Teffi: Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me

Oh, what would it have been like to be Teffi, born into a remarkable time that made personal encounters with Tolstoy, Rasputin, Gorky, and Lenin possible, and to have made a name for herself as a writer in an androcentric literary world?

These delightful autobiographical essays answer that question. From childhood recollections, what her multipurpose desk was like, how her pseudonym came to be, to encounters with history’s formidable men, Teffi writes with a poetic simplicity that makes for light reading while never lacking depth. 

“I adore oranges. They are round and golden, like the sun, and beneath their peel are thousands of tiny pockets bursting with sweet, fragrant juice. An orange is a joy. An orange is a thing of beauty.

And suddenly I thought of Ganka. She didn’t know about oranges. Warm tenderness and pity filled my heart.”

Stealing from the crate of oranges, she managed to give one to Ganka, who, in return, “Bit off a piece together with the peel, then suddenly opened her mouth wide, made a horrible face, spat everything out and hurled the orange far into the bushes.”

“I had become a thief in order to give her the best thing I knew in all the world. And she hadn’t understood, and she spat it out.”

And dear Teffi who apparently knew what it’s like to give one’s best and have it discarded just like that, called this short piece “Love”.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Three Rings & Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: The Time Regulation Institute

One was acquired because of the unmistakeable image of my favorite city that bewitched me as I browsed through NYRB’s contemporary collection; and the other because there are only two Turkish modern classics in the Penguin collection and I’ve already read and loved the other one!

What is a classic? In Amit Chaudhuri’s rephrasing of J.M. Coetzee, it is that which speaks to you when you are ready to hear it. I was not too sure about being ready, but if Pamuk thinks Tanpinar is the most remarkable author in modern Turkish literature, you trust him… even if it means limping through four hundred pages of winding narrative for an entire week.

But as reading fate would have it, Mendelsohn’s book turned out to be the crutch that got me through my inadequacies as a reader and the compass that prevented me from losing my way through Tanpinar’s meandering tale.

Aside from being so much more, Three Rings sheds light on ring composition in masterpieces by Homer, Proust, Sebald, and other literary forebears. Because of this, it made me recognize this exact literary form in The Time Regulation Institute and taught me to luxuriate in the beauty of narrative digression instead of getting lost.

As if harmonizing intentionally, Tanpinar evokes the eastern concept of time as a non-linear progression as Mendelsohn intimates this non-linearity in literature and life.

Time Regulation Institute is primarily a satire on the young Turkish Republic during Atatürk’s cultural revolution, which included enforcing Western time and imposing a fine on those who continued to observe Islamic time. While Atatürk is lauded in the West as a hero for modernizing a dying and retrogressive Ottoman Empire, Tanpinar artfully warns readers about how new freedoms are accompanied by new tyrannies a seldom heeded but always relevant, and necessary, warning.

“The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale — or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments… never have I known a concept so inextricable from its antithesis, and indeed entirely crushed under its weight… I must confess I’ve always found freedom an elusive concept… if we truly felt passionately about it, then wouldn’t we have…never let it out of our sight?”

Amit Chaudhuri: Finding the Raga

A note that aches to resolve on the semitone next to it is called a leading-tone in Western music theory. While it comes closest to what a shruti is in Indian classical music, they are not equals; and although shruti literally translates to “what is heard” in Sanskrit, it has another meaning in Hindu sacred literature. Shruti in Indian classical music is the smallest gradation of pitch discernible by a human ear and the tiniest interval of pitch that a singer or musical instrument can produce.

But it is not my intention to bore non-musician friends with more of that. Finding the Raga is a poetic and accessible introduction to Indian classical music. It imparts an ample amount of artistic insight to share in future discussions. Aside from suggesting that our understanding of music enhances our appreciation of literature, language, and the world, it is an enlightening reminder that there are other lenses in which to view the world and other modes of music through which we can listen to the world aside from the Western.

It was, however, the idea of shruti that made itself heard to me more resoundingly, and exactly what I needed to read and learn on the first day of the year; because while leading-tones in music to which I am accustomed communicate a certain unease and a longing to resolve, in the raga, “Shruti has to do with the note’s anticipation of the next note, as well as its refusal to be immediately transformed into it. It’s to do with sometimes preferring a state of becoming, of being transformed…”

Once again, this in-betweenness. The last book I read in 2022 was Olivia Manning’s School for Love, a coming-of-age novel set in Jerusalem after the Second World War that seemed to me about the state of in-betweenness. It made me ponder on the truth that life itself is an entire in-betweenness and that, perhaps, the true test of our lives is in how we navigate through the uncertainty.

