Posts Tagged ‘teffi’

Almost Lost in Translation Part 2

June 19, 2020

Beyond Sleep by W F Hermans (1966, translated by Ina Rilke in 2006)

Willem Frederik Hermans was a Dutch writer who is generally regarded as one of the three most important post-war writers in the Netherlands, alongside Harry Mulisch and Gerard Reve (one of whom may feature later). Despite this, his only previous translation into English was in the 1966 anthology The World of Modern Fiction. Luckily Ina Rilke rescued Hermans from this indignity by translating Beyond Sleep in 2006. The novel tells the story of Dutch geologist on an expedition to the north of Norway which does not go according to plan. This was followed the next year by the more serious The Darkroom of Damocles set during the German occupation of Holland. Sadly, neither made a huge impression, but in 2018 his novella, The Untouched House, also set during war-time, was translated by David Colmer and published by Pushkin Press, who now plan to reprint the previous two novels, so perhaps a Herman revival is on the cards. You can read a review of Beyond Sleep by Michel Faber here.


Seven Stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (written during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, translated by Joanne Turnbull in 2006)

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was a Russian writer of short stories and novellas, most of which were unpublished in his lifetime (1887-1950) due to a combination of bad luck and Soviet censorship. It was not until 1989 that his work began to be published in Russia with a collected edition finally appearing between 2001 and 2005 According to Adam Thirlwell “Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction is based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality.” Although the New York Review of Books Classics imprint has become his de facto publisher in English (beginning with Memories of the Future in 2009), his stories first appeared in 7 Stories from Glass New Russian Writing translated by Joanne Turnbull in 2006. Krzhizhanovsky continues to appear in translation with a fifth volume from NYRB, Unwitting Street, is due in August. You can read a review of 7 Stories on Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1947, translated by Michael Hofmann in 2009)

Alone in Berlin (or Every Man Dies Alone – the direct translation of its title in German used on its original publication in the US by Melville House) was published in 1947, the same year as Hans Fallada’s death. Though Fallada’s work had been translated into English throughout the thirties (indeed, he thought of immigrating to England after Hitler came to power), he was long forgotten until the publication of Michael Hofmann’s translation in 2009. Fallada’s story of an ordinary couple’s resistance to the Nazis was a huge success (you can tell from this list that UK readers still have a keen appetite for anything related to the Second World War) and, like Suite Francaise, was made into a film. Further translations followed, including two more from Hofmann (A Small Circus and Tales from the Underworld) and another late novel, Nightmare in Berlin, translated by Allan Blunden. You can read my review of Alone in Berlin here.

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson (1947, translated by Damion Searls in 2010)

Hans Keilson was also a German writer, but he left Germany for the Netherlands in 1936 (he was Jewish) and later, under the German occupation, had to go into hiding. His experiences informed Comedy in a Minor Key, translated by Damion Searl and published by Hesperus Press in 2010. This short novel is about a Dutch couple hiding a Jewish man, but (proving it’s not entirely autobiographical) the man dies and the couple must find a way to dispose of the body: it’s a fairly dark comedy. Round about the same time the novel he wrote while in hiding, The Death of the Adversary, (in a 1962 translation by Ivo Jarosy) was republished and his first novel, Life Goes On, was translated by Searl in 2012. Though he lived until the age of 101, there were no further novels, though you can also read his 1944 War Diary in English. You can read a review of Comedy in a Minor Key by David Ulin here.


The Topless Tower by Silvina Ocampo (1986, translated by James Womack, 2010)

The Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo has, for many years, lived in the shadow of her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and his (and her) even more famous friend, Jorge Luis Borges. Yet throughout her life she published regularly, although her work mainly consists of stories (many for children) and poetry, leaving her lacking the major novel which is often use to launch a writer in English. The Topless Tower is more a story than a novel – it would be generous to call it a novella. In it the narrator finds himself locked in a windowless room in a tower, which he first saw in a mysterious stranger’s painting. It was a slim introduction to Ocampo’s work, but was followed in 2015 by a selection of her stories, Thus Were Their Faces, and, more recently, the posthumous novel The Promise and her first collection of stories from 1937, Forgotten Journey. It seems her work is finally making it into English. You can read my review of The Topless Tower here.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (a selection of short stories written between 1920 and 1952, translated by Ann Marie Jackson in 2014)

Teffi was a Russian writer who began publishing short stories in 1905. She left Russia after the Revolution and settled in Paris. Up until 2014 her stories had only ever been published in English in anthologies. This changed when Pushkin Press brought out a collection of her work translated by Anne Marie Jackson, Subtly Worded, revealing Teffi to be an adept and often amusing proponent of the form. This was followed by two other collections, Rasputin and Other Ironies, and the autobiographical Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. You can read a review of Subtly Worded at JacquiWine’s Journal here.

Subtly Worded

August 6, 2014

untitled (43)

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.