A selection of the finest stories by this female Chekhov
Teffi's genius with the short form made her a literary star in pre-revolutionary Russia, beloved by Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin alike. These stories, taken from the whole of her career, show the full range of her gifts. Extremely funny-a wry, scathing observer of society-she is also capable, as capable even as Chekhov, of miraculous subtlety and depth of character.
There are stories here from her own life (as a child, going to meet Tolstoy to plead for the life of War and Peace's Prince Bolkonsky, or, much later, her strange, charged meetings with the already-legendary Rasputin). There are stories of émigré society, its members held together by mutual repulsion. There are stories of people misunderstanding each other or misrepresenting themselves. And throughout there is a sly, sardonic wit and a deep, compelling intelligence.
Made me fall in love... [Teffi] can write in more registers than you might think, and is capable of being heartbreaking as well as very funny. I wish she were still alive, and I could have met her. But then I realised she would have seen right through me. I can't recommend her strongly enough -- Nicholas Lezard Guardian
Nadezhda Teffi was a phenomenally popular writer in pre-revolutionary Russia - a favourite of Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin alike. She was born in 1872 into a prominent St Petersburg family and emigrated from Bolshevik Russia in 1919. She eventually settled in Paris, where she became an important figure in the émigré literary scene, and where she lived until her death in 1952. A master of the short form, in her lifetime Teffi published countless stories, plays and feuilletons. After her death, she was gradually forgotten, but the collapse of the Soviet Union brought about her rediscovery by Russian readers. Now, nearly a century after her emigration, she once again enjoys critical acclaim and a wide readership in her motherland.
I – Before the Revolution
• A Radiant Easter
• The Corsican
• Will Power
• The Hat
• Lifeless Beast
• The Quiet Backwater
• Duty and Honour
II – 1916-1919: Rasputin, Revolution and Civil War
• Petrograd Monologue
• One Day in the Future
• One of Us
III – 1920s and 1930s in Paris
• Que Faire?
• Subtly Worded
• My First Tolstoy
• Heart of a Valkyrie
• Ernest with the Languages
IV – 1930s: Magic Tales
• The Kind That Walk
• The Dog
V – Last Stories
• The Blind One
• Thy Will
• And Time Was No More
MY FIRST TOLSTOY
I remember... I’m nine years old.
I’m reading Childhood and Boyhood by Tolstoy. Over and over again.
Everything in this book is dear to me.
Volodya, Nikolenka and Lyubochka are all living with me, they’re all just like me and my brothers and sisters. And their home in Moscow with their grandmother is our Moscow home; when I read about their drawing room, morning room or classroom, I don’t have to imagine anything – these are all our own rooms.
I know Natalya Savishna, too. She’s our old Avdotya Matveyevna, grandmother’s former serf. She too has a trunk with pictures glued to the top. Only she’s not as good-natured as Natalya Savishna. She likes to grumble. "Nor was there anything in nature he ever wished to praise." So my older brother used to sum her up, quoting from Pushkin’s "The Demon".
Nevertheless, the resemblance is so pronounced that every time I read about Natalya Savishna, I picture Avdotya Matveyevna.
Every one of these people is near and dear to me.
Even the grandmother – peering with stern, questioning eyes from under the ruching of her cap, a flagon of eau de cologne on the little table beside her chair – even the grandmother is near and dear to me.
The only alien element is the tutor, St-Jérôme, whom Nikolenka and I both hate. Oh how I hate him! I hate him more intensely and for longer than even Nikolenka himself, it seems, because Nikolenka eventually buries the hatchet, but I go on hating him for the rest of my life.
Childhood and Boyhood became part of my own childhood and girlhood, merging with it organically, as though I wasn’t just reading but truly living it.
But what pierced my heart in its first flowering, what pierced it like a red arrow was another work by Tolstoy – War and Peace.
* * *
I’m thirteen years old.
Every evening, at the expense of my homework, I am reading one and the same book over and over again – War and Peace.
I’m in love with Prince Andrey Bolkonsky. I hate Natasha, first because I’m jealous, second because she betrayed him.
"You know what," I tell my sister, "I think Tolstoy got it wrong when he was writing about her. How could anyone possibly like her? How could they? Her braid was ‘thin and short’, her lips were puffy. No, I don’t think anyone could have liked her. And if Prince Andrey was going to marry her, it was because he felt sorry for her."
It also bothered me that Prince Andrey always shrieked when he was angry. I thought Tolstoy had got it wrong here, too. I felt certain the prince didn’t shriek.
And so, every evening I was reading War and Peace.
The pages leading up to the death of Prince Andrey were torture to me.
I think I always nursed a little hope of a miracle. I must have done, because each time he lay dying I felt overcome by the same despair.
Lying in bed at night, I would try to save him. I would make him throw himself to the ground along with everyone else when the grenade was about to explode. Why couldn’t just one soldier think to push him out of harm’s way? That’s what I’d have done. I’d have pushed him out of the way all right.
Then I would have sent him the very best doctors and surgeons of the time.
Every week I would read that he was dying, and I would hope and pray for a miracle. I would hope and pray that maybe this time he wouldn’t die.
But he did. He really did! He did die!
A living person dies once, but Prince Andrey was dying forever, forever.
My heart ached. I couldn’t do my homework. And in the morning... Well you know what it’s like in the morning when you haven’t done your homework!
Finally, I hit upon an idea. I decided to go and see Tolstoy and ask him to save Prince Andrey. I would even allow him to marry the prince to Natasha. Yes, I was even prepared to agree to that – anything to save him from dying!
I asked my governess whether a writer could change something in a work he had already published. She said she thought he probably could – sometimes in later editions, writers made amendments.
I conferred with my sister. She said that when you called on a writer you had to bring a small photograph of him and ask him to autograph it, or else he wouldn’t even talk to you. Then she said that writers didn’t talk to juveniles anyway.
It was very intimidating.
Gradually I worked out where Tolstoy lived. People were telling me different things – one person said he lived in Khamovniki, another said he’d left Moscow, and someone else said he would be leaving any day now.
I bought the photograph and started to think about what to say. I was afraid I might just start crying. I didn’t let anyone in the house know about my plans – they would have laughed at me.
Finally, I took the plunge. Some relatives had come for a visit and the household was a flurry of activity – it seemed a good moment. I asked my elderly nanny to walk me "to a friend’s house to do some homework" and we set off.
Tolstoy was at home.