JUNE 17, 2021
WE WERE TALKING about movies. Someone said that tragedies are therapeutic, while happy endings — “don’t they just make you feel awful about your own life.” His irony whipped up a flurry of mild outrage, as if everyone at once sensed in it a dark truth urgently in need of being swept under the carpet. Yet none of us could deny that, as creatures who need contrast in order to articulate our experience, even to ourselves, we are hardly ever sure that fortune is smiling upon us — unless aided by the knowledge that it has turned its back to someone else. In moments of distress, our most convenient consolation is that “it could be worse,” meaning that it could be worse and could still be mended. Teffi, the late Russian writer whose latest collection of stories in English is Other Worlds: Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints, is unrivaled in tracing the intricate connections of sympathy and social comparison. Like no other author, she knew that comedy is tragedy amended.
With her enigmatic nom de plume, Teffi was an enigmatic person and remains a genuinely enigmatic writer: she discloses her mind — and, instead of diminishing, the enigma grows. Among her large-as-life puzzles is just how comforting it can be to read her stories, given the pervasiveness of heartache on her pages. She doesn’t have to search for heartache: she uncovers it within childhood memories; in the humdrum monotony of provincial life; in dormant off-season estates whose masters are absent, where nothing — seemingly — is happening, apart from the servants’ patient waiting. Heartache is as omnipresent as mud. Even Baba Yaga, the folktale witch, suffers — from solitude, ennui, and a sense of being misunderstood and unappreciated. Every child, after all, knows what happens to Yaga, story after story: “Some brave young hero would tell her a pack of lies, make false promises, elicit from her whatever he needed to know, cheat her, and then slip away. She could expect neither gratitude nor honest payment.”
(As a freelancer frequently taken off guard by unscrupulous corporate clients — the “brave young heroes” of our world — I understand Baba Yaga all too well. And feel understood by Teffi.)
Teffi herself knew a great deal about being misunderstood — something that Robert Chandler, the principal translator and editor of this collection, writes about with great understanding, quoting the author’s preface to The Lifeless Beast, one of the sources of the stories newly translated and collected in this book:
In October 1914 I published the story “Yavdokha.” This melancholy and painful story is about a lonely old peasant woman. She is illiterate and muddle-headed and so hopelessly benighted that, when she receives news of the death of her son, she is unable to grasp what has happened. Instead, she wonders whether or not he will be sending her money.
For this, a newspaper critic accused Teffi of “laughing at human grief.” Recognized early on as a brilliant humorist, by 1914 she had to struggle against the expectation of producing laughter, even when this expectation clashed visibly with her new writing.
“What does Madame Teffi find funny about this?” the newspaper asked indignantly. After quoting the very saddest passages of all, it repeated, “And does she consider this funny? And is this funny, too?”
“And so the aim of this preface,” Teffi concludes, “is to warn the reader that there is a great deal in this book that is not funny.”
There is a great deal in Other Worlds that is not otherworldly, I might have echoed, if I didn’t feel that none of it is “otherworldly,” “supernatural,” or anything else that you might say about, for instance, a ghost story. Conceived as a gathering of Teffi’s stories featuring witches, shapeshifters, mermaids, vampires, and a host of minor spirits and deities of the Russian home and its surrounding natural landscape, the book stands as a masterwork of high non-reductive psychological realism worthy of Henry James, portraying a world we recognize to be very much our own, intimately familiar, inhabited, the one and only we have. (And those spirits and deities, I assure you, are entirely real, too.)
Henry James comes to mind because of the delicacy and tact with which the writer manages (in the best, most respectful sense of the word) our readerly emotions — knowing very well that the possibilities she presents us with are not in themselves easy to absorb, or even to let in. One such possibility is that laughter can stand for a chilling absence of empathy:
Suddenly the door burst open. Varvara tore in, red-faced, her teeth bared in a wild grin.
“Not asleep yet — an’ why not? What ye waiting for, eh? I’ll put you to bed meself. Aye, I’ll put you to bed right now.”
