Subtly Worded

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Every so often a long neglected writer will be rediscovered, even in the world of translated literature – consider Sandor Marai’s Embers or Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. One publisher in particular seems to be able to do this regular basis: step forward Pushkin Press. You might immediately think of Stefan Zweig and Antal Szerb, but within the last twelve months there has been I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holena and The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov. Now we are treated to Subtly Worded, a selection of stories from Russian émigré writer Teffi (a pseudonym explained in translator Anne Marie Jackson’s excellent introduction). The collection is also expertly curated, organised into five sections chronologically beginning before the Russian Revolution and continuing up to her final stories in the 1950s.

The early stories are witty and comic. The opening story, ‘A Radiant Easter’, simply contrasts the supposed joy of the religious celebration with the tensions within a family where one after the other leaves slamming doors behind them until only the cat is left. Similarly ‘Will-Power’ is a story about its absence. In ‘The Corsican’ the humour is already a little darker – a potential police provocateur practises the revolutionary songs he will need to pass for a radical. My favourite of the early stories, ‘The Hat’, is about the confidence that clothing can bring:

“Oh! What a woman can get away with when she’s wearing a hat like this!”

You will not be surprised to learn that there is a twist at the end. Teffi writes wonderfully about childhood in ‘Jealousy’ and then moves effortlessly to old age in ‘The Quiet Backwater’, but she is at her sharpest when she writes of other women:

“She called on Medina at eleven in the morning, before Medina had time to do her face and hair and when her defences would be at their weakest.”

The second section, stories from 1916 to 1919, contains an early satire of Communism in ‘One Day in the Future’ (“The cabby was a good one, even if he was a former botany professor”) but the stand-out story is ‘Rasputin’, particularly as it is based on first-hand knowledge, containing such details as the way he addresses everyone as “Dearie” (or its Russian equivalent), the way he places his hand on your shoulder when he wants to persuade you, and the way he speaks:

“And the way he said ‘Shall’ so commandingly, with such authority, it was as if this had been decided on high and Rasputin was in the know.”

In him we have a portrait of many manipulative, charismatic cult leaders since. The collection also contains a story about meeting Tolstoy, but, as the narrator is a child, the story is much less detailed.

Teffi also turns a telling eye to émigré life in Paris, a life of back-biting and mistrust:

“We stick together…not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion.”

Names, she says, are generally prefaced by the phrase “that-crook.” The title story, another example of satire, humorous on the outside but with a darker truth at its centre, concerns writing letters to the Soviet Union. Everything must be phrased in opposition to the truth to prevent those receiving the letter being arrested – an early example of double-speak if not double-think.

In the final stories, for example ‘The Blind One’, the humour is all but gone and there is a much more elegiac tone. In it the weeping of a woman is mistaken for the sound of an angel by two blinds girls. This, and the two which follow, are probably the most subtle, and saddest, stories in the collection.

These stories are probably not among the greatest ever written, and Teffi is certainly not a literary giant, but they are a delight to read, and throughout you are glad that Pushkin Press have made them available again.

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6 Responses to “Subtly Worded”

  1. jacquiwine Says:

    Great review, as ever. I have a copy of this collection on my kindle, and I’m keen to get to it fairly soon. It sounds as if the stories vary in tone and subject, and I’m intrigued by the one on Rasputin.

    Pushkin Press continue to unearth these little gems; I loved Jack Mortimer and Alexander Wolf! And I also have the Fraile on my list following your recent review…

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I would recommend it. It’s great to have such a reliable publisher as it encourages you to try new writers.

  2. Robert Chandler Says:

    I (one of the book’s co-translators!) would say that some of these stories ARE among the greatest ever written. Here is what another reviewer has written about one of the longest and darkest stories, written in the voice of a dying woman: ‘The book’s most striking piece, though, is its last one, “And Time Was No More,” an astonishing stream-of-consciousness vision of Teffi’s childhood. During a conversation in the snow with a mysterious Huntsman, Teffi confesses her regrets and looks ahead to her death. “I just want to talk without any logic or order,” she writes, “the way things come to me.” It’s a scorchingly personal last testament that shows the elderly writer must have picked up a thing or two from her time at the epicenter of European modernism.’

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.
      I hope you didn’t think the review was negative as I enjoyed the book and hoped to recommend it to others.
      As I mentioned, I felt the stories grew in depth as the collection progressed, and the story you single out does make a particular impression. I should have made more of this. However, I felt that the early stories were slight if entertaining, and that the satires were quite simplistic.
      You’re probably correct that I haven’t done Teffi justice but (as the blog’s title suggests) these are my thoughts after a first reading.
      The point that I was trying to make at the end was that a writer’s work should not have to be an undisputed classic to be rediscovered, and to state how pleased I was that translators such as yourself had made the stories available in English.

  3. Robert Chandler Says:

    Thank you very much – and I should have made it clear in my first comment that I thought everything else in your review was clear, perceptive and well expressed.

  4. Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson) | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] Grant (1streading) and Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) have also reviewed this excellent collection. […]

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