What did Russia’s best loved humorist in the run-up to 1917 make of the two men who encapsulated the extremes of the Russian revolutionary experience?
Before Teffi, (aka Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) fled the October Revolution and made an émigré home in Paris, this witty, prolific and perceptive writer of poems, plays, stories, satires and journalism came across both Rasputin and Lenin in her years in Imperial Russia.
Pushed into a series of blackly funny encounters with the Empress’s favourite holy man before his murder in 1916, she was unimpressed by Rasputin’s “naïve and straightforward” attempts to mesmerize her into becoming a groupie. “It was like looking through a microscope at some species of beetle. I could see the monstrous hairy legs, the giant maw—but I knew it was really just a little insect.” She found the Bolshevik leader unprepossessing, too — slightly bald, rather short and untidily dressed, “he could have been a minor official from some remote local council”. All the same she was unwillingly impressed by his purposefulness: keeping “a keen watch, with his narrow, Mongolian eyes, to see who could be used, and how.” The way Lenin used people had no particular malice in it, Teffi wrote, since to him they were “no more than the material from which he pulled out threads for his own cloth”.
Teffi’s acute observations about them, and the many other characters and situations catching her attention, are told with a wry pleasure in the fantastical that is reminiscent of Chekhov and Gogol. This is part of the pleasure of rediscovering a writer who was “lost in emigration” for much of the 20th century and whose work has only recently started regaining a broader audience. Teffi’s emigration memoir, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, published last year in English in a sparkling translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg, is shortlisted for this year’s Pushkin House Book Prize. Two of the translators, Robert Chandler and Irina Steinberg, with author Vanora Bennett, will look at (and beyond) the revolutionary strand of Teffi’s work to celebrate the re-emergence of a great Russian writer. Part of the Pushkin Book Prize 2017 Shortlist Programme.
Vanora Bennett is the author of six novels, including The White Russian, Midnight in St Petersburg – both set among Russians of the revolution generation - and her much-heralded fiction debut, Portrait of an Unknown Woman. She has also written two works of non-fiction about Russia, where she lived for seven years, including The Taste of Dreams: An Obsession with Russia and Caviar, a travelogue through the wilder parts of newly capitalist Russia in the 1990s, followed her first published book, Crying Wolf, about the start of the post-Soviet war in Chechnya. She lives in north London with her husband and two sons.
Robert Chandler’s translations from Russian include many works by Vasily Grossman and Andrey Platonov. He has compiled three anthologies for Penguin Classics: of Russian short stories, of Russian magic tales and, most recently, (with Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski), The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. His co-translations of two volumes of memoirs and stories by Teffi were published in May 2016. He is the editor and main translator of Fourteen Little Red Huts, a selection of Andrey Platonov’s plays to be published in December this year, in their new RUSSIAN LIBRARY, by Columbia University Press. His short biography of Alexander Pushkin is to be republished by Pushkin Press in 2017. His translations have won prizes in both the UK and the USA.
Irina Steinberg was born in Russia, immigrated to England as a child and now lives in London. She has a degree in English from UCL and a keen interest in translation which she pursues in her time away from her day job as a lawyer. Irina is co-translator of 'Memories' by Teffi.