Review: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

Book by TEFFI (Translated from Russian by ROBERT and ELIZABETH CHANDLER, ANNE MARIE JACKSON, and IRINA STEINBERG)
Reviewed by OLGA ZILBERBOURG

Memories: From Moscow to the Black SeaTeffi, nom de plume of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was born in 1872 into a prominent Russian family. Following in the footsteps of her older sister Maria—poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya—Teffi published poetry and prose from the age of 29. She soon rose to fame by practicing a unique brand of self-deprecating humor and topical social satire. In her 1907 hit one-act play The Woman Question, subtitled A Fantasy, Teffi imagined a world in which a women’s revolution against men achieves a full role reversal. Women come to occupy the prominent political, military, academic, professional, and bureaucratic roles, while men are subjugated to the childcare and household management tasks. Though the play’s ending largely dismisses this scenario and trivializes the feminist cause, through humor, the piece makes the point that bad behavior—infidelity, sexual harassment, excessive drinking, pettiness—is a function of social status rather than of biological sex.

By the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Teffi had nearly a dozen books to her name, and new printings of her story collections sold out instantly. With Lenin at the helm of the government, her fame became a liability. Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea opens with Teffi being talked into going on tour to Ukraine (then outside of Lenin’s domain). Teffi alludes to the reasons pushing her out of Russia: “News came from Petersburg that the Cheka had arrested a well-known actress for reading my short stories in public.” With a characteristic light touch, she then tells an anecdote about the way the case against the actress was dismissed. In her introduction to this volume, Teffi’s biographer Edythe Haber draws the reader’s attention to this story. A writer of socialist leanings, Teffi had worked for a Bolshevik newspaper in 1905 but quit after Lenin took over the management. Their failed collaboration put her in very real danger.

An impresario who goes by the name of Gooskin proposes to arrange Teffi’s readings in Ukraine, in particular, in Kiev and Odessa. Reluctantly, she agrees. She’s buoyed when she finds out that a fellow writer and a good friend, Averchenko, is going on tour at the same time. The two form the core of a small party that also includes their impresarios and the actresses who will be handling the bulk of the act. The civil war is raging on and the countryside is torn apart by warring factions and unbridled violence from all sides. After several delays, Teffi’s party boards the train headed south that is soon stopped and then stopped again. They are forced to disembark at a shtetl. Impresario Gooskin negotiates their onward passage in exchange for a performance at a local barrack. If the audience, who includes a Bolshevik commissar known for her brutality, doesn’t like the show, instead of being booed off the stage the actors and certainly the writers could be shot to death.

The performance goes well enough. When the party is ready to move on, no trains are available. Gooskin and Averchenko’s impresario find horse-drawn carts that take the party across the border. As a part of World War I peace treaty, Germans control Ukraine. They have instituted a two-week quarantine period on the border. Gooskin bribes the border officers to let them through. They make another forced stop in a Ukrainian shtetl. Teffi suspects Gooskin of selling tickets for the locals to sneak a peek through the keyhole at how the celebrity writers, she and Averchenko, have set up their temporary living quarters. They escape in a freight car. After another scare of German quarantine, the party arrives  in Kiev. 

For readers of Bulgakov, Bunin, Babel, and other writers of the Russian revolution, the outline of this journey is a familiar one. Teffi arrived in Kiev at the end of 1918, and within weeks, Germans surrendered the city to the army of Ukrainian nationalists led by Petlyura. Ditching Gooskin, who acts too sketchy, Teffi takes the train to Odessa. Odessa was then under the French rule, and as Bolsheviks approached from the north, the French evacuated by the Black Sea. Teffi boards a steamer that, without a working engine, lolls at anchor outside the harbor while an engineer from among the passengers tries to fix it. The engineer succeeds in getting the steamer to move in reverse. “Many passengers took fright,” Teffi reports, “to them, ‘in reverse’ meant going back to Odessa.”

They make it instead to Novorossiisk, a Russian port on the Caucasus peninsula then held by the tsarist White army. The map included at the end of the book helps put the geography of Teffi’s journey into perspective, though it doesn’t fully highlight the impossibility of her dreams. Having the opportunity to petition the commanding officer of the tsarist Navy on behalf of the ship’s crew, Teffi asks for her steamer to be ordered to Vladivostok. Vladivostok, a Russian port on the Sea of Japan also, at that moment, in the hands of the Whites, is too distant from the European part of Russia to appear on the map: the journey there would require crossing the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, sailing through the Suez canal into the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. “What makes you so eager to drown?” asks the officer in response to Teffi’s request. “The Shilka is a small vessel, and Captain Ryabinin has never sailed to Vladivostok. He’ll send you to the bottom of the sea.”

