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Subtly Worded and other stories

por Teffi

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A selection of the finest stories by this female Chekhov, now available in a striking new Pushkin Blues format. Teffi's genius with the short form made her a literary star in pre-revolutionary Russia, beloved by Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin alike. These stories, taken from the whole of her career, show the full range of her gifts. Extremely funny-a wry, scathing observer of society-she is also capable, as capable even as Chekhov, of miraculous subtlety and depth of character. There are stories here from her own life (as a child, going to meet Tolstoy to plead for the life of War and Peace's Prince Bolkonsky, or, much later, her strange, charged meetings with the already-legendary Rasputin). There are stories of émigré society, its members held together by mutual repulsion. There are stories of people misunderstanding each other or misrepresenting themselves. And throughout there is a sly, sardonic wit and a deep, compelling intelligence.… (mais)
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I’ll be honest, I had never even heard of Teffi until very recently. As this collection started a bit slowly for me with her early work starting from 1910, I was initially thinking that as a whole it would only be mildly amusing. Then I came to ‘The Lifeless Beast’ (1916), the marvelous story of a marriage falling apart told from a child’s perspective with just the right touch, and knew that I was on to something. From there it just gets better.

You see Teffi’s evolution as an author and political critic in the stories after the Revolution, with ‘One Day in the Future’ (1918) pillorying the idea that the intelligentsia are replaceable with the unskilled in a communist state. Then you hit the 45-page ‘Rasputin’ (1932), an absolutely stunning story of a couple of meetings Teffi had with the legendary mystic who wheedled his way into Tsar Nicholas II’s inner circle. She brilliantly captures everything from his mannerisms to his contradictory, somewhat bizarre essence, as well as the ways in which he tried to impose his will on others. I was spellbound and fascinated by such a unique account, which is easily five stars on its own.

Her stories written as an émigré in Paris, including ‘Subtly Worded’ (1920), about how letters had to be written to loved ones still in Russia to avoid the censor, as well as ‘My First Tolstoy’ (1920), about her meeting as a child with the legendary author, are precious. Her stories about the difficulties of love, including ‘The Dog (A Story From a Stranger)’ (1936), with the faithfulness of an unrequited lover taking on supernatural proportions, and ‘Thy Will’ (1952), about the difficulty of truly letting go of a failed love affair, are also first-rate.

The last story, ‘And Time Was No More’ (1949), about the thoughts a woman has while she is dying, is an absolute masterpiece, also easily five stars. It’s poetic, philosophical, and incredibly well written. Teffi was 77 at the time and only a few years away from her own death, and it’s apparent that it encapsulates her own thoughts looking back on life.

Bravo to Pushkin Press for assembling this collection. Apparently Teffi’s pre-Revolution popularity waned not only in Russia, which is understandable given her political views and subsequent immigration, but also in the West, because among many the early Soviet state was looked on somewhat favorably as an idealistic experiment. There are some real gems here, and she deserves to be better known.

Quotes, all from ‘And Time Was No More’:
On death:
“This is how I feel about the world soul, and this, therefore, is how I feel about death. Death is a return to the whole, a return to oneness.”

“…this is all there is to death: it is something tiny, indivisible, a mere point, the moment when the heart stops beating and breathing ceases, and someone’s voice says, ‘He is dead now.’ That’s eternity for you. And all the elaborations of a life beyond the grave, with its agonies of conscience, repentance and other torments – all this is simply what we experience while we’re alive. There is no place for such trivial nonsense in eternity.”

On snow, and peace:
“Nothing on earth creates a sense of peace and calm like falling snow. Maybe because when something falls it’s usually accompanied by some noise, by a knock or a crash. But snow – this pure and almost unbroken white mass – is the only thing that falls without any sound. And this brings a sense of peace. Often now when my soul feels restless, I think of falling snow, of silently falling snow.”

On the universe:
“We look up at the starry sky the way a little mouse looks through a chink in the wall at a magnificent ballroom. The music, the lights, the sparkling apparitions. Strange rhythmical movements, in circles that move together and then apart, propelled by an unknown cause towards an incomprehensible goal. It’s beautiful and frightening – very, very frightening. We can, if we like, count the number of circles made by this or that sparkling apparition, but it’s impossible to understand what the apparition means – and this is frightening. What we can’t understand we always sense as a hostile force, as something cruel and meaningless. Little mouse, it’s a good thing that they don’t see us, that we play no role in their magnificent, terrible and majestic life.” ( )
3 vote gbill | Jan 23, 2017 |
I had never heard of Teffi before seeing this collection of short stories from Pushkin Press, but she was a well-known literary figure in the years before the Revolution, with admirers such as Lenin, Bunin, Zoshchenko and Tsar Nicolas II. She was mainly known as a light, comic writer, but this collection has a nice range of styles and there were very few weak stories.

There are certainly some lighter, ironic social pieces – a man displaces his anger at his boss onto his family and it moves downward from there, another man tries to use willpower to conquer his alcoholism, a woman is excited to wear a new hat, a cheating wife is counseled by her friend to break it off, but finds a way around it. However, even in the first pre-Revolution section, there are more personal stories of quiet pains – a young girl is kept in the dark about her parents’ disintegrating marriage, another feels all the stabs of childhood jealousy.

Teffi’s prose is highly readable and some of her more experimental styles are used in stories that outwardly seem amusing, but contain darker elements. The long story on Rasputin is a breathless account of her experiences with the much-feared, much-discussed man. “Petrograd Monologue” is an almost stream-of-consciousness style as the narrator tries to distract herself from hunger by thinking of art, music, and beauty. The title story has Teffi’s friend revising her letter to friends back in the Soviet Union – things must be “subtly worded” or their friends could be arrested. There’s a clipped style and the revisions are silly – “Your brother Ivan” changes to “Your sister Ivan” and Teffi’s postscript goes from “My warmest greeting to all of you” to “To hell with the lot of you.” – but the threat is real.

The two overtly supernatural stories are otherwise strongly realistic and unhappy - in one a man has returned from the dead and his life in his former village is described, in the other the narrator is a charismatic, brilliant girl who falls on hard times during the Revolution and remembers a past preternatural experience at the right time.

The final stories, especially the last two, are feverishly unhappy and seem personal – “Thy Will” is about an artist who is gradually losing her mind, and in “And Time Was No More” the author imagines her death in a hallucinatory dream sequence.

This is an accomplished collection – hopefully there will be more translations of her work. ( )
4 vote DieFledermaus | Aug 19, 2015 |
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A selection of the finest stories by this female Chekhov, now available in a striking new Pushkin Blues format. Teffi's genius with the short form made her a literary star in pre-revolutionary Russia, beloved by Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin alike. These stories, taken from the whole of her career, show the full range of her gifts. Extremely funny-a wry, scathing observer of society-she is also capable, as capable even as Chekhov, of miraculous subtlety and depth of character. There are stories here from her own life (as a child, going to meet Tolstoy to plead for the life of War and Peace's Prince Bolkonsky, or, much later, her strange, charged meetings with the already-legendary Rasputin). There are stories of émigré society, its members held together by mutual repulsion. There are stories of people misunderstanding each other or misrepresenting themselves. And throughout there is a sly, sardonic wit and a deep, compelling intelligence.

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