And now, this whole concept of shruti, a coming to terms with, and even a relishing of, this in-betweenness.

Finding the Raga has set the tone for my year. Here’s to making the in-betweenness both the journey and the home, the way sadhana does not differentiate between labour and its fruit or between preparation and performance, the way a khayal does not demand the listener to distinguish between process and finished product; and here’s to fine-tuning life for this interval of in-betweenness that can be made beautiful.

Olivia Manning: School for Love

It is an unusual Jerusalem winter, although there is no nativity scene. It is 1945. It is about Felix, an orphan crossing over from childhood to adulthood. It is about a time of unsettling calm at the end of one war and the brewing of another conflict. It is about a place between two upheavals, and read by this reader just as the year is ending and another is about to begin.

…and maybe the story still matters to us because it is all about the state of in-betweenness, a state that we constantly find ourselves in; and because life itself is an entire in-betweenness. After all, “I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love,” ponders Mrs. Ellis, and maybe the true test of our lives is in how we navigate through the uncertainty of this in-betweenness and treat others in their own in-betweenness.

Sevgi Soysal: Dawn & Yashar Kemal: Memed, My Hawk

When Archipelago Books released their edition of Dawn, I immediately placed an order and entertained myself with Memed, My Hawk and a few other books while waiting for its arrival. This is my second NYRB/Archipelago book-pairing and I’m finding these serendipitous duos to be highly rewarding.

Maureen Freely, whose translations of works by Sabahattin Ali and Orhan Pamuk I have enjoyed, pens an insightful preface to Dawn that enlightens readers about Sevgi Soysal’s life and the paradox in Turkish women’s rights that she was born into; and for the 2005 NYRB edition of Memed, My Hawk, launched on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, Yashar Kemal himself wrote the introduction wherein he reflects on people whose destiny it is to revolt.

Little did I know that the two Turkish works would complement each other and provide a rare glimpse of the Çukurova plain when it was still a setting for poor villagers, cruel landlords, bandits, orchards, and fields of thistles in Memed, My Hawk, and the same district on the cusp of urbanization in Dawn — far removed from the glorious domes and minarets of Istanbul that are more familiar to the international reader but closer to the woes of the working class.

Kemal (1923-2015) and Soysal (1936-1976) were no strangers to arrests and serving prison time for political activism. Memed, My Hawk is Kemal’s first novel, and Dawn Soysal’s last. But the symmetries are endless. The lives that both authors lived as leftist intellectuals and the fights they fought against authoritarianism and injustice are fervently manifested in these works.

The word “leftist” might cause some to flinch as it comes with a lot of baggage and it is deplorable how the mere association to the word can lead to “red-tagging” in my country; but the flawed and deeply human characters in both works reveal various shades of this problematic term that, stripped to its purest state, is simply the pursuit of equality, equity, basic human rights, liberty, and justice.

“Since when did we start thinking that struggling is a crime, and doing nothing was innocence and brilliance?” — Sevgi Soysal, Dawn

Miljenko Jergovic: Sarajevo Marlboro & Ivo Andric: Omer Pasha Latas

She knew there would be pain in these books. But don’t people in the warmest climes imbibe hot drinks to temper the body’s response to heat? By that logic, here she is; steeped in the rich wordscape and sorrowful history of the Balkans.

The first days of November find this reader still silenced by life. A point in which literature remains among the few things left that can coax words out of her.

Sarajevo Marlboro and Omer Pasha Latas fell into her possession around the same time. That both books come from two of her favorite publishers, that the earth tones of their elegant covers match her autumnal soul, that both authors are exemplary, that their stories juxtapose on the same geographical region, were reasons enough to read them together.

Jergović’s extraordinary vignettes is a dip into a sea of humanity and tragedy in the midst of the Yugoslav wars. Andrić, born a century before these wars, whose words seem to flow as naturally as a limpid stream in the Bosnian countryside, write of a different time under the Ottoman rule, but of eerily similar sufferings.

