A Satirist in Exile

Originally published in the May/June (special “Migration”) issue of Books & Culture.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea
by Teffi
NYRB Classics, 2016, 296 pages, $16.95

In the summer of 1917, just months before the Bolsheviks shut down the organs of decadent culture, the magazine Russian Word published an essay entitled “Deserters” by Teffi, one of its most popular writers. In it she exhorts her fellow aristocrats and intelligentsy not to abandon Russia in her hour of revolutionary upheaval. She acknowledges that the newly awakened peasants and workers will commit outrages after centuries of being “stupefied with vodka, crushed by lack of rights, by illiteracy, poverty, superstition, and hunger,” but their victims have a responsibility to see the country through. “May each one of us be able to say: ‘My forces were weak and small, but I gave of them totally. And I did not renounce and did not flee. I was not a deserter!'”

Teffi (Nadezhda Alexandrovna Buchinskaya) had plenty of time to contemplate the irony of these words during three decades of exile, for two years after that essay she joined the three million “deserters” who escaped Russia in the wake of its civil war. From Moscow Teffi fled first to Kiev, then to Odessa, and finally to Paris, where most White émigrés of her class ended up. In Russia, she had married young, given birth to three children, and then left her husband and children before she turned thirty, supporting herself from her career as a writer. In exile, she had a more difficult time building a new life than those whose skills were more adaptable or who could perform the manual labor that France wanted from its immigrants, to make up for the generation of working men it had lost in the trenches. Her only income came from the short stories she wrote for the Russian-language émigré press. She died in 1952 without seeing Russia again.

But all of this lay in the future when the first installments of Memories were published in 1928. At that point, many émigrés could still think of their flight not as desertion but as a tactical retreat. They had been defeated, but they would return one day, at the head of an army if necessary. Had not Lenin and Trotsky endured years of exile before gaining power? Had not Herzen and Turgenev fled abroad only to see their ideas triumph in their homeland? The Bolshevik aberration was like the Tatar yoke of the Mongol khans, a foreign rule that could not last forever.

If Teffi wrote Memories at a time when she still believed there was a chance she would return to her old life in St. Petersburg, then that explains the book’s greatest weakness, its lack of coherence. The book sparkles with impressionistic glimpses of refugee life in Eastern Europe, but no themes or conclusions emerge to tie these impressions together. The family that pretends to be an acting troupe on tour in order to obtain travel passes, the commissar who agrees to let Teffi through customs in exchange for her autograph, the friend who always stuffs himself with double helpings even when food isn’t scarce, muttering “I’m afraid we’ll end up starving to death!”—Teffi parades such figures for their comedy but nothing more. Perhaps she did not yet know herself what kind of story they added up to.

Her superficiality suffers by comparison with another memoir of the same Moscow-Black Sea journey, Cursed Days by Ivan Bunin, a friend of Teffi’s and later the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Both authors mention the tendency of their fellow refugees to repeat wild rumors, but Teffi simply plays it for laughs:

“There’s been a secret telegram from France. France is having a revolution too. Now they’ve gone Communist, their troops can’t go on fighting our Bolsheviks.”
“Revolution in France? What nonsense!”
“They’re not really leaving,” said someone else. “They’re only pretending to leave. To fool the Bolsheviks.”

Bunin reaches for the deeper significance:

All my friends, all my acquaintances, people whom earlier I never would have thought of as liars, are now uttering falsehoods at every turn. They cannot help but lie; they cannot help but add their own lies, their own flourishes to well-known falsehoods. And they all do so from an agonizing need that everything be just as they so fiercely desire. They rave on like they have a fever; and when I hear their rantings I take their words in greedily and become infected by them. Otherwise it seems that I won’t survive the week.

But then, Bunin always was the more intellectual of the two. Teffi was essentially a miniaturist, like Chekhov, to whom she was often compared. Ideas did not interest her. Her subjects in St. Petersburg had been domestic squabbles, social pretensions, poignant anecdotes, and delicate drawing-room ironies, and the trauma of exile added no shades to her palate. Bunin devotes several pages of Cursed Days to recounting how he pored over histories of the French Revolution, mulling all the ways the Soviet revolutionaries resembled the Committee of Public Safety. That other great diarist of political disintegration, Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, did the same thing in the 1930s, steeling himself against the madness of life under Hitler by immersing himself in the history of the Münster Anabaptists. It is impossible to imagine Teffi doing anything similar.

