Thursday, August 31, 2017

Comedy and tragedy

I enjoyed Subtly Worded, by Teffi, and more so because of book club, but probably more for its value as a historical oddity than on its literary merits. This collection is career-spanning and chronologically ordered.

The stories featuring historical figures — Tolstoy and Rasputin — were fascinating to me (more essay than story?).

However, some of the stories made me roll my eyes at the obviousness of their twist endings. They were truly less than subtle. Other bookclubbers disagreed on this point. And there is indeed a cleverness in the way Teffi uses words and makes them central to her stories. The title story, for example, is about censorship — words and meaning and double-meaning. I might argue that these stories are about subtlety more than they exercise it.

Some of this material is satirical, other bits are just plain funny. She has a comedic sense of timing — knows when to keep it short and when to go long. She is a master at capturing ordinary speech.

The introduction states that shortly before her death, Teffi wrote, "An anecdote is funny when it's being told, but when someone lives it, it's a tragedy. And my life has been sheer anecdote, that is — a tragedy."

So why did Teffi fall off the literary map? Because she was a woman? And why is she back?

I can't quite put my finger on why I don't connect with most of Teffi's stories. Some are too light, others too ponderous. Some bookclubbers posited that as a woman, she may have felt compelled to write a certain way, to play into her role as socialite and play to expectations. More style than sincerity?

That said, I favoured a few standouts I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone: "The Quiet Backwater," "Ernest with the Languages," and "The Dog (A Story from a Stranger)."

Subtly Worded, and Other Stories by Teffi review – a traditional Russian form is given a good hiding
Compared to Chekhov, Colette and Now Sedaris: 'Subtly Worded' Brings Teffi to Non-Russian Readers

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