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.