And Time Was No More: Essential Stories and Memories, by Teffi

1820 3

Edited and annotated by Robert Chandler

Review by Karen Langley

The last decade or so has seen a resurgence of interest in Russian émigré writing with a host of forgotten names resurfacing in sparkling new translations. The indie publisher Pushkin Press has led the field here: they’ve issued a number of émigré authors and have pioneered the work of a writer much loved in her time but lost for decades – Teffi. The first Pushkin collection of her work was issued in 2014, and this year they’ve put together a wonderful new selection of her writings, entitled And Time Was No More: Essential Stories and Memories. Part of their Pushkin Press Classics imprint, it’s the perfect introduction to this marvellous author.

Born Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya in 1872, Teffi took to writing after running away from her husband and children, following six years of unhappy marriage. Returning to her native St. Petersburg, she began a long career as a professional writer, becoming a literary star who was loved by both the Tsar and Lenin. In 1919 she emigrated from Bolshevik Russia, eventually settling in Paris, and became was an important part of the émigré literary community. Here she lived (mostly) until her death in 1952, continuing to write up until the very end.

Previous collections of Teffi’s writings have brought together fiction, essays and memoirs; And Time…, however, takes a slightly different approach. Curated by esteemed translator Robert Chandler, who I assume is responsible for the selection, and who provides introductory material and notes, the book is structured to run autobiographically. Divided into five sections, these guide us through Teffi’s life and experiences in her own words. 

Part one, Childhood has some striking autofictions, and her writing captures the essence of being a child quite brilliantly. Whether relating the trauma of losing a childhood toy, lives of household members touched by Russian folk legends, or a crush on an older girl, Teffi’s stories are beautifully evocative, bringing alive her experiences. Her encounter, as a nine year old, with Tolstoy will resonate with anyone who’s been obsessed with a book or character or author!

The second section of the book is entitled Other Worlds and this explores tales drawn from adolescence or spiritual experiences. Shapeshifter, in particular, is fascinating, perhaps exploring the possible trajectory of Teffi’s life had she not married young and moved to the country. It’s an atmospheric story with some evocative passages relating Teffi’s journey through the Russian landscape at night. 

Teffi did, of course, live through some dramatic changing times, and the third part of the book contains pieces which relate her experiences during the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war. This draws on her autobiographical work Memories, as well as short pieces she wrote for newspapers in Kyiv and Odessa; like many who were uncertain of their future under Bolshevik rule, Teffi travelled away from Russia, hoping to return again one day. Alas, that would never happen.  The stories and extracts here are particularly moving, recounting as they do the struggle to survive, the fight to get out of the country, and the emotion felt by those leaving their homeland. Teffi, however, is always resolute and keen-eyed, and her piece on Istanbul (which was new to me) is wonderfully observed. 

I understand now that a writer involuntarily creates in the image and likeness of fate itself. All endings are hurried, compressed, broken off.

Part four of the book finds Teffi in exile in Paris, making the best of her situation, and often reflecting ruefully on her fellow émigré Russians. Subtly Worded is one of the most memorable pieces here, with the exiles trying to make sure that communications to and from the homeland are carefully written so as not to cause problems for those who remained. And the final section covers Teffi’s last years, a period when her health was failing and her work became perhaps more serious, considering spirituality and the meaning of life. The title piece is included here, and it’s a beautiful stream-of-consciousness work where Teffi draws on thoughts and dreams during an illness, thinking back on her life and contemplating good and evil.

And Time… is a wonderful collection, a labour of love by a number of translators (all individually credited at the end of each piece) and I’d like to name them all here: Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Michele Berdy, Rose France, Anne Marie Jackson and Claire Kitson, with contributions from Bee Bentall, Maria Evans, Irina Steinberg and Sian Valvis. All of these brilliant people have achieved a consistent voice for Teffi over the book and, steered by the guiding hand of Chandler, this work is stellar collection which creates a portrait in words of Teffi and her life. 

The book is a perfect example of how to produce this kind of anthology; there are introductions to each section, notes, chronology, a note on Russian names, further reading, and details of where some of the pieces have been published before. This, interestingly, indicates that those were ‘earlier versions’ so I presume that this new collection has updated ones, and they read quite beautifully. All in all, And Time Was No More is a stunning book which really captures Teffi, her life and her work; even if you’ve read some of her books before, I highly recommend this one for the sheer enjoyment it gives and the wonderful sense the reader gets of travelling alongside Teffi through the years. A really marvellous release!

Shiny New Books Logo

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and believes that great writing transcends time and place.

Teffi, And Time Was No More (Pushkin Press, 2024). 978-1787303638. 252pp., paperback original.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

3 comments

  1. Fascinating collection! I really like the sound of bringing together different sorts of writing to explore different things. And I’ve always thought the immigrant/emigrant experience is fascinating in and of itself, and gives a person a unique perspective.

    1. It’s very well done, Margot – follows her through her life and all its changes beautifully, and really captures the vagaries of her life. It certainly was full of events!

  2. I love that kind of supporting material; it really does sound as though they have gotten every tiny detail just perfect.

Do tell us what you think - thank you.