Most of the leading lights of Russian literature—especially before the Russian Revolution—that most people know are men. Almost two years ago, I was delighted to learn that the work of one Russian woman was being translated and published in English. I had never heard of Teffi and was astonished to find that the literary world had seemingly forgotten Tsar Nicholas’s favorite author. In addition to Teffi’s collection, Subtly Worded and Other Stories, we now have Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea. Now that I’ve read Memories, I’m even more puzzled that this woman’s dazzling prose was ever lost.
As the subtitle indicates, Memories is Teffi’s recollections of her journey from Moscow to Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea. The subtitle does not reveal, however, that this journey is Teffi’s escape from the chaos of the Russian Revolution and the following Civil War. The way Teffi tells it, perhaps even she didn’t know that she was never going home again. Before she began her journey in 1919, Teffi wrote for a number of literary magazines. She wrote short stories, but was best known for writing pieces for the feuilleton section of magazines and newspapers. The feuilleton section was traditionally stocked with lighter pieces of gossip, opinion about things other than politics, literary and theatre criticism, and so on. It’s possible her choice of genre was what caused her to be overlooked. To me, the description of feuilleton sounds almost like ephemera. English publishers are still collecting Teffi’s articles, according to the notes included in this edition of Memories.
The scant facts available about Teffi’s life and writing did little to prepare me for what I found in Memories. I usually use “this will make you laugh and cry” as shorthand for books that run the emotional gamut from happy to sad, but Teffi really will make readers laugh and cry. Memories is full of sketches of the awful absurdity of the Bolshevik coup. Petty nobodies seized the chaos to become important, but still petty, Communist officials. Teffi and her party of authors and actresses were frequently waylaid to provide cultural edification for the masses by these new officials. Just south of Bolshevik territory, the elite of tsarist Russia were simultaneously trying to hold on to their vanishing world and taking advantage of the last bits of privilege and luxury as if the apocalypse were shortly to descend. (To be fair to these people, the apocalypse was on its way south, too.)
By the time Teffi sails from Odessa on a sabotaged ship, it’s clear that the glory days of tsarist Russia are never coming back. Teffi’s tone shifts from sarcastic and witty and occasionally frightened to ineffably sad. Writing from a remove of ten years and thousands of miles, Teffi writes about saying good-bye to Russia for the last time, after taking her last bow before a Russian audience in Yekaterinodar (now Krasnodar). She writes:
With my own eyes now open so wide that the cold penetrates deep into them, I keep on looking. And I shall not move away. I’ve broken my vow, I’ve looked back. And, like Lot’s wife, I am frozen. I have turned into a pillar of salt forever, and I shall forever go on looking, seeing my own land slip softly, slowly away from me. (n.p.*)
Teffi lived in Paris from 1920 through the end of her life, in 1952. She never got to go back. She was an exile for the rest of her days. Her words made me feel, just a little, what it was like to always be looking back to something gone forever.
Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and the historical nonfiction I’ve read about the Russian Revolution have given me a sense of what life was like for Russians who got caught up in the violence and stayed in Soviet Russia. Teffi’s Memories has given me a keen sense of what life must have been like for the permanent exiles. I’m glad it was Teffi. Her writing is beautiful and affecting. It’s very deftly constructed, in spite of its seeming spontaneity. All of the vignettes and character studies and extended metaphors convey rich meaning about the lost world of tsarist Russia, the abrupt and radical changes in politics and governments, and the grotesque opportunism of the newly empowered proletariat. Readers will laugh, just like I did, at some of the people and events, but I suspect they will, like I am, remain unsettled by Teffi’s journey.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 3 May 2016.
* Quote is from an advanced reader copy of Memories by the New York Review of Books and page numbers are not available.