*     *     *     *     *

After decades out of print, Teffi again became available in English translation in 2014 when Pushkin Press released Subtly Worded, a collection of stories and autobiographical sketches. Now the prestigious revival imprint NYRB Classics is set to publish not one but two Teffi titles this summer, the other being the odds-and-ends anthology Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me. The head translator for both projects is award-winning poet Robert Chandler, whom NYRB previously entrusted with Pushkin and Vasily Grossman. Edythe Haber, author of the introduction to Memories, plans to publish a critical biography of Teffi soon.

These boosters are most likely hoping they can replicate the Irène Némirovsky revival that swept the publishing world over the last dozen years. Like Teffi, Némirovsky fled from Russia to Paris in the 1920s. She built a successful career as a fiction writer (unlike Teffi, in French), married a fellow Russian-Jewish émigré, and converted to Catholicism, but her ancestry doomed her to death at Auschwitz in 1942. In the late 1990s, her daughter was astonished to discover that the coded notebook she always assumed was her mother’s diary in fact contained a novel about the fall of France and the Occupation, written as these events were still unfolding. The unfinished manuscript was published as Suite Française, and its enormous success prompted new editions of practically all of Némirovsky’s earlier work, from juvenilia (Le Bal) to mature masterpieces (The Courilof Affair).

There is no doubt that Teffi is as ripe for rediscovery as any long-forgotten Russian émigré writer. Her story may not have the pathos of Némirovsky’s, but on the other hand she is probably the only 20th-century author who can muster glowing blurbs from both Lenin and Nicholas II. (When someone asked the last czar to name his favorite contemporary writers, he replied, “Teffi! Only Teffi!”) However, a side-by-side comparison with Némirovsky brings into focus the qualities that make Teffi fall short as a serious author—and, in particular, as a chronicler of the migrant experience.

The first 100 pages of Suite Francaise are all about what it is like to pack your life into a suitcase and leave your home behind, not knowing if you will ever return. Her characters are fleeing from Nazis, but Némirovsky’s insight into their emotions dates back to an earlier flight:

Even people who were normally calm and controlled were overwhelmed by anxiety and fear. Everyone looked at their house and thought, “Tomorrow it will be in ruins, tomorrow I’ll have nothing left. We haven’t hurt anyone. Why?” Then a wave of indifference washed over their souls: “What’s the difference! It’s only stone, wood—nothing living! What matters is survival!” Who cared about the tragedy of their country? Not these people, not the people who were leaving that night. Panic obliterated everything that wasn’t animal instinct, involuntary physical reaction. Grab the most valuable things you own in the world and then … !

It took no small amount of magnanimity for Némirovsky to share the great trauma of her youth with her host country—to allow that the French refugees of 1940 had a claim on a sorrow that, all her life, had formed a barrier between her and them. (Her novella The Snow in Autumn describes émigré alienation in agonizing detail.) Readers of Suite Française are often astonished that the Nazi officer Bruno von Falk is so sympathetically drawn, but that is only the most dramatic example of Némirovsky’s extraordinary ability to extend imaginative empathy to the unlikeliest of people. The narrator of The Courilof Affair is a Bolshevik assassin—in other words, exactly the sort of person who forced her entire family to uproot their life and move a thousand miles west—and yet he is the richest, most fully human character Némirovsky ever created.

Teffi never managed anything like this, not in the stories she wrote after 1945 and certainly not in Memories. She came to develop a jeweler’s eye for the pains of émigré life, the stasis, the longing, the indignities, but she never indicated any awareness that the same pains sometimes afflict Frenchmen, much less Bolsheviks. It could be that Teffi tailored her stories to an audience that was narrower than Némirovsky’s. It could be that, as a satirist, she should be forgiven for indulging in caricature. But the simplest explanation is that, for all her powers of observation, Teffi simply was not very interested in the inner lives of the people around her.