Tag Archives: Teffi

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?

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Review: A Very Russian Christmas

a-very-russian-christmasThis fascinating collection of Russian Christmas stories, many of which have been published here in English for the first time, is a glimpse into the celebration of this holiday from a simpler age which is long past.  Christmas in the twenty-first century has become the season of massive and ugly consumerism, a time when obscene amounts of money are spent on the latest and greatest toys and gadgets.  The Christmas tales in A Very Russian Christmas, penned by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Teffi, Chekov, Korolenko, Zoshchenko, Lukashevich, and Gorky bring us back to the holidays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when children were thrilled to receive fruits and small trinkets that decorated the Christmas trees.   In these stories we encounter festive gatherings of different classes of people, reflections on what it meant to live a good life, and lastly, and most importantly, merry making that involves lots of vodka.  Lots and lots of vodka.  Klaudia Lukashevich describes young, Russian children who are eager with anticipation for the Christmas tree to be decorated and are so excited about celebrating Christmas with their extended family:

And now it appears—a shapely green tree, to which so many legends and recollections are tied…Hello, you sweet, beloved tree!  In the midst of winter you bring us the evergreen smell of the forests and, drenched in little lights, you delight the children’s gaze, just as according to ancient legend you brought joy to the gaze of the Holy Infant.  Our family had a custom for major holidays to make each other presents, surprises, to unexpectedly bring great happiness and joy.  Each quietly prepared his handmade gift; we memorized poems; for the New Year and for Easter we placed the handmade present under our napkins…We were engrossed in this tradition and it brought us much happiness.  The gifts were simple, inexpensive but they caused much delight.

My favorite story in the collection is, not surprisingly, from Chekhov who is the undisputed master of the short story.  In “A Woman’s Kingdom,” he gives us the character of Anna Akimovna who, despite living in a lavish mansion and being surrounded by wealth and luxury, suffers from a deep loneliness.  Anna’s parents and uncle are deceased and at the age of twenty-six she is an heiress and the reluctant owner of a large factory.  Other than an old aunt who lives in the lower part of her home, Anna has no other relatives and has not married or had any children.

When Christmas comes around Anna is surrounded by people who pay their respects to her as a member of the upper class and as a prominent owner of a successful factory.  Many people beg her for money which makes her feel uncomfortable and perplexed as to how best to help the lower classes.  Chekov vividly sets the perfect festive scene in his story as Anna dons her most beautiful dress, greets dozens of guests, and has a lavish dinner with rich food, wine and vodka.  Even though Anna is surrounded by people and engages in a variety of holiday activities that would be the envy of many, she is always the loneliest person in the room.  Throughout the course of Christmas Day as Anna is taking part in the festivities, she begins to think about one of the factory workers she has recently met and experiences feelings of hope about the prospect of getting married.

A lawyer who is an old family friend visits for Christmas dinner and Anna shares her feelings of loneliness with him.  He offers this humorous and hopeful advice to Anna:

The fin de siècle woman—I mean when she is young, and of course wealthy—must be independent, clever, elegant, intellectual, bold and a little depraved.  Depraved within limits, a little.  For excess, you know, is wearisome.  You ought not to vegetate, my dear; You ought not to live like everyone else, but to get the full savor of life, and a slight flavor of depravity is the sauce of life.  Revel among flowers of intoxicating fragrance, breathe the perfume of musk, eat hashish, and best of all, love, love, love…To begin with, in your place I would set up seven lovers—one for each day of the week…

Anna’s retort is that she is “lonely, lonely as the moon in the sky, and a waning moon too…”  The only thing in the world that will make her happy, Anna believes, is a deep and abiding love that comes with a marriage.  Chekov makes the point that all of our feelings and emotions—hope, love, kindness, compassion, loneliness— are heightened and even exasperated during the holidays.  Anna feels her loneliness more keenly as she greets her guests, but she also feels more hopeful that she will find true love.  As Christmas Day ends, however, and the clock strikes midnight, Anna loses hope for marrying a factory worker and becomes resigned to her loneliness.

I especially enjoyed the Christmas settings in these stories which described celebrations among family and friends, interesting holiday traditions, cold and snowy weather, and a spirit of hope.  New Vessel Press, one of my favorite small presses, has published their first hard cover book filled with stories from Russian masters who show us what it means to celebrate a very Russian Christmas.

I would like to wish all of my readers, followers, fellow bloggers, and bibliophiles a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

 

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, Novella, Russian Literature

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.

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