Books

Teffi’s ‘Subtly Worded’: Eugenia Ellanskaya celebrates the rediscovery of a great Russian writer

23/07/2014

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Finding your place in life is a challenging endeavour. For some, this challenge continues beyond their lifetime. The more so when you are a writer, whose work can end up at destinations that can no longer be controlled.

'Teffi'

‘Teffi’

Teffi (1872-1952) was once a literary star in Russia. Dubbed ‘the Queen of Russian humour’ she counted amongst her fans both Lenin and Tsar Nicholas II. Her name was so glamorous that perfume and chocolates were named after her. Teffi’s witty short prose was published by prestigious newspapers and journals of the time, but after her death, for decades, she became almost completely forgotten. This June,  Pushkin House in Holborn launched the publication of Teffi’s first collection of stories in English: Subtly Worded and Other Stories,  published by Pushkin Press. Now, a century later, Teffi‘s prose seems to be exactly what we need: witty, intelligent, reckless.

Teffi was born in St. Petersburg, the city which also saw the flourishing of her literary career. Her real name was Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, which should probably make all the English speakers grateful that she opted for a snappy pseudonym instead. In fact, it is probably partly due to that catchy name – Teffi – that she built a successful career both in Russia and abroad, gaining readers in France and Germany, where she moved after the Russian Revolution. As a female writer in Imperial Russia Teffi was one of the few to not take on a male pseudonym for her literary career. Although she did abandon her real name for literature, it was more a matter of distinguishing herself from her notable literary sister, the poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya.  To us she remains known simply as Teffi.

Her earliest works involved satirical poems and feuilletons, as she contributed in the meantime to journals such as Satirikon (an early 20th century Russian periodical specialising in political satire and humour). Throughout her career Teffi excelled herself in humorous prose, plays and poetry, her writing an elegant balance between a wry portrayal of society and an intelligent depth. Teffi’s miniaturist genre is mainly humorous in tone, giving way to more tragic notes of nostalgia and home-sickness following her emigration. In the meantime, the historical value of her works lies in the memoirs she compiled at the end of her life. Recollecting her encounters with Lenin and Rasputin,  she is probably less biased in her account of these notorious Russian figures than many historians and politicians have so far managed to be. The beauty of Teffi’s work is that it is so unpretentious, yet the characters created a hundred years ago in an entirely different social climate remain poignant and charming even today. Everyone seems to find something for himself in Teffi’s writing. The Socialist leader Lenin, for instance, warmed up to her satirical pieces on the mishaps of life amongst the Russian émigrés, specially encouraging  the distribution of such stories to dissuade those who might want to leave the new Revolutionary Russia. Whatever one may find of interest in Teffi, there is much to be drawn from her. As it is rightly pointed out by Pushkin Press, Teffi is “a writer whose stories range so widely in content, style and tone that it is a wonder they were all written by just one woman”.

Pushkin House has long been a hub for Russian literary enthusiasts. Yet, refreshingly it is not just the heavyweights such as Pushkin, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky that are looked into. Given Pushkin House’s unflagging energy in exploring Russian culture, old and new, there is also the chance to make new discoveries. Apparently picked up simultaneously by several European translators, Teffi is making a comeback into the literature scene of today with the first ever publication of her stories in English. This summer Pushkin Press has boldly brought forward a writer many of us have never heard of, but one that it seems won’t be too difficult to fall in love with.

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Subtly Worded is available from Pushkin Press, priced at £12

(http://pushkinpress.com/book/subtly-worded-and-other-stories/)
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