Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

Review: Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me by Teffi

My Review:
TeffiThis 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.

About the Author:
Teffi PicTeffi was a Russian humorist writer. Teffi is a pseudonym. Her real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya (Наде́жда Алекса́ндровна Лoхви́цкая); after her marriage Nadezhda Alexandrovna Buchinskaya (Бучи́нская). Together with Arkady Averchenko she was one of the most prominent authors of the Satiricon magazine.


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

Review- Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe

I received and advanced review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books.

My Review:
AkenfieldThis book is a history of the British village of Akenfield in Suffolk, England as told through the stories and narratives of its own citizens.  Blythe interviewed 49 different people from all types of social backgrounds and occupations and recorded their words for this social history.   In 1967, the year in which the villagers are interviewed, the way of life in this small village is changing from one of manual labor to mechanization. Each person from Akenfield that is interviewed by the author highlights different aspects of his or her life in a forthright, honest and stream-of-consciousness narrative.  Blythe groups the book into twenty different sections of the people, some of which include “God,” “The Craftsmen,” “The School,” and “The Law.”

One group in the book that made a particular impression on me were the craftsmen such as the wheelwright, the  blacksmith and the thatcher.  It would seem that with the invention of cars that there would no longer be a need for such talents because of the shrinking reliance on horses and wagons for transportation.  It was inspiring that these hardworking men decide to change with the times and find other uses for their crafts.  The blacksmith, Francis Lambert age twenty-five, is a very talented craftsman and now that there are no longer horses to shoe in order to sustain his business he has diversified by making weather-vanes, gates and fire-screens.  Francis is so talented that he is even sent to Germany to represent England at an international craft festival.  Francis loves his job which is evident by the fact that he usually puts in sixty hours of work per week and he takes a great deal of pride in his masterpieces.

As one would expect, hopes of escaping the village are expressed from some of the residents, but for the most part they seem content to stay in their small part of England.  Several of them mention that their families have resided within the boundaries of Akenfield for generations.  But there are also a fair number of voices we hear from people who, even though that have lived in Akenfield for many years, will always be considered “outsiders” because they were born elsewhere.  Hugh Hambling age thirty who is a schoolmaster tells us that he was born on Norfolk.  He and his wife move to Akenfield when he was twenty because he found a charming cottage that the newly married couple could afford.  Hugh feels that the villagers are very private people and although he tries to engage them in discussions, he only ever is able to talk to them about cursory things like football or the weather.

In the section on the school, Blythe includes the administrative records from the teachers and headmasters which date back to 1875.  One problem, in particular, that teachers have to deal with is poor attendance by the children of farm owners.  There are certain times of the year when even the young ones are needed to be out in the fields helping with the crop and later when a truancy law is passed these guidelines for school attendance are still not enforced.  Outbreaks of health issues such as ringworm, diphtheria and scarlet fever are also recorded and must have certainly worsened the poor attendance issues.

Many of the details that the residents of Akenfield provide are like no other that one would find in any ordinary history book.  The orchard worker, for instance, gives us a detailed accounts of different apples that are best grown in the English climate and what the prime picking time is for each breed.  The thatcher provides a lengthy description of the best way to thatch a roof and which are the best materials to use.  I found the section on the bell-ringers particularly fascinating; these young men are in a way considered talented musicians and go around to village and neighborhood churches in order to practice their craft of bell-ringing.  I had no idea before reading this history that there is such a fine art form to the ringing of church bells.

This is a charming, interesting, candid glimpse into the pulse and essence of an English village in the middle of the 20th century.  If you have any interest in British history, oral history or social history then this latest edition to the New York Review of Books classic titles is a must read.

About The Author:
Ronald Blythe is an English writer, essayist and editor, best known for his work Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969), an account of agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s. He writes a long-running and considerably praised weekly column in the Church Times entitled Word from Wormingford.



Filed under British Literature, Classics, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction