This book is a collection of autobiographical essays from the renowned, female Russian author Teffi. The essays were all written during the early part of the twentieth century and reflect Teffi’s own struggles with having to flee a turbulent and oppressive Russia. The collection is divided into four parts, the first of which is entitled “How I Live and Work.” These first few essays in the book capture her inner thoughts and self-doubts as she becomes Teffi “The Author.”
The second part of the book, “Staging Posts” deals with various aspects of Teffi’s personal life from her upbringing in a wealthy Russian family to her emigration to Paris during the Russian Civil War to her time in France during the German Occupation. Teffi is well-known for her wit, but these essays show us an emotionally tender and serious woman. She begins her essay entitled “Valya” on a sad and brutally honest note: “I was in my twenty-first year. She, my daughter, was in her fourth. We were not well matched.” In this essay Teffi has a difficult time connecting with her daughter and I was not surprised to find out that her marriage was dreadfully unhappy and she eventually leaves her family in order to pursue her writing career.
My favorite essay in the third section of the book “Heady Days: Revolutions and Civil War” is the one that describes Teffi’s bizarre encounters with Rasputin. This essay is a perfect example of Teffi’s ability to write a humorous essay but also to display her serious and emotional side. When Teffi meets Rasputin, he is smitten with her and he tries to seduce her. But Teffi sees right through his act; although many women have fallen for his smooth words and intimate gestures, Teffi finds his behavior strange and a little pathetic. Rasputin comes across as a buffoon and we do laugh at his antics, but at the same time we also feel sorry for this ridiculous man who is finally killed by one of the many assassins who are after him.
The fourth and final part of the book is dedicated to some of the famous authors and artists that Teffi has come in contact with. At the age of thirteen Teffi is enthralled with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. She is so distraught by the death of Prince Andrei in this novel that she is determined to meet the author and ask him to change the story. Teffi shows up at Tolstoy’s home but is so flabbergasted to meet him that all she can do is ask for his autograph and slink away in embarrassment.
The quality that comes through in every one of these essays is Teffi’s innate ability to read and truly understand people. When she meets Lenin she senses a man who is crafty and cunning. She meets many famous people throughout her life, from the Russian poet and novelist Merezhkovsky to the artist Repin to various other writers, journalists and politicians. She is never fooled by the façade of their importance but instead she sees the true humanity beyond the exterior.
I have to admit that I am smitten with Teffi after reading this one volume from NYRB classics. I ordered three more of Teffi’s books after I finished this one. I don’t think I’ve done Teffi’s writing justice in this brief review and so everyone must read a least one of her essays to experience her brilliant writing.
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