The stories in Subtly Worded are lost gems from Russia's wacky past.
Subtly WordedPublisher: Pushkin Press
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: 2014-12
Here is what writers scour the world for: metaphor and dramatic irony. Those are mainly “it”. A writer wants to yoke two things together and, in doing so, make you see both things in a new way. (Think of Joni Mitchell’s great song, “My Old Man”: “He’s the warmest chord I ever heard / play that warm chord/ play, baby.” Or Mitchell’s famous description of life’s vicissitudes: “So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.”)
Dramatic irony creates a gap between the reader and the character. The reader has privileged information, inaccessible to at least one of the characters on the page. And so the reader feels a bit like God. Think of Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye goes to Lazar Wolf. Tevye thinks he is in a bartering discussion regarding his milk cow. Lazar Wolf thinks he is in talks to marry Tevye’s oldest daughter. Only the reader has access to the inner lives of both confused characters on the stage. “What would I do with two of them?” asks Lazar, wondering why Tevye seems to be offering up two buxom daughters. “What would you do?” asks Tevye, envisioning two milk cows. “You’d do the same thing that you’d do with one.” And the writers have successfully mined for comic gold. Is there any wonder this little story was history’s longest-running Broadway musical for ten years?
I used to think that great literary artists were always on the hunt for snazzy plots. But maybe that’s not always true. A literary artist simply wants to give you the world—albeit slightly askew. The artist wants to cultivate an unorthodox worldview, then express that view as forcefully and prolifically as possible, in a loud, clear voice.
Lorrie Moore’s stories feature very little in the way of dramatic events. But they’re a joy, because reading them is like inhabiting the mind of a space alien. Moore sees the world oddly, and her relationship to the English language is unique. That’s what you’re paying for when you buy her books. You’re paying for the privilege of momentarily inhabiting the brain of a space alien.
The same is true of Junot Diaz’s recent collection of stories, This Is How You Lose Her. These characters aren’t solving murder mysteries, or painting the town red. They have sloppy, urgent sex. They halfheartedly struggle with cancer. No Diaz plot will leave you reeling.
What you’re paying for is once-in-a-century language. You’re paying for metaphors. “You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.” This kind of virtuosity is worth the price of admission.
Anyway, like Diaz and Moore, the Russian writer Teffi was the real thing. She had a dark and singular worldview. Her stories are a bit like poems, short and dense. The very first sentence in this collection signals the arrival of a metaphor-and-irony connoisseur: “Samosov stood there gloomily, watching the deacon with the incense and thinking, 'Go on, swing that incense, swing that incense! Think you can swing yourself into a bishopric? Some hope!'”
Of course, Teffi isn’t really “arriving” these days. She arrived long ago, around the year 1900. She was wildly successful in her day. Both Lenin and Tsar Nicholas II adored her work. When the Revolution happened, she recognized that Russia was a bad place to be. She fled for Western Europe, where she continued to poke fun at everyone and everything. After her death, her stories faded into obscurity, as worthy stories sometimes do. (Think of Richard Yates or Charles Jackson.) Now Pushkin Press is, admirably, resurrecting Teffi’s name.
Teffi’s early stories are cynical. (This is a writerly phenomenon. The writer starts off young and weirdly jaded. Then, as he or she ages, the worldview changes: light is admitted, fresh air enters the narrative. Think of Ian McEwan, whose early stories are Stephen King-ish in their fixation on horror. Or think of Alice McDermott, who began with a kind of writerly archness that is now notably absent from her fiction.)
In this Teffi anthology’s first story, the sarcastically-entitled “A Radiant Easter”, a powerless man gets angry and takes out his anger on a yet more powerless victim. This cycle of oppression continues and continues until, finally, a particularly meek beast takes out his anger on a dustbin. Such is life.
In another early story, “The Hat”, a woman buys a fabulous hat, puts it on, and imagines that people are treating her especially well because of the glitziness of her hat. At home, she discovers that actually she has neglected to wear the new hat. The thing on her head has been an ugly old hat, all this time. She sighs and looks at herself in the mirror, and then begins making small cosmetic changes to her face, falling into a deep and comforting state of absorption. Here is a little metaphor for life: It’s so pointless, the most we can hope for is a diverting treat now and then, like a clean mirror, or a new hat. (Have you seen Jane Krakowski in the new Tina Fey series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? Krakowski would be a good artistic partner for Teffi.)
Later stories get juicy. In the midst of the Revolution, Teffi notes a new linguistic curiosity: People must write falsely chipper letters, so that the repressive government doesn’t get angry and start a pogrom. You have to search for real news in between the lines of your loved one’s letter. (No wonder the repression of the Russian 20th century produced so many fiery talents such as Babel, Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Nabokov, Bulgakov. They made dough from pointing out the Russian government’s hypocrisies. Some of them could fill a stadium, such was the power of their rock-star celebrity. Many ended up dead, either in shadowy circumstances or by their own hand.)
In a final story, “And Time Was No More”, Teffi gets expansive and philosophical:
When all is said and done, we invent our entire lives. After all, don’t we invent other people? Are they really and truly the way they appear to us, the way we always see them? Once, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and let out a groan. My face was fat and puffy and I had tiny, squinting eyes. This was how my friends saw me. And I know now that you will never find even two people who see a third in the same way.
That’s a real artist for you—committed to poking holes in our cherished delusions. We are not what we think we are. The phenomenal world is not simple and not predictable, and we are fools to try to find meaning in this mysterious life.
I’m quite fond of Teffi's work. You will be rewarded, if you invest in this one.