Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi

One of my favourite reads from last year was Subtly Worded, a fascinating collection of short stories and reminiscences by the esteemed Russian writer, Teffi. Having enjoyed this book so much, I was delighted to hear that Pushkin Press would be publishing two more works by Teffi in 2016: Rasputin and Other Ironies, which brings together the best of Teffi’s non-fiction pieces, and a memoir, Memories – from Moscow to the Black Sea. (Both books are now available and are also published in the US by NYRB Classics.)

In this post, I’ll be discussing Rasputin and Other Ironies, but before I tell you more about this most intriguing collection, a few words on Teffi herself. Teffi – her real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya – was born in 1872 into a prominent and cultured St Petersburg family. During her literary career she wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of forty, 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.

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The pieces in Rasputin and Other Ironies have been grouped into four sections, the first of which, How I Live and Work, gives us a view of Teffi’s life as a writer. We see Teffi living and working in a little pension in Paris, her writing table doubling as a dining table, a dressing table and a home for her various possessions. In My Pseudonym, we hear the story behind her adoption of Teffi as a pen name, while the final piece in this section offers an insight into Teffi’s first visit to an editorial office (you can read it for yourselves in The Paris Review).

The six pieces in the second section, Staging Posts, focus on Teffi’s personal life, ranging from reminiscences of her childhood and adolescence through to her days as a young mother with a toddler to care for. Liza, a story featuring one of Teffi’s childhood friends, fizzes with the tales children tell to amaze their pals. In the appropriately titled Love, Teffi recalls her first love, an experience saturated with the mix of excitement and pain that is so characteristic of this time in any young girl’s life.

And it was during this spring, the ninth of my life, that my first love came, revealed itself and left—in all its fullness, with rapture and pain and disenchantment, with all that is to be expected of any true love. (pg. 40-41)

In The Green Devil and Staging Posts, both of which focus on Teffi’s adolescence, one can sense her longing to be an adult, a grown-up lady attending dinners and dances and other such affairs. While some of the pieces in this section seem at first rather amusing or ironic, they are in fact underscored with a deep sense of melancholy and sadness, often ending on a poignant note. I found these works some of the most affecting in the collection. Running through this book are hints of Teffi’s longing for her homeland, a world virtually erased by the events of history.

Next comes one of the most interesting sections of this collection, Heady Days: Revolutions and Civil War. Rasputin, Teffi’s fascinating account of her two encounters with this legendary figure, turned out to be one of the highlights in Subtly Worded, and it’s wonderful to see it reproduced here in this new volume. As I’ve already written about Rasputin, I won’t cover it again here, but please do take a look at my previous post for Teffi’s wonderful observations on this mercurial figure.

In New Life, one of the longest pieces in the collection, Teffi presents her recollections of Lenin taken from the time she spent working on the literary section of a newly established newspaper, also titled ‘New Life’. (The paper was established to take its political direction from the Social Democrats under the stewardship of Lenin himself.) This is Teffi at her most observant as she offers us a terrifying insight into the psychology of this controversial revolutionary. As far as Teffi could see, Lenin ‘considered everyone to be capable of treachery for the sake of personal gain. A man was good only insofar as he was necessary to the cause. And if he wasn’t necessary—to hell with him.’ All in all, his opinion of human nature was pretty low.

As an orator, Lenin did not carry the crowd with him; he did not set a crowd on fire, or whip it up into a frenzy. He was not like Kerensky, who could make a crowd fall in love with him and shed tears of ecstasy; I myself witnessed such tears in the eyes of soldiers and workers as they showered Kerensky’s car with flowers on Marinsky Square Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corners of people’s souls, where greed, spite and cruelty lay hidden. He would batter away to get the answer he wanted. (pg. 106)

Teffi is very adept at presenting stories with stories, little vignettes of life in a time of suspicion and uncertainty. I love the image of this reporter hiding under the table during a private meeting, not to mention the questions it raises the following day:

Klyachko was an extraordinary reporter. His exploits were legendary. Once, apparently, he had sat under the table in the office of the Home Secretary during a closed meeting. The next day, an account of the meeting appeared in Klyachko’s paper in the section called “Rumours”. It caused panic among those at the top. How could the reporter have founds all this out? Who had let the information slip? Or had a bribe of several thousand changed hands? But then, that was a monstrous suggestion! For some time, people tried to identify the guilty party—and they, of course, got nowhere. The guilty party was the footman, who had received a hefty tip from Klyachko for hiding him under the green baize. (pg. 97)

Also worthy of a mention here is The Gadarene Swine, a sharp and powerful piece that highlights the differing perspectives of the various factions who are fleeing from the Bolsheviks, in other words, the ‘refugees from Sovietdom’.

They are indeed all running away from the Bolsheviks. But the crazed swine are escaping from Bolshevik truth, from socialist principles, from equality and justice, while the meek and frightened are escaping from untruth, from Bolshevism’s black reality, from terror, injustice and violence. (pg 157)

In this story, Teffi highlights the plight of everyday folk, the ordinary people who find themselves cast adrift in an unfamiliar world with little in the way of food, shelter or social structure to support them. It’s brave piece of writing, all the more impactful for the artful style Teffi employs to send a message to the powers that be.

