Teffi

Many people find it surprising that I live somewhere so busy, right opposite Montparnasse station. But it’s what I like. I adore Paris. I like to hear it here beside me – knocking, honking, ringing and breathing. Sometimes, at dawn, a lorry rumbles past beneath my window, so loud and so close that it seems to be coming straight through my room, and I draw up my legs in my sleep so they won’t be run over. And then what wakes me an hour or two later is Paris itself – dear, elegant, beautiful Paris. Far better than being woken by a bewhiskered old crone of a concierge with eyes like a cockroach.

Teffi was a recent discovery at the Gonchorova exhibition recently. She was born in 1872, so had already emerged into the St Petersburg social and literary scene as both a debutante and an author – called in once to meet Rasputin in the hopes that her guise as society lady would cover her job as an investigative journalist – and was definitely on the wrong side of the fence come 1919, despite working with Lenin.

It turned out that she has entered the country on a false passport made out in the name of a sixteen-year old girl with no education. The comrades had decided that by putting a bright-red blouse on a middle-aged woman with a pince nez and the weary face of an intellectual, they would turn her into an illiterate young teenager. And they had been right. The border guards had believed the story and Valeria Ivananova had safely entered St Petersburg in her red blouse.

Her writing covers travel to and round France (sometimes but not usually by choice), Orthodox Easter and childhood memories, Siberia and exile, pre-revolution Bolshevism and a good humoured approach to small quarters living, often with a good dose of sarcasm or irony.

Is it this little table that you’re looking at? Yes, I know it’s very small but there’s nothing it doesn’t do. It’s a writing table, a dining table, a dressing table and a sewing table. It’s only three and a half feet across, but on it I have an inkwell, some writing paper, my face powder, some envelopes, my sewing box, a cup of milk, some flowers, a Bible, sweets, manuscripts and some bottles of scent.

Riding the tube

The train was crowded as usual last night, and so I was riding standing up with my arms clasped round the centre pole of the car, and my hands were joined not together but by a copy of Life that I had purchased at the Fifty-ninth Street station newsstand. I was reading from the back of the magazine to the front – not from inclination, but because the particular balance I was trying to maintain between my right shoulder and the pole obliged me to turn the pages with my left hand…

Maeve Brennan in The Long-Winded Lady describing an urban scene that’s completely familiar.

August

When the blackberries hang

swollen in the woods, in the brambles

nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high

branches, reaching

my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming

the black honey of summer

into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark

creeks that run by there is

this thick p of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is

this happy tongue.

Mary Olivier “August”

Summer reading

280220A3-BEF0-4196-A980-B87A222B3527Whether you’re still to have a late summer break, or you’re feeling the back to school urge for some more meaty reading, here’s a few things I’d recommend:

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stories of self discovery and the intersections of race, gender and sexuality

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Poetry, civic and queer history and reflections on the hierarchies of mental health

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and books on shifting national and personal identity

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Photos from Pages in Cheshire Street, a London bookshop that doesn’t publish writing by cis men, from @zebatalks, from @half_book_and_co, from @bonniesbooks, from @owlslittlelibrary and from me (Dress photo from the brand Ephemera)

I’ll put a record on

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next up for a podcast that looks fun and entertaining is Books and Rhymes, which focuses on African writers and also asks the interviewees to put together a playlist for their episode. If you’ve enjoyed the links before to @sophiastories and her “reading outside the box” approach, or The Reading Women and their mission to reclaim half the bookshelf in the most diverse way possible, then I think you’ll like this too. It’s already introduced me to the Caine Prize, which I’d never heard of despite it being 20 years old this year.

Summer lightness

The always worth a read Cup of Jo has been having a field day recently with ideas that make life easier in the summer:

– a meal served in muffin tins for picky eaters (“toddler happy hour”, as one family calls it), that reminded me that meals of this and that are sometimes the most fun on a hot evening after work

– laying down on your bed with the windows open and a book, losing track of time

– making rituals that you look forward to all week: pizza night on a Friday = movie night if you add netflix; ice cream pyjama rides on nights when the kids can’t settle and parents needn’t a break

The series felt aimed at parents to eating their hair out at the approach of the summer holidays but were a good reminder for everyone to relax and enjoy the light feelings of summer

Red century

In 2017, the New York Times published a series of articles called Red Century, looking at the impact and implications of the Russian Revolution. Some were humorously titled, such as How to Parent Like a Bolshevik or Why women have better sex under socialism (now a book of essays), and others were detailed looks at Mexican communism, why islamic communism never really emerged, how NY journalism was an initial hotbed of communist ideals etc. Worth a read.

Vespers, Louise Gluck

Vespers [in your extended absence you permit me]

In your extended absence, you permit me use of the earth, anticipating

some return on investment. I must report

failure in my assignment, principally regarding the tomato plants.

I think I should not be permitted to grow tomatoes. Or if I am, you should withhold

the heavy rains, the cold nights that come

so often here, while other regions get

twelve weeks of summer. All this

belongs to you: on the other hand,

I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots

like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart

broken by the blight, that black spot so quickly

multiplying in the rows. I doubt

you have a heart, in our understanding of that term. You who do not discriminate

between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,

immune to foreshadowing, you may not know

how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf

the red leaves of the maple falling,

even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible

for these vines.

Gluck. Gluck was a painter and poet who was also the lover of Constance Spry for some time in the 30s.

Queenie

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Must read of the summer. Upsetting because it’s true, uplifting because she writes a redemption arc that feels like it should be possible. Also an ode to friendship as an anchor and laugh out loud funny.

Salty plains

I always got my best ideas at bedtime, drifting in and out of sleep, the membrane between my conscious mind and the dark and salty plains of my undermind grown thin and permeable. In my industry, pictures shaped stories, and pictures were my jumping off point. I closed my eyes and waited for colours that had no name to splash into shapes on my inner eyelids, forming images that would become the panels. But I couldn’t fall into that deep green swampland of near sleep…

An early passage from Joshilyn Jackson’s “The Almost Sisters