Fato Profugus: Teffi’s Memories—From Moscow to The Black Sea

As I was reading Teffi’s memoir about her katabasis from Russia to Constantinople during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, two words from Vergil’s Aeneid kept coming to mind: fato and profugus .   After barely escaping from the burning and destruction of Troy, Aeneas is profugus–“exiled”, “driven forward”, he is essentially a fugitive or a refugee.  The fate of his sea voyage and his various landings are the result of fatum, “fate” driving him along from one place to the next; he rarely, if ever, chooses his next destination.  Like Aeneas, Teffi is a refugee and much of her flight from her motherland is a result of fate and circumstance.  At one particularly dramatic part of her journey in Odessa she reflects, “And then there I was, rolling down the map.  Fate had pushed me on, forcing me wherever it chose, right to the very edge of the sea.  Now, if it so wished, it could force me right into the sea—or it could push me along the coast.  In the end, wasn’t it all the same?”

Teffi’s journey begins in Moscow when an impresario named Gooskin approaches her and convinces her to do a series of readings in Odessa: “My Petersburg life has been liquidated.  The Russian Word has been closed down.  There is, it seems, no possibility of anything.  Or rather, there is one possibility; it appears, day after day, in the shape of a squint-eyed Odessa impresario by the name of Goodskin, who is trying to persuade me to go with him to Kiev and Odessa and give public readings there.”   There are many scenes throughout the narrative, similar to this opening paragraph, in which Teffi allows herself to be swept up and carried along the waves of fate and hordes of people and luggage from one city to the next.

The tone of Teffi’s narrative reminded me of Lenora Carrington’s memoir Down Below;  in both memoirs there is strange calm, almost an indifference that pervades the texts.  But I would argue that each woman, writing her memoir in hindsight, is attempting to relate the most harrowing and traumatic experiences they have ever experienced and the only way to revisit such horror is to do it with as little emotion as possible. Both of these narratives also seem to be cathartic farewells for these women: Carrington bids goodbye to her mental illness and her relationship with Max Ernst while Teffi is paying a final adieu to her beloved Russia.

Teffi’s Memories were originally written and published as serials in the Russian language newspaper Vozrozhdenie  between 1928 and 1930.  At that point Teffi had been in exile for ten years and was able to tell her story of chaos, violence and destruction caused by the Bolsheviks as they take over one city after another with a certain amount of detached calm.  The human spirit can only take so much suffering and Teffi gives us a glimpse into her mindset as she escapes one dangerous situation after another.  When she is left almost alone in a desolate hotel in Odessa, unsure of how she will escape that city she writes:

My future was a matter of complete indifference to me.  I felt neither anxiety nor fear.  In any case there was nothing I could do.  In my mind I retraced my strange journey from Moscow, always south, always further south, and always without any deliberate choice.  In the form of Gooskin, the hand of fate had appeared.  It had pushed me on my way.

As  Teffi  narrowly escapes invading forces while making her way south from Kiev to Odessa to Novorossiisk,  she describes her experiences with cramped train journeys, cold and uncomfortable living quarters, food shortages and outbreaks of  Spanish influenza and typhus.  Teffi’s humor and strong spirit, however, prevent the tone of this memoir from becoming horrendously bleak.  As she leaves Odessa she runs into a beauty salon full of women who don’t want to go into exile without getting their hair done; in Novorossiisk she meets a woman who is so proud of her newly made dress that is fashioned completely out of medical gauze.

In addition to her humor and her resilent spirit, there are certain objects that Teffi carries along with her that give her comfort as a refugee.  Her guitar, her religious artifacts and her sealskin coat are dragged along with her from city to city.  One of the most poignant stories in the book was about her sealskin coat that she wraps around her for warmth while traveling by train and she makes us understand that those coats represented the entire, prolonged journey of Russian refugees:

Were there any of us who did not have a sealskin coat?  We put these coats on as we first set out, even if this was in summer, because we couldn’t bear to leave them behind—such a coat was both warm and valuable and none of us knew how long our wanderings would last.  I saw sealskin coats in Kiev and in Odessa, still looking new, their fur all smooth and glossy.  Then in Novorossiisk, worn thin around the edges and with bald patches down the sides and on the elbows.  In Constantinople—with grubby collars and cuffs folded back in shame.  And, last of all, in Paris, from 1920 until 1922.  By 1920 the fur had worn away completely, right down to the shiny black leather.  The coat had been shortened to the knee and the collar and cuffs were now made from some new kind of fur, something blacker and oilier—a foreign substitute.  In 1924 these coats disappeared.  All that remained was odds and ends, torn scraps of memories, bits of trimming sewn onto the cuffs, collars, and hems of ordinary woolen coats.  Nothing more.  And now, in 1925, the timid, gentle seal was obliterated by invading hordes of dyed cats.  But even now when I see a sealskin coat, I remember this epoch in our lives as refugees.

Teffi’s memoir is timely because it reminds us that the many refugees we see on a daily basis in the media are suffering hardships that we couldn’t begin to otherwise imagine.  What objects do these refugees, who are also exiled by fate, carry along with them?  As these refugees are forced to live in camps and not welcomed by other nations we should ask ourselves what would have happened if Teffi didn’t have a place like Paris to welcome her and give her a new home?

14 Comments

Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Russian Literature

14 responses to “Fato Profugus: Teffi’s Memories—From Moscow to The Black Sea

  1. I first heard about Memories on a podcast (Reading Envy,) and the host read that same passage about the seal skin coat, in its entirety.
    I also found the memoir a little detached, and wanted to know more about how things were in St. Petersburg, and Moscow, and what happened in Constantinople?
    But what a great read, and I loved all the notes. I will read more from her.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. I am glad you enjoyed Teffi’s memoir so much. I think I first heard of Teffi from Jacqui’s blog. It is nice to see how the memoir made you think ‘What if?’ after reading it

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Timely, indeed. The coat metaphor is such a powerful one, both poignant and graphic.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful review Melissa. This is such a wonderful book, isn’t it, and so relevant still. That feeling of being unable to stay in your own country, of having to flee for your life, must be devastating.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It would be interesting to compare Teffi’s memoir to that of some of the other exiles – to Nabokov, for example. I would suggest that the distance you see is not just a defense mechanism but a necessary part of turning her experience into art.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Kat

    Melissa, your references to the Aeneid make me want to read Teffi! Although I’ve read much about Teffi online, it takes Virgil to interest me. (I’m a former Latin teacher.:))

    Liked by 1 person

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