The final section of the collection features Teffi’s reminiscences of some of the writers and artists she met during her life. Authors such as Tolstoy whom she visited in her youth and the artist, Ilya Repin, who painted a very tender portrait of Teffi after being touched by one of her stories, a tale called The Top.

In The Merezhkovskys, one of my favourite pieces from the collection, we meet the writers Dmitry Merezhkovsky and his wife Zinaida Gippius (a Symbolist poet) whom Teffi spent time with during her refugee days in in Biarritz. Both unique individuals in their different ways, they ‘each could have been the central character in a long psychological novel’. So out of touch with reality were the Merezhkovskys that they lived in a world of ideas, unable to understand other people or the fundamentals of life itself. Money in particular was a source of frustration for this couple. They were reluctant to pay for anything, often considering as unjust even the most understandable requests for payment (as illustrated in this next passage).

They were always irritated, astonished, even sincerely outraged by the need to pay bills. Zinaida Nikolaevna told me indignantly about how they just had a visit from the man who hired out bed linen.

“The scoundrel just won’t leave us alone. Yesterday he was told that we were out, so he sat in the garden and waited for us. Thanks to that scoundrel, we couldn’t even go for a walk.” (pg. 182)

This is another marvellous collection from Teffi, all the more fascinating for its diversity and glimpses of a vanished world. Her pieces are by turns ironic, insightful and poignant. This book comes highly recommended both for fans of Teffi and for readers who are new to her work.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates another of Teffi’s many talents, her skill for painting vivid pen-portraits in just a few sentences. Here she describes Izmailov, an editor on the Stock Exchange Gazette, a thin rather sinister man, dressed all in black, ‘he looked as if he had been sketched in black ink’.

Izmailov truly was weird. He lived in the grounds of the Smolensk cemetery, where his father had once been a priest. He practised black magic, loved telling stories about sorcery, and he knew charms and spells. Thin, pale and black, with a thin strip of bright red mouth, he looked like a vampire. (pg 112)

My thanks to Pushkin Press for a review copy of this book. For other perspectives, here are links to posts from Karen, Melissa and Shoshi.

Rasputin and Other Ironies was translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson.

41 thoughts on “Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You are most welcome – I’m very glad to have introduced you to this wonderful writer. If you love Russian literature, then you’re sure to enjoy Teffi. She is a real gem.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    These sound really good.

    The fact that Teffi had encounters with what can be described as monumental historical figures adds interest, However, it seems, based on your commentary, that there is a lot more to the collection then that.

    I often find Stories within stories enjoyable. It is not so easy for a writer to incorporate them within a short story or short essay format.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Teffi was a terrific writer, and it’s great to see her work being introduced to a wider audience courtesy of Pushkin Press and NYRB. (She had quite a reputation in Russian literary circles in her day, a favourite of Tsar Nicholas II no less.)

      The pieces covering her encounters with Rasputin and Lenin are two of the highlights for sure, but (as you’ve noted in your comments) there’s a lot more to Teffi than these vignettes. Her range is so impressive. Some of her stories and non-fiction pieces are satirical and insightful; others are more wistful and melancholy. In fact, the diversity is one of the things I like most about her writing. I hope you get a chance to read her one day Brian. I think you’d really appreciate her.

      Reply
  2. Maureen Murphy

    What a wonderful glimpse into another world. Would be interesting reading this in counterpoint to the work Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Thanks, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re most welcome, Maureen – I’m glad you enjoyed the review! It does feel like another world, doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s hard to think that this was only 100 years ago, that’s my grandparents’ generation…

      I’m not familiar with Anna Akhmatova, but I just looked her up on wiki. I can see why she came to mind given that her work dealt with life under Stalin’s regime. I found a couple of references to her poems, so I’ll have to take a closer look. Thanks for the tip. :)

      Reply
      1. Maureen Murphy

        So glad to have referred you to Akhmatova, Jacqui. She is absolutely my favorite poet, with an amazing life story. I thought of the counterpoint in that she deliberately chose not to emigrate, but to stay in Russia. One great quote of hers: “How can one refuse to live one’s own life?”

        Dazzling and powerful, her masterwork “Requiem” is harrowing. For many years, the poem was “held” in the memory of Akhmatova and a few close confidantes, as even putting it to paper would have been very dangerous in the political climate.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, I see! Yes, a fascinating contrast between the paths of these two Russian writers – that’s such a poignant quote about living one’s own life. When I looked her up on wiki, I noticed the references to censorship and the methods these writers used to preserve their work. Quite ingenious really, but it’s a tragedy to think that some of Akhmatova’s work was almost certainly lost along the way. I shall have to seek her out – many thanks once again.

