Memories is an astonishing account of a valedictory journey across Russia undertaken in 1918 by Teffi, the once-famous Russian playwright and humorist, in the company of a “squint-eyed Odessa impresario” who goes by the name of Gooskin. Except that Teffi doesn’t know that she will never return to Moscow, that this is a voyage into nowhere. The teenage Vladimir Nabokov, leaving St Petersburg at the same time, described his own experience as a “syncopal kick”—a momentary loss of consciousness. Teffi was 46 years old and acutely conscious throughout.
The book is composed of 31 vignettes first published in 1928 in a Russian language paper in Paris, where Teffi eventually settled. Her original readers were émigrés themselves and the reappearance of her Memories during another refugee crisis is opportune. The prose is quick, vivid, deceptively clear—as the critic Georgy Adamovich put it, “the water is entirely transparent, yet the bottom is barely visible.” The disintegration of her country takes place in an atmosphere of resilience and solidarity. After swapping stories about Red Army guards, Teffi performs in a theatre where the women cry “Sweetheart! We love you! God grant you get out of here soon.” Such is the excitement of the audience that Teffi finds herself joining in the calls for the author to appear onstage, forgetting that she is herself the author. From a world filled with chatter Teffi finds herself, shed of identity, alone with “the black, empty, round earth and the boundless starry sky.”