She grabbed hold of Katya, held her tightly, and began to tickle her, laughing loudly as she ran her fingers over the girl’s thin ribs. “Not asleep yet?” she kept repeating. “An’ why not?”
Katya could hardly breathe. Letting out little shrieks, she tried to escape, but Varvara’s strong hands held her fast, fingering her, twisting and turning her.
“Let go! I’m going to die! Let go of me!”
Her heart was pounding. She was choking. Her whole body was screaming, struggling, writhing.
This scene, from “The Book of June,” is all Teffi: the immediacy and truthfulness of affect, in terrible spontaneity (“laughing loudly”) and in inhibition (“little shrieks”), and the comprehension of utter incomprehensibility. Varvara, the disturbed and disturbing maidservant (she is both odd and oddly innocent), is every bit as real and as strange as the other-than-human creatures who bring about, witness, and commiserate with the fates of Teffi’s characters. What happens to Katya next cannot be categorized simply as “trauma”; that she momentarily loses her habitual inhibitions is out of character, but it is also something that has long been, well, longed for. It is to Teffi’s immense credit that she makes no attempt to develop the situation beyond the precipitation and the birth of a feeling — with a subtlety that respects the reader.
It is this tact and this sensitivity to the reader’s sensitivities that convince me, utterly, that Teffi had been a good mother to her three children — despite having made the decision to leave all three, together with the ruins of her unhappy marriage. Despite having left Russia and the ruins of her world, demolished by the Revolution, Teffi looks back to Russia fervently and tirelessly, divining in that world, abandoned to the past, deep truths not just about Russia, nor even just about human life, but about something larger yet — a breathing, animate world that resists being mastered by human rationality. What Teffi does with it is the opposite of mastering: she enchants it.
The world she gives us is a world where every being is acknowledged by name and accorded loving respect, as etched, both memorably and touchingly, in “A Quiet Backwater”:
“What’s tha fidgetin for?” said the old woman, squinting at the bright pink of the girl’s skirt. “And on yer own name day, an’ all. Yer name day is yer saint’s feast day — it’s a holy day. A bee’s name day is the day of Saints Zosima and Savvaty. A bee’s a simple creature — but they don’t buzz or sting on their name day. Just sit tight on their flowers an’ think on their angel, they do.”
“Horse’s name day is the day of Saints Flor and Lavr,” interrupted the coachman, blowing on the tea he’d poured out into his chipped saucer.
“An’ the bird has ’er name day on the Feast of the Annunciation. She won’t mekk a nest, won’t even peck for grain. She’ll just ’ave a little sing. Quiet, mind. Respectful.”
“On Saint Vlas’s day we pay our respects to the cattle,” the coachman interrupted again.
“And the Feast of the Holy Ghost is the name day of the earth herself. On this day, no one dairnst disturb the earth. No diggin, or sowin — not even flower pickin, or owt. No buryin t’ dead. Great sin it is, to upset the earth on ’er name day. Aye, even beasts understand. On that day, they dairnst lay a claw, nor a hoof, nor a paw on the earth. Great sin, yer see. Any beast knows its name day. Even the glowworm — his name day bein Saint John the Baptist’s day. Blows on his little flames an’ prays to his angel.
What is portrayed here is, to me, the most precious aspect of Russian culture and the Russian way of feeling (and not just thinking) about the world: the endurance, even after the adoption of Christianity, of a more ancient system of animistic beliefs in which the world exists as an inclusive community of animate beings — inclusive in the sense that not only animals and plants, but even places, houses, everyday objects (a girl’s ribbon, a woman’s thimble) are all felt to have a soul, to breathe a life, to hold memories. The memory of worshipping Mother Damp Earth — whose aspects include the powerful goddesses Mokosh and Mara and our old familiar Baba Yaga — is, in Teffi, as rich and deep as soil. (In “Witch,” we see a young maidservant being made to eat soil from a potted plant, since it is believed that one cannot lie if ingesting some part of the sacred Mother Damp Earth.) That this sensibility informed even the character of Russian Orthodox Christianity (Teffi’s lifelong professed religion) we can see, for example, in the Last Will and Testament addressed by the Russian theologian Pavel Florensky to his family in 1917 — the year of the revolution that would seek to sweep away much memory:
Try to write down everything you can about the past of our lineage, our family, our house, its interior, things, books, etc. Try to collect portraits, autographs, letters, print and manuscript works of all those connected to our family and lineage — acquaintances, relatives and friends. Let the whole history of our lineage be secured in your home, and may everything that surrounds you be filled with memories, so that nothing near you is ever dead, inanimate, soulless.
