Many people find it surprising that I live somewhere so busy, right opposite Montparnasse station. But it’s what I like. I adore Paris. I like to hear it here beside me—knocking, honking, ringing and breathing. Sometimes, at dawn, a lorry rumbles past beneath my window so loud and so close that it seems to be coming straight through my room, and I draw up my legs in my sleep so they won’t be run over. And then what wakes me an hour or two later is Paris itself—dear, elegant, beautiful Paris.
Teffi is the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, a Russian writer and humorist/satirist known for her poems, plays, and short stories. She was wildly popular in Russia both during her lifetime and since, but is only recently becoming better known to English-speaking readers. In 2016 several of her works were finally released in English translations, including some biographical background and contextual essays. Rasputin and Other Ironies collects her shorter autobiographical nonfiction writings.
Teffi left her native Russia in 1919 for Paris and its burgeoning literary scene, particularly amongst intellectuals and émigrés. She immersed in that scene and made a name for herself with her singular style — a winking, light and witty tone with sharp, revealing observations on life, love, culture, literature, and politics. In these pieces, she reflects on scenes from her life and writes insightful profiles of well-known figures based on her interactions with them, all heavily tinged with the perspective of a life lived in exile during tumultuous times.
There’s been enough writing about many of these figures, but Teffi’s tone and skill set them apart even if you’re already well familiar with them. Some of her striking observations of Lenin’s manipulative style:
As an orator, Lenin did not carry the crowd with him; he did not set a crowd on fire, or whip it up into a frenzy….Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corner of people’s souls, where greed, spite and cruelty lay hidden.
She writes poignantly about loss, personal and on a grander scale, with lines that often surprise by not ending up where you thought they were going. Like when recounting the portrait Ilya Repin painted of her:
It would, in any case, have disappeared during the Revolution, as did all the other portraits of me, as did many beloved things without which I’d thought life would be hardly worth living.
The story of her brief but telling encounter with Rasputin is fantastic, and was referenced in Douglas Smith’s Rasputin: Faith, Power, and Twilight of the Romanovs. Her description of Rasputin’s “so weird, so wild” dancing at a dinner party is entrancing, as the dance itself sounds like it was. She has a way, in these profiles, of extracting characteristics, both physical and more intangibly sensed, that say so much about the person, giving the kind of idiosyncratic insight sometimes lacking elsewhere.
And she has an eye for significant details, like depicting a sign hung across an apartment’s dining room mirror reading “In this house we do not talk about Rasputin,” showing how he was the central figure in any story at the time, even when he was forbidden.
These are a bit uneven, I’m not sure they’re necessarily “the best of” Teffi, as the New York Review Books edition labels it. That’s probably her memoir of escaping Russia, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea. But there’s still a lot to recommend here, because she’s a stunning writer even in translation, able to extract so much from a moment or memory.
Stories reflecting back on scenes from her life, and what they’ve meant to her, are some of the most extraordinary. She was an interesting person who lived in interesting times, and that will always be something worth reading about, even if every piece doesn’t stand on its own. 3.5/5
Some lines I loved:
“She saw everything two or three times larger than life, and told lies as if she lied for a living.”
“Sometimes I was able to laugh, since I wanted so badly to live on God’s earth. But more often I cried, since life was proving almost beyond me.”
“It’s sad to wander about the graveyard of my tired memory, where all hurts have been forgiven, where every sin has been more than atoned for, every riddle unriddled and twilight quietly cloaks the crosses, now no longer upright, of graves I once wept over.”
Rasputin and Other Ironies
translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson
published May 5, 2016 by Pushkin Press
(published in the US by NYRB Classics as Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi)