The Grace of Teffi

The following serves as the foreword to Other Worlds: Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints, a newly translated selection of the Russian writer Teffi’s stories, which was published earlier this week by New York Review Books.

Teffi. Photo courtesy of New York Review Books.

There are writers who muddy their own water, to make it seem deeper. Teffi could not be more different: the water is entirely transparent, yet the bottom is barely visible.

—Georgy Adamovich

It is not unusual for a writer to be pigeonholed, but few great writers have suffered from this more than Teffi. Several of her finest works are extremely bleak, but many Russians still know only the comic and satirical sketches she wrote during her first years as a professional writer, from 1901 until 1918. Few critics have recognized the full breadth of her human sympathy, her Chekhovian ability to write convincingly about people from every level of society: illiterate peasants, respectable bourgeois, monks and priests, eccentric poets, bewildered émigrés, and public figures ranging from Lev Tolstoy to Rasputin and Lenin. Teffi also has a remarkable gift for writing about children, for showing us the world from the perspective of a small child.

Throughout her life, Teffi was a practicing member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Both Orthodox Christianity and Russian folk religion, with its poetic understanding of spiritual matters, were important to her. And she recognized that many of her finest stories were those inspired by these themes. In December 1943, she wrote to the historian Piotr Kovalevsky: “Which of my things do I most value? I think that the stories ‘Solovki’ and ‘A Quiet Backwater’ and the collection Witch are well written. In Witch you find our ancient Slav gods, how they still live on in the soul of the people, in legends, superstitions, and customs. Everything as I encountered it in the Russian provinces, as a child.”

Teffi made few such direct statements about her work. I know just one other passage in a similar vein:

During those years of my distant childhood, we used to spend the summer in a wonderful, blessed country—at my mother’s estate in Volhynia Province. I was very little. I had only just begun to learn to read and write—so I must have been about five … What slipped quickly through the lives of adults was for us a matter of complex and turbulent experience, entering our games and our dreams, inserting itself like a brightly colored thread into the pattern of our life, into that first firm foundation that psychoanalysts now investigate with such art and diligence, seeing it as the prime cause of many of the madnesses of the human soul.

These two statements have guided our choice of stories. We have translated all but one of the stories from Witch. We have included the two other stories Teffi mentions: “Solovki,” an account of a pilgrimage to the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, and “A Quiet Backwater,” which incorporates a memorable monologue about the patron saints of various birds, insects, and animals. And we have chosen ten other stories on similar themes, many of them from the first of Teffi’s more serious collections, The Lifeless Beast. For the main part, we present the stories according to their order of publication. The one exception is that we begin with “Kishmish,” which was written much later. This short, semiautobiographical story serves as a perfect introduction to many of the main themes of Other Worlds.

This is the first time that Teffi’s more “otherworldly” stories have been brought together in this manner. Our hope is that this will allow readers a clearer sense of the depth of understanding beneath her dazzling wit and brilliance.

*

Teffi was well aware of how often her work was misunderstood. Her preface to The Lifeless Beast begins:

I do not like prefaces …

I would not be writing a preface now were it not for a sad incident.

In October 1914 I published the story “Yavdokha.” This melancholy and painful story is about a lonely old peasant woman. She is illiterate and muddle-headed and so hopelessly benighted that, when she receives news of the death of her son, she is unable to grasp what has happened. Instead, she wonders whether or not he will be sending her money.

One angry newspaper then … indignantly scolded me for laughing at human grief.

“What does Madame Teffi find funny about this?” the newspaper asked indignantly. After quoting the very saddest passages of all, it repeated, “And does she consider this funny? And is this funny, too?”

The newspaper would probably be most surprised if I were to tell it that I did not laugh for a single minute …

And so the aim of this preface is to warn the reader that there is a great deal in this book that is not funny.

Several of the stories in The Lifeless Beast seem startlingly modern. The journalist’s misunderstanding shows us how far beyond the conventions of her time Teffi had moved. Yavdokha has no companion but a hog and is hunchbacked from living in a hut that has sunk deep into the ground. She lives five miles from the nearest village and is alienated both from the other peasants and from everything to do with the Russian state. After someone has read out a letter informing her of her son’s death she repeats the word “war”—but it is unclear if she even grasps what the word means and she certainly does not take in that her son has died. Yavdokha could have stepped out of one of Samuel Beckett’s last plays.