Without ever making such an explicit claim, Teffi was a profound religious thinker. What made her so was her rare ability to trust at once her eyes and her heart. In “Heart,” a story about a pilgrimage to a monastery (a regular endeavor among Orthodox Christians), a scene that happens near the monastery kitchen has all the power of a mystical vision:
In a corner of the monastery yard, close to the kitchen, two broad-shouldered monks and a peasant in a peaked cap were cleaning and gutting a huge catfish on a wide wooden board. The peasant was hacking at the fish with a broad knife. One of the monks was holding it by the hook piercing its snout; the other was watching, grunting at each blow of the knife.
Then the peasant took a bucket and poured water over the pieces of fish and the severed head. There was a sudden movement in one of the middle pieces. A twitch, a quiver — and the whole fish responded. Even the chopped-off tail jerked.
“That’s its heart contracting,” said the Medico.
Lykova let out a shriek. The monks looked up, watching disapprovingly as she fled.
The sudden revelation — understood by no one — is articulated at the end of the story, when Lykova experiences the mystery of church confession entirely anew. The priest’s unexpected joy in learning that she has no grave sins to confess communicates itself to her, and translates into a felt encounter with unity: “It was as if he were a large severed heart and a drop of living water had fallen onto it,” Teffi writes. “The heart quivers — and then all the other dead, severed pieces quiver too.” The world — hacked into pieces and lying dead — is momentarily mended and alive once again.
Pushkin called literary translators “post-horses of enlightenment” — lightheartedly, but admiringly all the same. Robert Chandler, who, together with Elizabeth Chandler, has previously translated and edited a vast and varied body of Russian prose and poetry, is a champion among such post-horses. Literature, by the way, will forever rely on post-horses, regardless of the state of our technology, and this collection brings together a cohort of much-needed talent. With contributions by Sara Jolly, Anne Marie Jackson, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, Sabrina Jaszi, and a number of others, the resulting book is remarkably coherent, establishing a recognizable voice for Teffi in English. This is by no means an easy feat, and it bespeaks a collaborative intensity comparable to Chandler’s own painstaking manner of engaging with the Russian texts.
Having participated in the exchanges of a Listserv dedicated partly to translation from Slavic languages, I have glimpsed the method that makes Robert Chandler the consummate craftsman that he is. His one query related to Teffi that still survives in my mailbox reads: “The fewer letters there are in a word, the less sure of myself I often feel.” The subject of puzzlement was a short sentence from the story “And Time Was No More”: “Sny — eto ta zhe zhizn’.” “What,” Chandler inquired, “does ta zhe mean?” The sentence was the first in a passage whose proposed translation went like this:
Dreams are our true life. I’ve seen and experienced much that is beautiful, wonderful and remarkable — and yet I don’t remember it and it hasn’t become an essential part of my soul the way two or three dreams have — without those dreams I wouldn’t be the person I am.
“Or is it,” he went on, “more like ‘Dreams, too, are our life’?” I emailed, siding with the second possibility. The translations gathered in this volume are a work of love that now makes those dreams a part of our own life.
Anna Razumnaya is the author of Under the Sign of Contradiction: Mandelstam and the Politics of Memory. Her essays on literature and ideas have appeared in Essays in Criticism, Literary Imagination, BERLIN.Berega, and elsewhere. She lives in Boston.