Sarajevo Marlboro, traces of life retrieved from the rubble, fragments that suggest that the real casualties of war are the living; Omer Pasha Latas, unfinished at the time of Andrić’s death. But none of these books leave this reader dissatisfied. It is strangely easy to be drawn into the hypnotic quality of the details.

Both books intimate our need for context and our need for stories if only to make sense of life and divine its purpose; they whisper about the lies of those in power and of fabricated histories; but both beautifully manifest the ephemerality of life.

Andrić’s last word: “Music”. Jergović’s last paragraph: “You can never list or recall the private libraries that have burned down in Sarajevo… But the fate of the Sarajevo University Library, its famous city hall, whose books took a whole night and day to go up in flames, will be remembered as the fire to end all fires, a last mythical celebration of ash and dust. It happened, after a whistle and an explosion… Gently stroke your books, dear stranger, and remember they are dust.”

Dust: Like everything else we deem precious in this world. So while she can, this reader will stroke her books. They don’t always hold the answers, but they hold her, and hold the dusty, broken pieces of herself together.

Magda Szabó

The Fawn

April 18, 2023

“I wanted to be with you sooner…” This first line, a faint melody, I imagine played by a solitary piano. This unwavering, melancholic undertone, suggesting that Eszter Encsy is addressing someone who is no longer in her life.

There is a calm, almost cold, but delicate aching to be accepted and understood. Recollections of childhood come across as confessions and explanations… including that time she did not mean to kill the fawn.

But how did that seemingly dispensable incident earn the title of the book? Perhaps the fawn is meant to symbolize the fragility of youth, and how easily it can be broken.

Magda Szabó, who died with a book in her hand, has bequeathed to the world novels that aim straight for the soul. She wrote of women; women who do not have to be faultless. She did not demand heroics from them or for them to be worthy of admiration or to be idealized. She only asked that they live — live intensely, and learn.

And yet, I did not expect her to go to the extent of Eszter. The moral puzzles are not vague here, it is made quite clear what kind of person we have as a central figure right from the beginning: “I could never have undertaken to be a good girl and never to tell lies…” “I lie so easily I could have made a career out of it…” “I was also laughing at the monster I really am…” “I wasn’t a very nice person and I wasn’t very friendly…”

We immediately get the picture. Appalled, we double-check the synopsis, even though Szabó readers know that her synopses hardly describe what one encounters between the pages. But we read on. Because Szabó is brilliant. Because we suspect that a gut punch or two awaits round the bend. Because oftentimes, nothing is what it initially seems. Because she writes of those difficult spaces between people that most of us are too inattentive, too timid, or too unimaginative to explore. Because we know that behind all her stories is a carefully woven leitmotif of a history she mourns. Because Szabó is always subtly reminding us of consequences, of how we cannot extricate our personal histories from that of our nation. Because she is eternally thought-provoking, and therefore, rewarding.

…and because those elegiac strains from that lonesome piano will linger long after you’ve turned the last page.

Katalin Street

October 13, 2022

Of the invasions of history into our lives; of moral intricacies, those shadowlands between right and wrong; of the love we give, we take, or do not receive — and a fatal overdose of any of the three; of faulty assumptions and miscalculations; of the tangled complexities of relationships between friends, family, and lovers, and even with ideologies and a nation; of the deaths we die before our real deaths; of things we realize too late; of the damage we wreak on those we love; and the irretrievable losses that time inflicts on us… Some books carry with them all that is unutterable and aim straight for your soul, not out of cruelty but out of an earnest art, and disclose that life will silence you… over and over again.


September 22, 2022

“In any work of literature the most interesting bits are in the detail,” Kőnig had often said in his lessons. “Be sure to attend to them closely.”

If I had a daughter, she’d find this book in a collection I created for her.

Reading this, she’d be reminded that heroines do not have to be faultless; that the surest assumptions can often be wrong; that no matter how clever we think we are, there are people wiser still; that actions always have consequences; that friendship is precious; that even in the most repetitive of routines and what we deem the bleakest of days, life will find ways to astound or surprise us.

If she philosophizes and reads deeper into the book, as I suspect a daughter of mine will, she will venture to question where childhood ends and adulthood begins, and attempt to come up with answers of her own, or a hundred questions more.

If she develops an awareness of history and politics, as she must, she will be sensitive to Magda Szabo’s subtle activism and glean the lessons of sacrifice and duty.

