14. ‘Subtly Worded’ by Teffi

Subtly Worded is a collection of short stories written by Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, aka Teffi, who was a Russian author and poet in the first half of the 20th century. I must admit that I’d never heard of her before, but the blurb spoke about how prominent and respected she was at the time, and that really sold it to me!

Image by Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore

This book is divided into several parts, based on different periods of Teffi’s (and Russia’s) life. Part One includes stories written before the Russian Revolution; Part Two is from 1916-19, dealing with the revolution and civil war; Part Three is from the 1920s and 30s when Teffi lived in Paris; Part Four includes her more magical tales from the 1930s; and Part Five includes her final stories (perhaps the saddest and most powerful of them all). This structure is really interesting, especially as you can see politics beginning to take on a bigger and bigger role in her writing, in particular ideas about the proletariat and the divide between peasants and nobility.

But these are by no means dull political treatises disguised as fiction; one of the most standout things about Teffi’s writing is how funny it is. All of her characters deal with, sometimes horrific, problems and tragedies, but there is always lightheartedness and her characters are often quite daft and deal with their situations ridiculously. My favourite story for this was probably ‘Petrograd Monologue’, in which a man is trying to talk about how much he loves art but keeps getting distracted by thoughts of food because he is starving. He remains stumblingly apologetic and faintly hilarious all the way through.

Not all of the stories are completely fictional. ‘Rasputin’ is based on Teffi’s real encounters with the mysterious ‘healer’ and friend of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. She describes how he attempted to manipulate, even hypnotise her by touching her on the arm and telling her what he wants from her. She proves wholly impervious to his advances, but she sees the effect he has on other people (women especially become quite hysterical when they talk about him) and wonders how this man is capable of so messing with powerful and rational people.

Many of Teffi’s stories will seem familiar (a man snubbed by his superior takes it out on his daughter; a woman who changes herself to attract a man ends up alienating him), but whether or not they were the first instances of these ideas doesn’t matter – the point is that they are executed beautifully and humorously, and they’re wonderfully memorable.

“We look up at the starry sky the way a little mouse looks through a chink in the wall at a magnificent ballroom” from And Time Was No More.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

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