REVIEW by Teffi

NWR Issue 104

Subtly Worded

by Alicia Byrne Keane

A compelling collection, Teffi’s Subtly Worded (translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson), produces a peculiar mix of emotions. On first inspection, it appears entertaining and whimsical – the brevity and humour of these short stories, often underpinned as they are by an instructive moral, renders them almost aphoristic. Published by Puskin Press from collected tales written between 1910 and 1952, Teffi’s works begin with tales collected in the section, ‘Before the Revolution’. The chronological order of her stories guides the reader through the Revolution and Civil War, through to the 1920s and 1930s in Paris, before finishing with Teffi’s later works, a collection of mystical and morbid folktales. Borrowing heavily from the author’s own experience, Subtly Worded provides a unique perspective on both the political and the personal: as revolutionary tensions mix with childhood rivalries, stuffed toys and censored letters are considered with the same gentle wit.

The preoccupation with appearances is a consistent theme throughout these stories, often rendered with a tragicomically Wildean flare. In ‘Rasputin’, an account of a meeting with the fabled faith healer becomes a study of the false mystique of fame; ‘The Hat’ reads as a critique of vanity and materialism; in ‘Ernest with the Languages’, a profound and virtuous translation teacher is not all he seems. There is something of the children’s fairy tale about these stories. The tone is playful, the characters vividly evoked in few words. However, any associations we may make with the trivial or the quaint are disabused by the surprising profundity at the heart of the collection.

A teasing political commentary is never far from the surface. In stories such as ‘The Corsican’, ‘Petrograd Monologue’, and the title story, ‘Subtly Worded’, Teffi’s playful tone hides an incisive critique of Russian revolutionary politics. In the case of stories such as ‘One Day in the Future’, in which the author envisions a society where it has become desirable to appear working class, former botany professors work as taxi drivers and university students greet their lecturers with a rudely exclaimed, ‘What do you want?’ The political commentary avoids pretension: illustrated with preposterous scenarios and a caricaturist’s flare for exaggeration, the collection remains humorous throughout. The two final sections, ‘Magic Tales’ and ‘Last Stories’, illustrate Teffi’s true range as an author. Stories such as ‘The Kind that Walk’ and ‘The Dog (A Story from a Stranger)’ blur the boundaries between the real and the supernatural: employing just the right amount of ambiguity, Teffi takes advantage of the elements of gossip and hearsay inherent in the folktale. Of course, Teffi’s preoccupation with appearances and deception is indulged here: faced with rumours of ghosts and tales of men transfiguring into dogs, the reader is offered the choice to either scoff or suspend disbelief. It is also worth noting the valuable insight into Russian culture offered by the traditional nature of such tales.

However, the final two, ‘Thy Will’ and the story ‘And Time Was No More’, are perhaps the most captivating of the collection. Taking on a progressively darker tone, these last stories focus, respectively, on a fragile pianist’s decline into madness and suicide, and the dreamlike thoughts of a patient close to death. Teffi shows an ability to write on both the everyday and the supernatural. While her early stories raise amusing points on the comedy that lurks behind everyday social mores, these later tales provoke metaphysical debate on the dark areas of the mind and the possible existence of an afterlife. In this manner, Teffi offers trenchant observations on both the profound and the superficial.

The collection is important as a contribution to the Russian classics – while there is something of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in Teffi’s nuanced depictions of family life, the author offers a new and hitherto undiscovered take on revolutionary Russia. Political events are retold through the eyes of women, children, of those on the periphery of the male-dominated public sphere. Teffi’s narrative voice is fluid, especially her flawless rendering of a child’s limited perspective on the adult world. In all, Subtly Worded is a pleasantly surprising discovery, representing Russian literature from a fresh and creative angle.

Alicia Byrne Keane is a Dublin student of English Literature and French.


previous review: Keith Vaughan, Figure and Ground
next review: Elder


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