And I imagine this book — so engaging and difficult to put down — will only fuel the love for reading in her.

Can you tell that I read this through the eyes of a wide-eyed adolescent, and not through the eyes of an adult still haunted by the painful and confounding strains from Iza’s Ballad and The Door but who, nonetheless, acknowledges that Magda Szabó has now become a favorite?

Iza’s Ballad and The Door gnaws at the soul. Abigail educates the heart.

The Door

September 2, 2022

“But a door can hint at so much more.” — Geetanjali Shree, Tomb of Sand

Having come fresh from a streak of world literature for Women in Translation Month, which included Tomb of Sand, I have become more attuned to the implication of doors being more than architectural features. Doors as metaphors for boundaries.

But in contrast to Geetanjali Shree’s doors where, ideally, anyone came and went; Magda Szabó’s door was meant to remain shut. The physical door of the latter was not only a boundary but the framework of a person’s dignity.

Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad turned out to be the most exquisitely written work from my WiTMonth selection, so I wasted no time in taking a peek into this door.

Curiously, Iza’s Ballad and The Door both have characters hired as household help who do not work for the money. One is a minor character in Iza’s Ballad, but in The Door it is the baffling, the imposing, elderly Emerence, one of the two central figures in the story. Adding to the intrigue is the younger and other main character, a writer, the author’s namesake.

Two decades of love-hate relationship yield misunderstandings and reconciliations, but also critiques on each other’s lives, on art, and on their clashing beliefs. At some point, the writer eventually achieves “the prize” and receives a prestigious recognition for her work, but not without the question of what it cost.

There is a challenge in talking about this book without giving away what the author meticulously wrapped in layers, because reading Szabó is like a careful and deliberate peeling of an onion. The core is shrouded in well-executed veneers where even the revelations continue to maintain a mystery that lead toward a confounding finality.

But she is yet another testament to my hunch that 20th century writers remain unsurpassed. Even with a tinge of absurdism, there is that deep exploration into the dark of interior characterization, a delving in the psychological, spiritual, and philosophical condition of its characters, if only to pose the argument of what it is that really matters in life.

Iza’s Ballad

August 18, 2022

 © 2018 MDR
Budapest, Hungary

“As he spoke Lidia could see the schoolgirl Iza discussing the future with her father. She saw her as her father described her, as a pint-sized redeemer spreading out her school atlas and examining the map of Budapest because she wanted to see a major city, a really big city, and trying to work out where in City Park the statue of the historian Anonymous might stand. Iza loved the look of that hooded faceless figure. She saw it once when she was a young woman visiting Budapest…” Magda Szabó, Iza’s Ballad

How pleased I was to have identified with Iza so much! There was even something close to a silent pride that I initially felt. It was as if I were reading my own mother’s description of myself how Iza organized her life and her schedule, the tidiness, the discipline, the sense of responsibility, the restraint, her satisfaction in not having to give account of herself to anyone!

But how I trembled, as I turned the pages approaching the finale when I realized that it was because of this unrelenting self-discipline seeping into the cracks of her relationships that led to heartbreaking consequences.

It is for readers with aging parents. It is for every new generation that believes they are so much wiser than the previous one, so practical even in matters of the heart, and yet, unwittingly, so heartless.

It is for societies that reject the past and the old deeming these to be outdated and sentimental, failing to acknowledge that the past and the old hold the clues to the present and the new.

Although set in postwar Hungary, the spirit of this novel is contemporary: the timelessness of its message, its tragedies that are themselves the lessons, will gnaw at my soul for years to come.

Few books leave me feeling defeated. This one did. I felt so helpless under the influence of such simple but penetrating prose.

It is that dazed emotion one undergoes when someone so much wiser with experience sings in a pensive gasp, “I really don’t know life… at all…” Yes, someone like the inimitable Joni Mitchell, only Magda Szabó does it with an outstanding novel that she affectionately hands over to the reader saying, “You really don’t know life… at all…”

And in the presence of such masterful artistry and truth, what else can one do but applaud and weep?

Gyula Krúdy: The Adventures of Sindbad

Having sensed, perhaps, that I am loving the Hungarian bend of my Silk Route Reading Project, a bookseller inserted this surprise as a thoughtful gift along with my book-mail.

