have you read it?

      Margarita Karapanou does sound very interesting though. Where would you suggest I start with her (once I’m allowed to buy books again)? Your recommendations are always welcome.

  10. 1streading

    Thanks for the link – pleased to be reminded of this wonderful collection. I particularly enjoyed the way you could follow her development as a writer through the years.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. Very welcome, you did such a great job of reviewing this collection. I loved the diversity of pieces included here – it’s interesting to see the way her style and focus changes through the years. If anything I would have liked to hear more about her life as an émigré in Paris. She must have rubbed shoulders with so many writers, and I wonder how many other stories might exist.

  11. Caroline

    I hope it will be one of the books I’ll get for my subscription. It sounds so good. the Rasputin chapter alone would make me want to pick it up.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, it’s been out for about a year in the UK so it may have been included in last year’s subscription. Do you get an opportunity to choose any of the books or is it a fixed set? It might be worth contacting Pushkin to see if they could include it as part of your subscription?

      I think you’d like Teffi’s writing very much. Her stories are very diverse, and it’s interesting to see how the pieces change through the years. One gets the feeling that her approach to life altered quite markedly when she emigrated to Paris. The Rasputin piece is a highlight, a fascinating insight into his modus operandi.

      1. Caroline

        No, I don’t know in advance what I will get and in a way that’s part of the fun. I’m not sure they send only new publications, so it’s possible. I’ll have to wait and see. Or, before placing and order, I’ll ask them.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I hope you receive a copy of this one – I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. As you say, the surprise element is part of the attraction of these kinds of subscriptions…and with Pushkin Press, you know the books will be good.

  12. Emma

    Great review, Jacqui.
    I’ve never heard of Teffi but now I’m really interested in reading her short stories.
    They exist in French but they don’t seem easy to find. That’s a shame as she seem to be a fantastic witness of her time.
    My virtual TBR increases again :-)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I think you’d like her stories very much. She seems to have lived several different lives, each of them fascinating in its own individual way.

      I hope you’ll be able to get hold of her stories in French at some point (once you’re allowed to buy books again!).

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  14. Max Cairnduff

    I can see why you directed me back to this review. I actually have this courtesy of that 99p kindle deal mentioned above, but it’s not really been on my radar. Perhaps for after my current #TBR20.

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