Instead, the Shilka crosses the Black Seat to Constantinople, and eventually Teffi, like so many others, finds herself in Paris. She published these Memories in 1931 based on the journalistic pieces written for the émigré press during or soon after the events. The book ends just before the ship’s departure from Novorossiisk, with a farewell to Russia. “With my eyes now open so wide that the cold penetrates deep into them, I keep on looking. And I shall not move away.” Teffi died in Paris, after World War II, having outlived the peak of her popularity. Her work was banned in the Soviet Union from the 1920s until 1967, when a small volume of her pre-revolutionary satire was deemed inoffensive. As Robert Chandler points out in the translator’s note, to this day, Teffi’s impressive body of work receives little academic attention. Edythe Haber’s upcoming biography promises to be an important contribution to Teffi scholarship.

One reason for this lack of attention to Teffi’s work might be the pesky woman question. Teffi’s wit and fine prose are so firmly grounded in the details of the everyday life—and specifically the details that are stereotypically considered to be of interest to women alone—that the drama beneath the surface is easily missed. On the first pages of the book, as soon as Teffi makes the decision to leave Moscow, she describes a conversation with a friend who insists that Teffi must go to a hardware store whose owner is selling a piece of batiste window covering she’s just taken down that will “make a wonderful evening dress.”

“But I don’t need any batiste.”

“Yes, you do. When you come back in a month’s time, there won’t be a scrap to be found anywhere.”

A similar woman reappears in Kiev, sending Teffi to her dressmaker who works with crêpe de chine. This becomes a motif throughout the memoir, the diminishing quality of gown materials telling the story of diminished lives. In Novorossiisk, Teffi spots an Armenian refugee wearing a badly damaged silk dress. The silk tells Teffi that “not long ago she must have been rich”:

She was showing her neighbor how she’d stretched a shawl over a rope. . . . if the shawl had been a quarter—yes, just one quarter—as long again (she demonstrated several times with her palm how much more material she needed), then she could have completed their tent. 

She was just that quarter of a shawl away from total comfort.

Teffi mentions the woman’s status as refugee and her ethnicity—Armenian—without reference to the horrors she and her neighbors were fleeing; the writer allows the incident with the shawl to speak for itself. Yet anyone able to read the newspaper at the time of the book’s publication would have been familiar with the unfolding saga of the ethnic cleansing that the Armenians had survived as a result of the Russian war with the Ottoman empire, and, after the revolution, their fight for independence in the Caucasus.

Clothing serves Teffi as a source of humor, pathos, and, on occasion, tells of horrors. In another passage, a Bolshevik commissar wears a coat with a bullet hole in the back and dried blood around the edges of the hole. It goes unexplained, to be gleaned between the lines, that the commissar likely had taken the coat from a man he killed.

The New York Review of Books, which brought out these memoirs in North America, and Pushkin Press, which simultaneously published the book in the U.K., have done an excellent job of supporting the translation with the introduction, translator’s note, and footnotes, elucidating a lot of what Teffi left unsaid. Nevertheless, readers of both Russian and English would benefit a great deal from thorough academic editions of this book, the kind of treatment that Babel’s work has received.

Much of this book is set in shtetls, among Jews, with Teffi’s impresario Gooskin serving as one of the major and most colorful characters. By helping Teffi to leave Russia, he very likely saved her life. At one point, Teffi thanks him: “Had it not been for his frenzied energy, who knows how my life would have turned out? Wherever you are, O my pseudonymous Gooskin, I send you my greetings!” She never says directly that Gooskin needed a pseudonym because he was Jewish, yet she goes on to joke at his expense, poking fun at many aspects of his personality, from his accent and manner of speech to his relationship with his mother. A reader can recognize the stereotypical caricature of a Jew in these remarks. One doesn’t like to rush to conclusions about the author’s attitude. I, for one, would love to have a finer understanding of what Teffi left unsaid. To answer this question, one footnote was not quite sufficient.

Olga Zilberbourg’s third Russian-language story collection comes out in 2016. Her fiction in English has appeared in Epiphany, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row,NarrativeHobartB O D YSanta Monica ReviewJ Journal, and elsewhere. 

Olivia ZhengReview: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

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