Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi

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Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Rose France

Reviewed by Karen Langley

One of my highlights from 2014 was the discovery of the writings of the wonderful Teffi, a Russian author from the early 20th century much lauded at the time but whose work had dropped out of sigh a little.  I reviewed her Subtly Worded collection when Pushkin Press brought this out and was swept away by her wonderful, evocative prose. So as you might imagine, I was very excited to discover that the publisher was bringing out two more Teffi volumes; and the first, a collection of autobiographical pieces entitled Rasputin and Other Ironies, is a real treat!

Teffi was a master of the short form, and the pieces gathered here are arranged chronologically to build up a picture of her life. As one of the translators, Anne Marie Jackson, points out in her introductory note, much of her writing harks back to her past and all through her life as an émigré she had a longing for her lost homeland. The book is divided into four sections, covering aspects of her work, her early life, her experiences during the revolution and civil war, and finally her portraits of other writers and artists. Two of the pieces were previously published in Subtly Worded and an earlier version of one in Robert Chandler’s exemplary collection, Russian Short Stories: From Pushkin to Buida.

Teffi has the reputation of a humourist, but there’s really so much more to her than that. Playing the buffoon, supposedly producing light-weight prose, actually allows her to get many sharp observations across. Her writing is quite beautiful and evocative, and she conjures up her life as a child wonderfully.

The morning of each long day began joyfully; thousands of small rainbows in the soapy foam of the wash bowl; a new, brightly coloured light dress; a prayer before the icon, behind which the stems of pussy willow were still fresh; tea on a terrace shaded by lemon trees that had been carried out from the orangery in their tubs; my elder sisters, black-browed and with long plaits, only just back from boarding school for the holidays and still seeming strange to me; the slap of washing bats from the pond beyond the flower garden, where the women doing the laundry were calling out to one another in ringing voices; the languid clucking of hens behind a clump of young, still small-leaved lilac. Not only was everything new and joyful in itself but it was, moreover, a promise of something still more new and joyful.

She’s also a very astute observer of character and her memories of time spent working on left-wing journals and meeting with Lenin are priceless. Despite her apparent simplicity of outlook, Teffi isn’t intimidated by the great man or those around him. However, as the burgeoning left-wing movement decides there is no place for art in their publications, Teffi is quick to move away.

As for her recollections of Rasputin, they’re really fascinating and it’s chilling to see him trying to exercise mesmeric techniques on her. Fortunately, our Teffi is strong-minded enough to resist, but she paints a clear portrait of what can happen when someone like Rasputin gains influence over weak-minded rulers and everyone else then crowds round trying to curry favour. A picture emerges clearly here of a man out of his depth, making the most of the unexpected power he’s been given over events, but unable to actually control what’s happening around him. It’s a striking piece of writing and a unique portrait of the man.

But there is humour, too, and Teffi’s turns of phrase are wonderful – for example, she describes one gent’s rather spectacular sounding beard as being ‘like a bush of Austrian broom. Each of the curly dark hairs on his head grew in a distinct spiral, and one half-expected these spirals to chime together in the wind.’

However, Teffi doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and one of the most powerful pieces in the book is ‘The Gadarene Swine’. Here, she lambasts the powerful fleeing Russia during the Civil War to save their own money and skins, and laments the fate of the ordinary people, the refugees unable to survive or find food and shelter during the conflict who leave with nothing.

Rasputin and Other Ironies was a real joy to read; the translations were in the capable hands of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Rose France, edited and with introductory material by R. Chandler and Jackson. A helpful glossary of historical characters appears at the end, as well as informative notes. The rediscovery of Teffi has to rank high in the achievements of Pushkin Press, alongside their championing of Stefan Zweig and Gaito Gazdanov. Let’s hope there are more Teffi volumes to come!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings 

Teffi, Rasputin and Other Ironies, (Pushkin Press, 2016). 9781782272175, 224pp, paperback.

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