Curiously, misunderstandings not unlike the journalist’s are a central theme of The Lifeless Beast. In some stories, the misunderstandings arise from differences of social class; in others, it is the young and healthy who fail to understand the old and needy; in still others it is adults who fail—or do not even try—to understand children. Teffi’s portrayal of human failings is unflinching; in “Happiness,” she describes happiness as an “empty and hungry” creature that can survive only if fed with the “warm, human meat” of someone else’s envy. In a smaller number of stories, however, she evokes moments of genuine love and compassion. In “Daisy,” a seemingly inane aristocratic lady enrolls as a military nurse because that is the fashionable thing to do, quickly becomes involved in her work, and, to her surprise, is deeply moved by the gratitude of an uneducated soldier she helps to treat. “The Heart” follows a similar pattern; Rakhatova, a frivolous actress, thinks it would be entertaining to confess to a simple, poorly educated monk before receiving Communion in a remote monastery. She is taken aback by the monk’s spontaneous joy when she says she has not “committed any grave sins.”

The eyes now looking at her were so clear and joyful that they seemed to be flickering, just as stars flicker when their clear light overflows …

“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

He was trembling all over. It was as if he were a large severed heart and a drop of living water had fallen onto it. The heart quivers—and then all the other dead, severed pieces quiver too.

As always, Teffi’s imagery is carefully developed. The last sentence refers back to the scene that greeted Rakhatova and her friends when they arrived at the monastery the previous day:

The peasant was hacking at the fish with a broad knife …

Then the peasant took a bucket and poured water over the pieces of fish and the severed head. There was a sudden move­ment in one of the middle pieces. A twitch, a quiver—and the whole fish responded. Even the chopped-off tail jerked.

“That’s its heart contracting,” said the Medico.

Born in 1872, Teffi was a contemporary of Alexander Blok and other leading Russian Symbolists. Her own poetry is derivative, but in her prose she shows a remarkable gift for grounding Symbolist themes and imagery in the everyday world. “The Heart” is entirely realistic and at times even gossipy—yet the story is permeated throughout with Christian symbolism relating to fish. In “A Quiet Backwater,” she achieves a still more successful synthesis of the heavenly and the earthly. Toward the end of this seven-page story a laundress gives a long disquisition on the name days of various birds, insects, and animals. The mare, the bee, the glowworm—she tells a young visitor—all have their name days. And so does the earth herself: “And the Feast of the Holy Ghost is the name day of the earth herself. On this day, no one dairnst disturb the earth. No diggin, or sowin—not even flower pickin, or owt. No buryin t’ dead. Great sin it is, to upset the earth on ’er name day. Aye, even beasts understand. On that day, they dairnst lay a claw, nor a hoof, nor a paw on the earth. Great sin, yer see.” In a key poem—almost a manifesto—of French Symbolism, Charles Baudelaire interprets the whole world as a web of mystical “correspondences.” In a less grandiose way, Teffi conveys a similar vision. She was, I imagine, delighted by the paradox of the earth’s name day being the Feast of the Holy Spirit—not, as one might expect, the feast of a saint associated with some activity like plowing.

The Lifeless Beast is notable for its striking imagery and bold rendition of peasant speech, and for being one of a very few treatments in Russian literature of World War I as experienced by civilians. Teffi’s insight into human selfishness and viciousness never wavers. Nevertheless, she remains true to her faith in Christian love—as practiced by Daisy in a field hospital, as experienced by Rakhatova through Orthodox ritual, and as embodied in the generous, restorative understandings of folk religion.

*

In early 1920 Teffi settled in Paris. Russian émigrés throughout the world were quick to set up publishing houses and Teffi was one of their most valued authors. In 1921 alone she published five books: two miniature selections of articles and stories, in Berlin; a collection of comic sketches, in Shanghai; the short story collection Black Iris, in Stockholm; and A Quiet Backwater—which includes most of the stories from The Lifeless Beast—in Paris.

Teffi’s high standing is still more clearly shown by her publications in periodicals. “Ke fer?” (Que Faire?)—a brilliant evocation of the Russians’ sense of alienation in Paris—was published in April 1920, in the first issue of the important The Latest News. And “Solovki”—an almost Brueghelesque account of the widespread practice of mass pilgrimage to holy sites—was the first item in the first issue (August 1921) of the glamorous, lavishly illustrated journal The Firebird, which featured work by almost all the best-known émigré writers and artists. These two publications serve as markers to the twin paths Teffi would follow for the next fifty years. Many of her stories are about the mishaps and absurdities of émigré life; others are about a long-lost past.

“Solovki” was republished in Evening Day. Teffi’s following collection, A Small Town (Paris, 1927), is not represented in Other Worlds, since most of the stories deal with her émigré present—the “small town” of Russian Paris—rather than her Russian past. We have, however, included three stories from The Book of June. Like “Solovki,” the title story is a sympathetic account of overwhelming religious experience. Here, however, Teffi enters more deeply into the heroine’s inner world, into her most inarticulate thoughts and feelings; it is one of Teffi’s most sensitive treatments of adolescence.

