Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Nadezhda Teffi -Unimpressed by Rasputin: A witty female voice in a male-dominated sphere

If you asked most readers for a list of 20th century Russian prose writers, the same names would keep cropping up: Bulgakov, Pasternak, Gorky, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn. Few people would mention Teffi. And yet in the years leading up to the 1917 revolution, Teffi was a bona-fide leading light, a superstar who was stopped on the streets of Moscow by admirers and counted both Tsar Nicholas II and Lenin as fans. She mingled with high society figures like Rasputin and wrote about them with a searing and uncompromising wit. 

Teffi was born Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya in 1872 to a wealthy St. Petersburg family. She married in 1890 and moved to the countryside to begin a calm and uneventful domestic life. However, Teffi wasn't the kind of person to live up to society's expectations, and a decade later she headed back to the city to make a go of her writing career. She deliberately picked an androgynous pen-name – adapted from the name of a fool, since fools were supposed to be lucky – and set about carving a niche for herself writing satirical articles and vignettes of contemporary life. The editor of The Russian Word, Vlas Doroshevich, recognized her potential and encouraged her to spread her wings into short stories. “Let her write what she wants to write,” he said. “You don't use a pure-bred Arab to haul water.”

Until now, there haven't been a great deal of English-language editions of Teffi's writing, but a notable exception is the recently published “Subtly Worded,” translated by Anne Marie Jackson with the collaboration of Robert Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. The book shows us the development of Teffi's writing from short, vivid sketches to more nuanced narratives. Clever, outspoken and sarcastic, she pokes fun at socialists and snobs alike, and the tales are full of sharp and sudden turnarounds. “One of Us” is the story of a society woman who is delighted by a conversation with a knowledgeable stranger at the opera – only to find, to her horror, that he used to work there as an usher. “One Day in the Future,” on the other hand, is a withering and brave little piece from 1918 warning about what to expect after the Bolsheviks turn the social world on its head: “They were even going to send a telegram to the Minister of Enlightenment, but it turned out none of them knew how to write. Then they remembered the Minister couldn't read or write either, so they decided not to bother.”

Teffi's style combines Jane Austen's nose for pretension and the gleeful, catty wit of a Wilde or a Waugh. She is a master of capturing the inflated dramatics of children and skewering the vanity of the privileged. “The driver flicked the reins and the boy dropped behind,” she writes. “Varenka felt rich and important, and modestly pursed her lips so that the passers-by she had splashed with mud would not be too jealous.” 

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