Saturday, October 13, 2018

Rasputin and Other Ironies - Teffi

I've bought a few of the Pushkin editions of Teffi's books over the years because they all sound amazing, but until now I've never read any of them because Russian always makes me assume a thing will be vaguely depressing. I don't know if this was due to reading 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' (which I loved) at a formative age, or being hopelessly daunted by the length of 'War and Peace' at around the same time but I suspect that's at the root of it.

Fortunately the range of translated fiction available in the U.K. has improved immeasurably in the last couple of decades, so for me it's no longer about the books I feel I should read (but don't really fancy) it's about books that sound amazing. 

Teffi herself seems to still be something of an enigma. As far as I can gather she had an affluent sort of upbringing, married unhappily, abandoned her husband and son to return to St Petersburg to persue her career as a writer, was caught on the fringes of the revolutionary movement for a while, and then fled as a refugee with the White Russians. As I read more of her, I guess I'll read more about her too, and some of that history will become clearer.

Meanwhile 'Rasputin and Other Ironies' seems like as good a place as any to start. It's a collection of pieces that span her career, and although the tone of all of them is autobiographical some of it is basically fiction.

Her encounters with both Lenin and Rasputin are fascinating. I suppose her impressions of Lenin must to some extent be coloured by hindsight, but fleeting as those encounters are she has a lot to say about the atmosphere around him. The piece about Rasputin is excellent, again nothing more than a few encounters, but again they say a lot about the atmosphere he created.

For me though the most powerful story is 'Valya', about a mother and daughter. The mother is 21, the daughter 4, and in it as all the frustration of parenthood spread across a couple of pages. It's almost about nothing, but somehow is everything. The mother buys a Christmas decoration she thinks is particularly pretty, maybe to pretty to risk to childish hands. She risks it anyway and the child breaks it.

Robert Chandler, in his introduction picks out the Gaderene Swine as particularly worthy of note, it certainly dispenses with any pretence of humour or lightness, and is a powerful record of the exiles lot - but the whole book is a collection of gems. I'm only sorry it's taken me so long to get round to reading her, although the good news is there's plenty more to look forward to.


  1. I loved that piece about Rasputin, too. The way she resisted him was quite something. If you're looking to try more by Teffi, I would definitely recommend Subtly Worded for its breadth a diversity - a great collection of stories and sketches by this enigmatic writer.

  2. And I have a copy on the shelf! She's a revelation - happily a prejudice in favour of women writers and Pushkin press encouraged me to buy these books in the first place. The Rasputin piece has all the tension of a horror story, not least because we know how it ends for him. I'm really looking forward to reading more of her.