*

Most of the stories in Witch bear the titles of folkloric beings—for example, “Wonder Worker,” “The House Spirit,” or “Rusalka” (a female water spirit resembling the Lorelei). Some of the stories are grim, some fanciful, some sober and philosophical. Some are realistic, with only the merest hint at the supernatural; in others, the supernatural motifs are more pronounced. Sometimes a character tries all too transparently to cover up his or her misconduct through some implausible supernatural explanation; sometimes it is the rationalist skeptics who appear foolish and blinkered. One piece, “About the House,” is hardly a story at all—more like a chatty retelling of a scholarly article, with a brief anecdote tacked on at the end.

All the stories are presented from the perspective of a Russian exile. Often the tone is nostalgic. Sometimes there is a note of bewilderment: Could such things truly have happened? Could such a world as old Russia really have existed?

Witch is a coherent and self-contained collection. Its main themes, however, are anticipated in “Wild Evening” and “Shapeshifter,” the last two stories in The Book of June. The central character of these two stories—and also of the first and last stories of Witch—is clearly modeled on Teffi herself. In 1892, at age twenty, Teffi married a lawyer by the name of Vladislav Buchinsky. We know little about her years as a young wife and mother, living in small provincial towns, but we know from statements Teffi made later that she was deeply unhappy.

“Wild Evening” is about fear of the unknown; except for an opportunistic peddler, everyone in the story—the young Teffi, the monks, even the horse—is in a state of terror. All around lurk threatening forces—darkness, cattle plague, the unclean dead. “Shapeshifter” may represent Teffi’s fantasy of a different course her life might have followed; a stranger’s chance intervention prompts the Teffi figure to decide against marriage to a lawyer who has much in common with the real-life Buchinsky. The opening, title story of Witch shows us a young husband and wife feeling more and more exasperated with each other as they grow ever more afraid—though neither will admit it—of a maid suspected of witchcraft. And in “Wolf Night,” the concluding story of Witch, we glimpse this same husband and wife perhaps a year or two later. The husband has grown even more resentful and evil-tempered, and the wife—now pregnant—is overwhelmed by nightmares of the house being surrounded by wolves. Ten lines before the end of the story, the husband says to the wife, “Please! Do me a favor! Go and stay with your oh so clever mother. A fine way she must have brought you up, to make you into such a hysteric.”

Teffi did not ever go back to her “oh so clever mother,” though it is possible that her husband may have uttered some sarcasm similar to the above. All we know for sure is that in 1898, probably on the edge of a breakdown, Teffi abandoned her husband and three children and moved back to Saint Petersburg to begin her career as a professional writer. There is little doubt that this rupture—which she very seldom spoke about—was a source of almost unbearable guilt and pain. Nevertheless, the words she wrote nearly fifty years later to her eldest daughter have the ring of truth. After saying she had been a bad mother, Teffi backtracks: “In essence I was good, but circumstances drove me from home, where, had I remained, I would have perished.”

At the heart of Witch, framed by these stories drawing on her unhappy life as a young woman, stands a group of six stories in which Teffi moves further back in time, to her own childhood. At one level, these can be read as a fictional treatment of folk beliefs in Volhynia (now part of western Ukraine). At the same time, they constitute a memorial to Teffi’s younger sister Lena, the closest to her of her six siblings. Lena had died in 1919, and Teffi writes movingly about her death in Memories, which she completed only shortly before the stories in Witch. In both books, Teffi portrays herself and Lena as inseparable.

One of these stories, “The Kind That Walk,” is a study of anti-Semitism—and of xenophobia more generally. Teffi deftly shows us people’s blind fear of Moshka, an honest and competent Jewish carpenter; she is equally deft in evoking the fascination with which she and Lena listen to the adults’ wild talk about how Moshka, many years earlier, had been dragged off by the devil. Many of the other main characters in these six stories are domestic servants. Teffi’s mother and some of her elder siblings appear now and then, but it is the children’s Nyanya, or nanny, who is the most important authority figure.

