For those who have yet to experience her brilliance, Teffi was a brilliant female Russian writer who waded her way through literary fame, revolution and exile, writing as she went. Capturing some of the most compelling moments of her time in her work, Teffi succeeded in treating life with little regard for falsities, writing sharp and witty commentaries about her life in a time of political turmoil. Rasputin and Other Ironies, a recent collection of some of her work, published by Pushkin Press, is the best introduction to her writing I could have ever asked for.
There is something utterly entrancing about Teffi’s prose. She chooses her words deftly, yet carries with her a bluntness that makes her stories shine. She writes fearlessly, unafraid of what we have to say as readers of her work. She is honest, giving equal respect to comedy and tragedy in her life. In this collection of translations of some of Teffi’s best work, she writes about life in all its many glorious complexities, from the vast collapsing mountain of her writing desk to Lenin and Rasputin. She speaks about all topics with the same exquisite wit and seriousness, undercut with trademark Teffi humour.
Almost everything I have read about Russia in the time of the last Tsar and the revolution has romanticised something – whether it be the Tsar and his family, the famous story of the lost princess Anastasia, the mysticism of Rasputin, or just the life of the Russian people. We tend to think of this period of time in isolation, like it is trapped in a glittering snow globe where we can peak in and see change happening far away from us.
Teffi doesn’t do this, and it is refreshing to read something that speaks so carefully and yet so bluntly about what life was like as a writer and as a woman in this time in Russian history. She is not sugar coating anything, as she smashes our snow globes and tells us of her life. She has no time for the men who seek to control her writing and her interactions with famous historical figures, and she has no time for us either, writing more for herself than anyone else. One of my favourite moments is when she describes how women would fall all over themselves to spend time with Rasputin himself, but when she meets him, she has no desire to speak to him beyond her duty. She remembers him, but not for his supposed charm, but rather for his strange place amongst the Russian people, the way he tried to woo her, and his attempts to predict the future of Russia: “if they kill Rasputin, it will be the end of Russia”, and the way this felt true for a time, but even then, she writes this with a sense of irony, as she watches the image of Rasputin burn.
It is amazing to learn about Teffi through her own writing: her visit to Leo Tolstoy at thirteen, working as a journalist under the watchful eyes of Lenin, meeting Rasputin, trying to find her feet as a writer, and the whirlwind of St Petersburg before she left her homeland to find refuge in Paris. There is something unspeakably dazzling about her writing, and I could not put this collection down when I got started.
Teffi’s writing makes me want to write better than I do, and it makes me want to look at life and all its light and shadow with a pen. Her writing is beyond words, and her ability to share her life so fearlessly in a time were writers, especially women writers, were in a precarious political and social position is simply awe-inspiring. Teffi is a writer so rare that I cannot help but sing her praises, even if I know she would probably roll her eyes at me for doing so.
Rasputin and Other Ironies is now available from Pushkin Press’ online shop or in all good bookstores. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores.
Thank you once again to Pushkin Press for sending me a copy of Teffi’s Rasputin and Other Ironies. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.
© Hayley New 2016