Teffi: the unsung great of short stories
28th July 2014 - Gary Perry
As the notorious British resistance to the short story form, observed by Orwell in the 1930s, continues to crumble, it's not just contemporary writers who are seeing the benefit. Many little-known classic writers are now being brought back into print, including, Gary Perry from our Charing Cross Road branch is thrilled to note, Russia's Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, better known as Teffi.
What a year it's been for short fiction. Lydia Davis' latest collection arrived to great excitement, while Hassan Blasim, and his translator Jonathan Wright, seized the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. 3:AM Press and CB Editions proved there was life in the British short story with the publication of Joanna Walsh's Fractals and Will Eaves' The Absent Therapist respectively (the latter advertised as a novel, however). Great short stories have always been written but it's rare for them to garner so much media attention. As a self-confessed short story nut, this change makes me very happy.
And now Pushkin Press have published Subtly Worded, a selection of pieces from the career of Teffi, a writer who deserves to be as much a part of the literary landscape as her compatriots, Tolstoy and Chekhov. Her work, translated here by a group of translators including Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler, is something truly special. It sparkles, tickles and charms. But, don't be fooled, there's a subtle melancholy at play. Take 'The Lifeless Beast', a child's eye view of parental break-up and neglect. The sweetness of the tale's telling only reinforces the sadness of the situation. It is a miniature masterpiece and one of many.
This is a fine example of a nation's history captured between the covers of a book. Tsarist Russia and Rasputin, Civil War and Bolshevism, the Soviet Union and Parisian exile, Teffi exposes the absurdity of it all. In the title story, a letter-writer must adapt his missive to bypass Soviet censors - to comical and macabre effect. Society, the state and the absurd - this is territory mined by Gogol and Kafka. Teffi bears comparison to these writers. She shares their humour and their sadness. Those two elements are never far apart; comedy blends so easily into tragedy, after all.
Teffi's writing exerts its own gravitational pull. I lay a story down, only to pick it up again instantly. She is my favourite kind of writer: one who never ceases to entertain and enlighten. She is limitless. It is no exaggeration to say that I find it difficult to leave the house without her. Of course, the beauty of the edition helps. A Pushkin Press title is always a joy to behold and to handle, and this one features a wonderful cover from illustrator, Stuart Patience. The love and respect that both the translators and the publisher bear towards the writer shines throughout. What more could a reader ask for?
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