There are also two stories set mainly in Moscow and Petersburg. The longer of these, “The Dog,” begins with the narrator, Lyalya, recalling idyllically happy summers as a teenager on a country estate in the company of friends and admirers. In those days, she says with pained emphasis, she was carefree and high-spirited. She had felt briefly troubled, however, by the intense feeling with which a shy young boy called Tolya once swore eternal devotion to her, promising always to remain her “faithful dog.” A few years later, Lyalya falls in with the bohemian crowd who frequent the Stray Dog, the famous Saint Petersburg cabaret where all the major poets of the time used to give readings. Somehow, almost inadvertently, Lyalya takes up with Harry Edvers, a particularly odious pseudo-poet who later ends up working for the Cheka, the Bolshevik security police. In the story’s final scene she calls on her “faithful dog” for help—with dramatic results. Lyalya concludes:

That’s the whole story; that’s what I wanted to tell you. I’ve made nothing up; I’ve added nothing; and there’s nothing I can explain—or even want to explain. But when I turn back and consider the past, I can see everything clearly. I can see each separate event and the axis or thread upon which a certain force had strung them.

It had strung the events on the thread like beads and tied up the loose ends.

“The Dog” is convincing on every level. As an evocation of a lost childhood paradise, the first pages bear comparison with the work of Teffi’s friend and colleague Ivan Bunin. As a reckoning with the febrile cultural world of prerevolutionary Saint Petersburg, it anticipates Anna Akhmatova’s Poem without a Hero (written 1940–1965). Like Akhmatova, Teffi sees the bohemian abandonment of traditional moral values as having paved the way for the brutalities and duplicities of Communism. And the denouement provides a fine example of a writer drawing on the occult not for exotic ornament but as a source of psychological truth. The huge dog’s sudden appearance may be mere chance; it may be a real embodiment of Tolya’s loyal and resolute spirit; or it may be Tolya’s spirit prompting Lyalya toward an act that requires superhuman powers. Teffi has taken care not to exclude any of these possibilities. Unlike the “certain force” spoken of by her narrator, she does not tie up the story’s loose ends.

*

In the letter quoted earlier, Teffi says of Witch, “This book has been highly praised by Bunin, Kuprin, and Merezhkovsky. They praised it for its artistry and the excellence of its language. I am, by the way, proud of my language, which critics have seldom commented on.”

Teffi’s pride is justified. Along with Andrey Bely, Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov, and Andrey Platonov, she is one of a number of great twentieth-century Russian prose writers who were also poets but whose poetic gifts found their truest expression in prose. It is difficult, though, to define what makes Teffi’s language so remarkable. She makes skillful use of repetition, often using a single word as a leitmotif for an entire story. In “Wild Evening,” for example, she uses the adjective dikii (wild) of a horse’s eye, of the night, of a person, and of the dangerously high seat of a two-wheel carriage. In “Rusalka” she repeats mutnyi (murky, cloudy, troubled) more and more often in the course of the story; she uses the word especially often in relation to the two sisters’ troubled visions in the last pages, when one of the housemaids either drowns or turns into a rusalka and the girls fall ill with scarlet fever. It is also true that Teffi has a fine ear for the linguistic peculiarities of people from different social groups—ranging from Volhynia peasants to Russian émigrés in Paris; it is not for nothing that the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, as a novice writer, noted down some of Teffi’s most striking coinages and malapropisms. Nevertheless, the twenties was a rich period for Russian prose and none of the above is enough to make Teffi unique.

What truly sets her apart is her lightness of touch. More than Vladislav Khodasevich, more than Akhmatova or any of the Acmeist poets, it is Teffi who has inherited the grace and fluency of Pushkin. She can write as simply and tautly as Hemingway—but without the least sense of willed tightness. She can write long, complex sentences dense with embedded participial clauses, yet these sentences, unlike apparently similar sentences in the work of Bunin, retain a conversational quality. Some of her more unreliable narrators come out with phrases as memorably absurd as characters out of Zoshchenko—yet even here there is a difference. Zoshchenko’s sentences seem brilliantly constructed; Teffi’s appear simply to have happened. It may be for this very reason—her success in creating an illusion of naturalness—that Teffi’s language has received so little scholarly attention.

Many of her greatest contemporaries, however, were well aware of her gifts. Zoshchenko studied her intently; Bunin admired her; Mikhail Bulgakov borrowed from her Civil War articles for The White Guard. And Georgy Ivanov referred to Teffi as “a unique phenomenon in Russian literature, a true miracle that people will still be wondering at in a hundred years’ time, crying and laughing at once.”

