Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi (New York Review of Books Classics, 2016)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
I can thank Women in Translation Month for my introduction to Russian author Teffi, born Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1872. Last year, the New York Review of Books published two translations of her work, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, an account of her last few months living in the Russia and the Ukraine before she was forced into exile in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, and Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me, a collection of autobiographical short stories that span everything from her flirtations with Rasputin to life as a writer in the months before the Russian Revolution. I chose the latter collection because I’m a sucker for Rasputin, but these stories delve so much deeper – into the difficulties of motherhood, finding a place for art in revolution, and discussions of power and powerlessness as a woman at the turn of the century – and they accomplish all that with a stunning balance of humor and poetic language. Suffice to say, I devoured these stories in a weekend, and I have plans to snag a copy of Memories at the next appropriate moment.
The collection is organized thematically, with sections on interactions with famous artists and authors, the political climate of Russia before the Revolution, and the author’s childhood. I found this first section, on Teffi’s younger years, the most lyrically interesting and the most magical – she writes on the horror and wonder of childhood romance, her first, difficult years with her daughter (who she had very young, in her early 20s), and the strange boundary between reality and fantasy. The language in this section sings; Teffi writes in her story “Love,”
“All evening I was in misery. That night I had a dream from which I awoke in tears. But my dream was neither sad nor frightening, and I was crying not from grief but from rapture. When I woke, I could barely remember it. I could only say, ‘I dreamt of a boat. It was quite transparent, light blue. It floated through the wall, straight into silver rushes. Everything was poetry and music.’” (46).
What makes Teffi so wonderful, in this section particularly, is her comfort with complex emotions. She writes on this experience, of weeping over the rapturous beauty of a dream, and the loss of that beauty upon waking, despite the fact that she was unable to communicate those feelings to her nanny. When she turns to them again in stories, they are plainly stated, not psychologized but left as they are, for the reader the interpret. This is clear in “Valya,” where Teffi writes on the challenges of raising her daughter –
“I was in my twenty-first year.
She, my daughter, was in her fourth.
We were not well-matched.” (55).
There is a kind of bleak honesty here, which Teffi implements to discuss Russia’s political climate later, but which in this story is simultaneously difficult to stomach and incredibly human. Teffi writes on the cruelty of her daughter — and on her own inability to discipline her — calmly, ignoring the conventions that demand a mother be enraptured with her child. In fact, the beauty of the story is in both the selfishness and the guilt of the mother, who keeps the most beautiful Christmas ornament for herself, for fear that her daughter will break it, and then feels deeply guilty. She writes, “’It’s beauty will be lost on her,’ I had said to myself. But if that were the case, it was only because I hadn’t taught her to appreciate beauty.” (57). Later, when Valya breaks the ornament and tries to swallow it, Teffi cries, saying,
“I must wash her at once, I thought. I must scrub her tongue. That was what mattered – the paint might be poisonous. She seemed, thank God, to be alright. But why was I crying as I threw the broken mica wings into the fire? How very silly of me! I was crying!” (58-59).
These moments, in which honestly swims above convention, are the moments when Teffi shines. They are the moments when she shows her own humanity, plainly, on the page. She doesn’t turn this treatment only towards herself, however – she writes of Lenin, later on, “Lenin had no feeling for beauty whatsoever, in anything,” (105), and her expose on Rasputin stands as a stunning, twisted portrait of the man’s humanity.
These stories, though varied in their scope and their tone, come together to display the strength and a ferocity of a writer uprooted by political turmoil, who managed to maintain both her spirit and her sense of humor. Teffi is a writer who I would have been both thrilled and terrified to have met. My thanks to the New York Review of Books for making her work accessible. I did not know how incomplete my portrait of Russian literature was until I discovered this book.