Subtly Worded, and Other Stories by Teffi - a traditional Russian form is given a good hiding
Pushkin Press has done it again: made me fall in love with a writer I've never heard of. It was the first paragraph of the first story here, "A Radiant Easter", that did it. I hope it has a similar effect on you:
"Samosov stood there gloomily, watching the deacon with the incense and thinking, 'Go on, swing that incense, swing that incense! Think you can swing yourself into a bishopric? Some hope!"
Written more than a hundred years ago, "A Radiant Easter" takes a traditional Russian form – the "uplifting" religious story – into a quiet alleyway and beats it to death. Like many of the stories here, it is so brief as to be almost a joke. It illustrates the way we pick on those lower than us in the social order. We see the misery being handed down all the way to a cat by a dustbin: "But what did the dustbin care? It said nothing." Yet each person is granted some humanity, some character. There is a very thin but discernible kind streak in Teffi's stories, which is not the same as having a soft heart.
Born in 1872 to a smart St Petersburg family, Teffi, the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, was the kind of writer who got stopped in the street by fans and could count among them Lenin and Tsar Nicholas II. (I get these facts from the excellent introduction by Anne Marie Jackson, who, with five others, translated these stories.) This, of course, was a recipe for trouble, and very soon after the revolution Teffi realised that staying in the country would be unwise. There's a fascinating – and true – account in this volume of her meetings with Rasputin, which demonstrates that writers were the only people Rasputin was scared of; and also that Teffi was utterly clear-eyed and her writings trustworthy as testimony.
That sort of writer doesn't last long in a dictatorship, so she went off to fire barbed shots at the revolution from Paris. The title story, "Subtly Worded" is itself a joke as hilarious as it is grim –that is, very funny, very grim – about the damage being done to language and thought by the Bolsheviks. "Everything's splendid here," says a correspondent from Russia to his brother abroad. "Anyuta has died from a strong appetite ..." I won't spoil the rest of the jokes for you, but they get better.