With a protagonist named after a character from The Thousand and One Nights, one can immediately sense the literary flavors that meet and fuse along these cultural routes.

Readers would be dissatisfied if they treated this like a novel, however. Although often related, the brief chapters should be read as a collection of stories, each one capable of standing on its own like any story from a Chekhov anthology.

These “adventures” are primarily amorous, and I would have easily dropped this book had I overlooked the sad irony masked behind the comic caprice.

Sindbad speaks beyond the grave, literally. More often than not, he is the ghost of a womanizer who committed suicide and returns to visit the women with whom he has had affairs, whether in his memories or through his phantasmic imaginings. Some of these women, victims of his philandering ways, some seductresses themselves.

“Bearing all this in mind it is understandable that the unhappy young man should have taken his own life. His desires were incapable of fulfillment. It was of no consolation to him that one hundred and seven women had reciprocated his love.”

But having died, Sindbad is described to have grown wise in death. On one occasion, he even laments how the dead see no change in the living.

Even so, it is too late to start again.

“Why can’t you find peace in the other world?” one woman asks Sindbad.

It would seem that peace and love are things you can strive for only in the world of the living.

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight

Have you ever read a novel by a Hungarian author that is not a page-turner?

I haven’t!

“I need a drink. Because I have to tell you who Tamás Ulpius was, and how he died,” on the fourteenth page, is the same bomb of intrigue that Magda Szabó drops in page three of The Door when she writes, “Thus far I have lived my life with courage, and hope to die that way, bravely and without lies. But for that to be, I must speak out. I killed Emerence.”

Intrigue is the paprika that flavors Hungarian pages up until the very end.

_ _ _

I was drawn to this book not for what the blurb promised, but for its writer: Antal Szerb, who sadly perished in a camp during the Holocaust. But like Irène Némirovsky, also a Catholic Jew who nonetheless shared a similar fate despite their conversion to another faith, there is nothing politically blatant in their writings.

There is, however, a certain psychological depth in Szerb’s style that makes it extremely appealing to me. The characters themselves are not that likeable but they seem to represent the state of disorientation of the generation between the first and the second world wars.

“‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’ said the doctor, ‘just horrendous exhaustion. What were you doing, to get yourself so tired?’

‘Me?’ he asked, meditatively. ‘Nothing. Just living.’ And then he fell asleep again.”

Death plays a role in this novel, but so does Life. An existential crisis and unresolved issues of his youth haunt the main character and result in the fickleness of his decisions. He abandons his wife on what was supposed to be an idyllic honeymoon in Italy, and there begins what seems to be a muted exploration into the psychopathology of guilt.

– – –

In this edition’s introduction, we learn of Szerb’s fascination for Italy; “its art, its history, its people, its language, its ancient towns and their narrow back streets.” He had lived there as a young man from 1924 to 1929 and the country took hold of him. He returned in 1936, suspecting that it was for the last time. In a travel journal entry he wrote, “I initially wanted to go to Spain… but it occurred to me that I simply must go to Italy, while Italy remains where it is, and while going there is still possible. Who knows for how much longer I, or any of us, will be able to go anywhere? The way events are moving, no one will be allowed to set foot outside his own country.”

Needless to say, his suspicions tragically proved true, but this final trip to Italy gave birth to this novel, which is a poignant love letter to Italy.

But through all of what Szerb says with clarity or through undertones, what I found most disqueting were descriptions of the generation’s moral insanity, how they viewed war with indifference — “bore the changing times on their backs with astonishing passivity, and lived quite unconnected with their own remarkable history.”

And unfortunately, Antal Szerb did not live to tell the tale, but we all know what happened next.

David Plante: Difficult Women, A Memoir of Three

Difficult Women. Difficult reader. This book and I did not mix well.

I found no satisfaction or pleasure in reading this, although I did not feel arrogant enough to consider it a bad book deserving to be consigned to the DNF pile. There must be something to be learned here.

To be appreciated, these sketches of Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer through David Plante’s personal encounters with them in the 70s, should probably be read as a literary specimen: a study on the microscopic boundaries between honesty and invasion of privacy; a rare sample that lays bare the characters of these women at particular points in their lives; an excision of the writer’s intentions, for scrutiny; and the final diagnosis that literary figures are just as human and as difficult as the rest of us. And perhaps, that’s what makes this… well… difficult.