Tolstoy, Rasputin, and Teffi, One of Russia’s Greatest Woman Writers

Teffi’s genius lies in applying a light, ironic and at times satirical flair of humour to deeply serious subjects

If the name Teffi is unfamiliar to modern readers, it’s not for want of talent. The pen-name of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, Teffi was a Russian writer whose literary career took off at the turn of the century, accelerated in the years before the Russian Revolution, and concluded as one of many talented voices living in exile abroad. Yet unlike some of those other exiles, Teffi’s name hasn’t lingered in broader literary consciousness the way it deserves.

As a woman, and as a writer of humour and satire whose critique targeted both wealthy, greedy elites and nasty Bolshevik revolutionaries in equal measure, her literary legacy was already up against a heady challenge. Fortunately, some newly published English-language translations of her works offer renewed hope for the legacy of one of the 20th century’s most talented writers.

It’s a telling sign of her literary versatility that both Lenin and the Tsar were purportedly admirers of her work. It’s fitting too, since the confrontation between those two great estates — the monarchy and the Bolsheviks — defined the era in which Teffi lived and wrote. What many consider her greatest work, From Moscow to the Black Sea, has also just been published in English by New York Review Books; it contains the story of her protracted journey through, and eventually out of, Russia and the Ukraine following the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war.

Teffi eventually settled in Paris, one of many Russian refugees from the revolution, and continued writing up until her death in 1952, at the age of 80. But it’s remarkable that this woman, who has been compared to Anton Chekhov by reviewers and critics, remains so less known in the Anglophone world (or perhaps not so remarkable, given the double burden of translation and a male-dominated literary establishment). Although portions of her work have been translated and published in English (often in collections and anthologies) over the years, there hasn’t been a major effort to present her oeuvre to the English-speaking world.

So it’s kudos to New York Review Books for kickstarting that process, with this compilation of translated pieces that’s been published concurrently with a translation of From Moscow to the Black Sea.

Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi collects an eclectic assortment of Teffi’s shorter pieces. It includes some samples of her short fiction — lovely little stories, vivid depictions of pre-revolutionary Russian life in the early 20th century and often redolent of autobiography. But the real gems in the collection are her non-fiction pieces, which are really in essence bits of reportage.

Teffi’s genius lies in applying a light, ironic and at times satirical flair of humour to deeply serious subjects. She uses this light-hearted humourous touch to appear detached from subjects which she evidently holds very deep feelings about. It’s this combination of light, superficial levity with profound depth that makes her work so compelling.

Her work is enjoyable and easy to read (thanks partially to her translators, no doubt, the prose comes across as pleasantly modern for hundred-year-old passages); she writes sparingly in short, clipped prose. Yet despite the light brevity of touch, she summons an unexpectedly emotional reaction in the reader, who feels immediately endeared to the narrator with a sense of familiarity. Her subject matter becomes something that matters very deeply to the reader, too. Even a century later.

Some of the stand-out pieces include her brief childhood meeting with Tolstoy (she knocked on his door as a young girl, intending to tell him off for killing the Prince in War and Peace, and instead wound up walking away with an autographed photo), and a prolonged piece recounting her various interactions with the infamous Russian mystic Rasputin (including his clumsy, unsuccessful efforts to seduce her).

Probably the best piece in the collection is “New Life”, which recounts her experiences working for the Russian newspaper of that name. It began as a liberal literary journal but was eventually co-opted by the Bolsheviks and turned into a political propaganda paper, before finally being shut down by the government. Her description of this process spares no one: liberal elites and Bolshevik revolutionaries alike are subjected to her merciless wit and sense of irony. She has little time or patience for either side, and skewers both the hypocritical elitism of the upper and liberal middle classes, along with the silly, self-serving narcissism of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. She has little tolerance for Lenin, in particular, and her depiction of him as a manipulative, tyrannical and self-serving conspirator is utterly fascinating.

Other pieces will prove less attractive for the general reader, while of doubtless interest to those better versed in Russian literature. These include detailed character portraits of literary figures like the Merezhkovskys, and artistic figures like the painter Ilya Repin. It’s a reflection of the power of her prose that even a character like Ilya Repin, little known to the general reader in the west today, can leave the reader with a compelling sense of familiarity by the end of Teffi’s account.

The collection is rounded out by a few shorter whimsical pieces that are more directly autobiographical in nature: reflections on how she writes, on her first experiences of rejection as a writer, and even the story of her odd pseudonym, a stylistic alias chosen in part because she felt it would be easier to get her work published if her name wasn’t recognizably female; yet which was also androgynous in its oddness, because she also felt the need to resist this sexist gatekeeping of the literary world.

The Best of Teffi is an excellent collection, a wonderful and compelling introduction to the work of a brilliant and underappreciated writer who deserves much greater recognition in the literary world. Let’s hope this marks the beginning of that process.

RATING 9 / 10
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