*

The last two pieces in this collection are “Baba Yaga” and “Volya,” two essays from Earthly Rainbow (published six months before Teffi’s death), in which Teffi asserts her profound Russianness. Baba Yaga is the name of the archetypal Russian folktale witch and the word volya is used for what Teffi understands as a peculiarly Russian kind of unbounded emotional freedom. Both essays end with a heartfelt cry. Baba Yaga, confined in her wintry hut, longing for wildness, freedom, and open spaces, cries, “B—o—r—i—n—g.” And in the last lines of “Volya” the aging Teffi remembers herself as a young woman, waving at the spring dawn and crying out, “Vo-o-o-ly-a-a-a!” Shortly before this, she has heard a boy on the other side of the river singing his heart out. The last line of his song—“Sing Volya, Volya, Volya!”—is described as “heartrending, piercingly joyful, like a sudden yelp, coming from somewhere too deep in the soul.”

Teffi is indeed one of the most graceful of Russian writers. It seems likely, however, that this grace is a way of managing an almost unbearable burden of pain. There are a great many heartfelt cries in these stories. Some of these cries and desperate screams seem almost infectious, so agonizing that those who hear them can’t help but let out similar screams. The epileptic sleigh driver in “Shapeshifter,” for example, lets out a cry with “something so terrible about it” that the narrator screams, too, jumping up from her seat and almost tumbling out of the sleigh. And the narrator of “Witch” describes, at some length, the scream of a guinea hen “wailing for her slaughtered mate.” She continues:

This isn’t easy to explain to you, but such a cry of inconsolable despair, above the dead little town, in the silence of that trackless steppe, was more than any human soul could bear.

I remember coming home and saying to my husband, “Now I know why people hang themselves.”

He screamed, clutching his head in his hands.

In the last pages of “The Book of June,” Katya lets out repeated screams of terror: “Katya had no idea what made her keep on screaming like this. Some kind of lump seemed to be filling her throat, making her gasp and wheeze and scream out Grisha’s name.” And two of Teffi’s very finest works end with still wilder cries. The heroine of “Solovki” gives herself up to a prolonged scream during a service in the main monastery church: “What mattered was not to stop, to expend more and more of herself in the cry, to give herself to it more intensely, yes, more and more of herself: Oh, if only they didn’t get in her way. Oh, if only they let her keep going … But it was so hard. Would she have the strength?”

One of the most painful passages in all Teffi’s work is the last page of her autobiographical Memories, her account of her final, irrevocable departure from Russia. It is the summer of 1919 and she is on her way to Istanbul, on a boat leaving Novorossiysk harbor:

From the lower deck comes the sound of long, obstinate wails, interspersed with words of lament.

Where have I heard such wails before? Yes. I remember. During the first year of the war. A gray-haired old woman was being taken down the street in a horse-drawn cab. Her hat had slipped back onto the nape of her neck. Her yellow cheeks were thin and drawn. Her toothless black mouth was hanging open, crying out in a long tearless wail: “A-a-a-a-a!” Probably embarrassed by the disgraceful behavior of his passenger, the driver was urging his poor horse forward, whipping her on.

Yes, my good man, you didn’t think enough about whom you were picking up in your cab. And now you’re stuck with this old woman. A terrible, black, tearless wail. A last wail. Over all of Russia, the whole of Russia … No stopping now …

These cries and wails differ in tone. The boy’s “sudden yelp” in “Volya” is “piercingly joyful,” whereas the gray-haired woman in Memories is mired in despair. In at least one respect, however, the cries are all too similar. All are painfully raw; all come from “somewhere too deep in the soul.” It is as if these characters have been flayed. Layers of protective skin have been torn away and what should be hidden lies dangerously exposed.

Teffi’s grace seems all the more precious when we understand that it was both a protective cloak and her way of trying to keep her footing. It may perhaps have been what enabled her, unlike many of her contemporaries, to preserve her balance and sanity throughout a seemingly never-ending series of catastrophes—World War I, the Russian Civil War, the viciousness of émigré political infighting, and life under German occupation during World War II. If Teffi liked to refer to herself as a witch, if she identified at the end of her life with Baba Yaga, this may be because she was hoping to charm the inner and outer darkness, to cast a spell on it that might keep it at bay.

 

Robert Chandler’s translations from Russian include Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter; Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook, Everything Flows, Stalingrad, Life and Fate, and The Road; and Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway. His cotranslations of Andrey Platonov have won prizes both in the UK and in the U.S. As well as running regular translation workshops in London and teaching in an annual literary translation summer school, he works as a mentor for the British Centre for Literary Translation.

Excerpted from the foreword to Other Worlds: Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints, by Teffi, edited and with a foreword by Robert Chandler, translated by Chandler and several others, including Anne-Marie Jackson, Sabrina Jaszi, Sara Jolly, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and Sian Valvis, published by NYRB Classics. Foreword copyright © 2021 by Robert Chandler.

Read more: theparisreview.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *