The first line of Teffi’s story “Witch,” the title story from a 1936 collection reprinted in Other Worlds, asks: “Sometimes, when you think back, you can’t help wondering: Were people really like that? Was life really like that?” “Teffi” was the pen name of a Russian writer and journalist who left the country for good after the revolution. Afterwards most of her readers were émigrés and these stories have an undercurrent of nostalgia.
Other Worlds is subtitled Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints. Those are all running themes here. Other Worlds samples stories from several collections, in chronological order. Pilgrims and saints appear more in the early stories. Spirits come in later. Another theme carried all the way through the book is memory, particularly childhood memories. A lot of these stories recreate the way the world felt to Teffi as a child, when the line between reality and fantasy was blurrier.
And then they carry that feeling forward, into adulthood. The pilgrim stories involve childhood attempts to understand religion, including the drily funny tale of a child who decides to become a saint. But there are also adult pilgrims who have sudden numinous experiences. One narrator takes an unexpectedly wild and eerie carriage ride through the woods. Even in adulthood the world gets unexpectedly larger.
The tales of spirits, most from Witch, feel like the heart of the collection. (Although this may be my love of weird fiction talking.) The translators included all but one of the stories from this collection. (Robert Chandler, who wrote the explanatory material, doesn’t explain what that last story was or why they left it out.) These stories center around spirits from Russian folklore—witches, shapeshifters, Leshies, Rusalkas. Often the main vectors for these beliefs are peasants—but, no matter what they tell themselves, the upper classes are just as suceptible. In “Witch,” the ostensibly rational narrator and her husband wind up fleeing their apartment in fear that their housekeeper has cursed the place. “You may laugh all you please,” says Teffi, “but the truth is that things didn’t work out sensibly and reasonably, as educated people like ourselves always want them to.”
In the Witch stories Teffi’s prose is conversational. It feels improvisational, extemporaneous. (But it’s precise—Chandler tells us Teffi is difficult to translate.) Her narrator is reminiscing, taking you into your confidence. She’s talking to a “you,” or relaying a story told to her: “Do you remember that tragic death? The death of that artful Edvers?” Memory keeps coming up—sometimes she’ll say “I remember” or “As far as I can remember.” The stories are structured with anecdotes, asides, and associational transitions—for instance, she’ll give a quick biography of a baroness before telling the anecdote she’s involved in that’s the actual point of the story. A lot of these stories start as essays on Russian folklore—domovoys, bathhouse devils—before easing into a narrative.
These stories have a constant edge of astonishment. Can this really be happening? Is life really like this? Narrators and characters keep asking bemused questions: “Was that really Panas?” “What kind of accursed forest was this, full of murderous trees?” A lot of writers take pains to avoid exclamation points. Teffi throws them in fearlessly.
One thing you get in Teffi that more fantasy writers need to learn is a sense of mystery, complexity, and ambiguity. Take “Leshachikha.” The narrator remembers a childhood incident when her family’s neighbor, a count, brings his daughter Jadzia to their house. She behaves wildly and tears her dress. Later the kids are being driven through the woods and hear a wild howling; their coachman says Jadzia, the “Leshachika,” drives the game to her father when he hunts. Then the count brings home Eleonora, another daughter, who is beautiful but slightly hunchbacked. Jadzia is jealous. One day Eleonora wanders into the forest and is crushed by a falling tree. Then the count plans to marry. In the forest his valet just barely saves him from another falling tree. Jadzia is nowhere near either time, but everyone obscurely feels she’s responsible. The count breaks off the engagement and takes Jadzia away, abandoning his home. The narrator stops to look at his pond. “I kept looking for the swan,” she says. Leshachikhas are as normal as birds; a swan is as interesting as a spirit.
This story doesn’t have a single, definite, legible interpretation. A lot of SFF stories take pains to communicate a clear, well-defined meaning. The story has a careful moral or is built around a metaphor with an unmistakable meaning. The results are often stories you’ll only read once; you’ve gotten everything out of them you’re ever going to. This is why I value messiness in fiction. “Leshachikha” is productively obscure. It could mean many things to many people. There’s more scope for rereading, reinterpretation.
One move Other Worlds often makes is to blur the border between people and spirits. Jadzia may be a forest spirit, or may consort with forest spirits, or may just be like a forest spirit. In “Wonder Worker” a peasant seems to reincarnate as a chicken. In “Water Spirit” a transgender housemaid is accused of being “from the river.” In “The Dog” the spirit of the narrator’s childhood friend who called himself her “dog” returns to protect her in the form of that animal. In a late essay Teffi identifies herself with Baba Yaga. Ordinary people are as strange and numinous as spirits.
That means sometimes it’s ambiguous whether anything supernatural is going on. Sometimes nothing supernatural is going on: the comedy in “Bathhouse Devil” comes from the narrator’s pretending to believe in spirits while leaving a more mundane story in plain sight. This might worry some weird fiction fans. Stories that go for metaphysical ambiguity are often afraid of their own weirdness; including a non-supernatural get out clause feels more respectable. But here the ambiguity has the opposite effect. Other Worlds feels weirder than a lot of outright weird fiction. Instead of taming weirdness, Teffi uses ambiguity to make the everyday weird.
Deep Space Nine fans might be interested to know “Jadzia” is Russian, and actually supposed to be pronounced “Yadya.” ↩