Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me
by Teffi
translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France, and Anne Marie Jackson
NYRB Classics (2016)
220 pp

Teffi was born in St. Petersburg in 1872. Her real name was Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, but she adopted the pen-name Teffi, she says in this book, in order to give one of her plays a chance at being considered for performance.

At this point I began to do some serious thinking. I didn’t want to hide behind a male pseudonym. That would be weak and cowardly. I’d rather use a name that was incomprehensible, neither one thing nor the other.

There may be some truth to what she says, but, as the helpful notes accompanying the essays in this book explain, Teffi may not be telling the whole truth about her pseudonym or many of the other autobiographical stories collected in NYRB Classics’ new collection Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me. In his introduction to this book, translator and editor Robert Chandler explains that Teffi gave off the illusion of allowing you into her life all the while using that as a method of keeping you out. Yet this volume contains a great deal of truth and personality, possibly more than if Teffi were 100% faithful to fact.

Tolstoy Rasputin Teffi

Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me contains 16 essays in four groups: How I Live and Work, Staging Posts, Heady Days: Revolutions and Civil War, and Artists and Writers Remembered.

The first part is fun because it introduces Teffi’s voice along with some details — maybe not all true — about her work. This is where she talks about her pseudonym, about writing in France, about her first time visiting an editorial office. While there was nothing in these that was particularly profound, these essays make for a fun introduction. I was entranced by Teffi, her voice, and her humor from the beginning.

The second part digs a bit deeper as Teffi gives personal histories that delve into a variety of subjects, in particular relationships, all with keen observation and voice. For example, here’s her wonderful introduction to “Love”:

It was the wonderful days of my ninth spring — days that were long and full to the brim, saturated with life.

Everything in those days was interesting, important and full of meaning. Objects were new. And people were wise; they knew an astonishing amount and were keeping their great dark secrets until some unknown day in the future.

The morning of each long day began joyfully: thousands of small rainbows in the soapy foam of the wash bowl; a new, brightly colored light dress; a prayer before the icon, behind which the stems of pussy willow were still fresh; tea on a terrace shaded by lemon trees that had been carried out from the orangery in their tubs; my elders sisters, black-browed and with long plaits, only just back from boarding school for the holidays and still seeming strange to me; the slap of the washing bats from the pond beyond the flower garden, where the women doing the laundry were calling out to one another in ringing voices; the languid clucking of hens behind a clump of young, still small-leaved lilac. Not only was everything new and joyful in itself but it was, moreover, a promise of something still more new and joyful.

And it was during this spring, the ninth of my life, that my first love came, revealed itself and left — in all its fullness and rapture and pain and disenchantment, with all that is to be expected of any true love.

There’s something of the giddy joy of Robert Walser in that long paragraph, and I love how Teffi suggests that this innocence, this jubilant expectation, is about to come to earth.

Though the essays in the second part delve into darkness, the more remarkable risk and darkness comes in the next part, when Teffi is writing about the Revolution. Here we meet the rather pathetic figure of Rasputin, whom Teffi met a couple of times. Still more impressive are the essays that Teffi risked her life to write. “We Are Still Living” looks at the terrible conditions of the Revolution, ending with this:

That’s how we live. A lot of people are starting to think that we aren’t living, but quite simply dying. But then, when people are very hungry and very cold, and unhappy into the bargain, it’s probably all too easy for them to imagine they’re dying.

On the other hand . . .

Dear God, if it’s all the same to you, let us die a warm death.

Teffi wrote this in 1918, but it was published only after her death. The next piece, “The Gadarene Swine,” is remarkably subversive. Though published in 1919, it was quickly pulled away and only republished in 2006.

The collection ends with some wonderful reflections on the Russian writers Tolstoy and the Merezhkovskys and the Russian sculptor Ilya Repin. The Tolstoy piece, in which Tolstoy himself features only briefly, is a fascinating account of the young Teffi’s relationship with Tolstoy’s work and how it, combined with her brief interaction with the author, ushered her out of another of life’s innocent groves.

This book is being published by NYRB Classics at the same time as another Teffi volume the promises to be remarkable — Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea — and that, though I haven’t even read it, I feel I can recommend because of how much I enjoyed this book. I sense a fruitful literary relationship budding. How wonderful it is!

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