          Reply
  3. heavenali

    I remember reading Karen’s review of this book. It really sounds a fascinating collection of pieces bringing together many different experiences of Teffi. Wonderful review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is indeed a fascinating collection, all the more so for the diversity of pieces included here. Teffi seems to have lived many lives, all of them intriguing in their own way.

      Reply
  4. lonesomereadereric

    Pushkin publishes such great stuff! I love how you give a bit about this fascinating sounding author’s life. It sounds like Teffi might have been around Paris at the same time Jean Rhys first got there! I wonder if they ever met! It sounds like a really fascinating and varied group of stories, particularly the encounters with other writers/artists. I’ll have to read her at some point.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Don’t they just! They are a veritable treasure trove of literary riches. You know, I hadn’t thought about a possible connection between Teffi and Rhys (there’s no mention of JR in any of the pieces here), but it’s a tantalising prospect. Teffi was quite well known among the writers on the émigré scene in Paris at the time, so it’s possible. Class differences may have prevented it, though. Back in St Petersburg, Teffi’s family were quite privileged, and I get the feeling that she moved in fairly well-to-do circles in Paris too. There’s a memoir which I haven’t read yet, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, but I think it focuses on her journey to exile as opposed to her time in Paris. I would definitely recommend you give her a try at some point. She is such a brilliant writer, and I’m sure you would enjoy her work.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, if you like Russian literature, then Teffi is the woman for you. She was quite the literary star in her day. Both of these collections are excellent, but if I had to suggest one as an introduction to her work, then I would recommend Subtly Worded. It contains a mix of short stories together with pieces inspired by experiences in Teffi’s life (including her account of those encounters with Rasputin). I hope you decide to give Teffi a try at some point.

      Reply
  5. Melissa Beck

    This was my first Teffi book and I fell I love with her writing! I also bought Memories and Subtly Worded and am looking forward to them both. My favorite story in the collection was the one where she sees right through Rasputin’s little act and she is not impressed with him. She was so astute and clever!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not surprised you fell in love with her writing, Melissa. She is a marvel, one of my favourite discoveries in recent years. Yes, I loved her account of those meeting with Rasputin too. She was so sharp and insightful. Just the way she resisted the lure of his charms – it was very impressive!

      Subtly Worded is terrific, and I’m sure you will enjoy it too, Memories sounds a little different to the other two. More melancholy and poignant, I suspect…but a necessary part of Teffi’s journey in life.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: Everybody Loves Her – Teffi’s Newly Translated Life Writings (part 1): ‘Rasputin and Other Ironies’ | Shoshi's Book Blog

  7. shoshibookblog

    Thank you for the link and great, detailed review. Any plans on reading ‘Memories’? I found it very different reading a full book length work by her rather than the short pieces in Rasputin and SW…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome – and thanks for the pingback, very kind. Yes, I’m hoping to read Memories later this year as I like to put a bit of breathing space between books by the same author. Plus I thought it might be best to save Memories till last as it sounds as very poignant. It’ll be interesting to see how I find it compared to her shorter pieces. I’m hoping it will give me another perspective on her life…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she was a wonderful writer, and the pieces in this collection give a real insight into several different aspects of her life. She is well worth seeking out – I hope you get a chance to read her one day!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it? And Rasputin took quite a fancy to her too. Yes, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this collection, Guy. Funnily enough, the Merezhkovskys (who feature in one of the pieces about other writers) reminded me a little of the Merzes from Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy. They sort of operated in their own world complete with its various eccentricities (especially as far as money and other people were concerned).

      Reply
      1. Guy Savage

        I read about the range of Teffi products. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was one of the earliest instances of celebrity product branding.
        I really liked A Legacy. The Merzes were like museum pieces.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, you’re right about the celebrity product branding – I remember reading about that somewhere too. There was a Teffi perfume (and some Teffi sweets, I believe). Quite remarkable when you think about about it!

          I loved the Merzes from A Legacy, too. Museum pieces is spot-on – they were like relics from another age. Bedford’s prose was somewhat challenging at times, but her characterisation was excellent. I ended up buying another Bedford off the back of a recommendation from Ian Curtin – Jigsaw. It sort of picks up from the point in time at which A Legacy ends, but I’m not sure if the characters are the same. Possibly not, although it’s still semi-autobiographical as far as I can tell from the description.

          Reply
          1. Guy Savage

            I agree–the writing isn’t the easiest w/ Bedford–obviously someone who didn’t attend writing workshops and an MFA programme. But that can be good. I’d describe Bedford’s writing style as a bit wooly.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Yes, I agree – that can be refreshing. In spite of her somewhat oblique style, Bedford is definitely worth persevering with. I’m sufficiently intrigued by her to want to read more.

              Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I hope so too, Lisa. Seeing as Pushkin have published three books by Teffi, there’s a good chance that at least one of them will be included in your subscription.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. Excellent news – Teffi’s ideal for #WITMonth. Are you planning to read Subtly Worded? I think it would make an excellent intro to her work as it contains the Rasputin and Tolstoy pieces included here, plus a varied selection of her short stories.

      Reply

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