In­sou­ciance come what may

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Teffi was one of Tsar Nicholas II’s favourite writ­ers but, un­like the tsa­rina, was quite im­mune to the greasy ad­vances of the loath­some Rasputin. A charm­ing 45-year-old in 1917, she was widely read and much loved through­out Rus­sia. Even Lenin took over from where Nicholas left off in the Teffi ad­mi­ra­tion stakes.

Thank­fully her writ­ings, both fic­tion and mem­oir, have been res­cued re­cently from the deep sleep of his­tory by Pushkin Press and a ded­i­cated troupe of trans­la­tors. Robert Chan­dler also in­tro­duces both books and closes them with help­ful end­notes.

His most im­me­di­ate is­sue is to ex­plain the puz­zling nom de plume cho­sen by Nadezhda Alexan­drovna Lokhvit­skaya, the sec­ond youngest of six chil­dren born into a distin­guished St Peters­burg le­gal fam­ily. Nadezhda mar­ried young but sep­a­rated from her hus­band af­ter a decade or so, and only then be­gan to write. Quite soon she was us­ing the pseu­do­nym Teffi, a ref­er­ence to a lucky clown or fool called St­effi, short for Stepan. “Fools are al­ways lucky,” she ex­plains in her short story My Pseu­do­nym, adding in typ­i­cal Teffi style: “Find­ing a fool, of course, was easy enough. I knew a great many of them.”

In the early years of the cen­tury be­fore the rev­o­lu­tion, she wrote verses both se­ri­ous and satir­i­cal, short sto­ries and brief ar­ti­cles, mainly for the Stock Ex­change Gazette but also for other news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, as well as one-act plays, and songs that she per­formed on stage, ac­com­pa­ny­ing her­self on her beloved gui­tar.

Like most artists of that era, she was sym­pa­thetic to the free­doms promised by the Bol­she­viks but soon grew hos­tile to their prac­tice of har­ness­ing art to party ends. She was hap­pi­est when she could ig­nore pol­i­tics and de­vote her tal­ents to mak­ing peo­ple laugh, pub­lish­ing her ef­forts in a pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful hu­mour mag­a­zine called Satiri­con and in the most read news­pa­per in Rus­sia, Rus­sian Word, un­til it was closed down by the Bol­she­viks in 1917.

In 1918 she moved to Moscow, which she de­scribed as “still alive”, if only just, and from there was al­lowed to em­bark on what turned out to be a heart­break­ing odyssey, a fruit­less search for nor­mal civil­i­sa­tion be­gin­ning with a read­ing tour in Ukraine, not yet crushed by the Red Army.

Mem­o­ries from Moscow to the Black Sea, which be­gins at this point, makes a bril­liant fea­ture of lacing hard facts with de­light­ful, even friv­o­lous, ob­ser­va­tions: the Ukraine es­cape route is pre­sented by a squint-eyed im­pre­sario from Odessa who goes by the name of Gooskin.

Nadezhda Alexan­drovna Lokhvit­skaya, who wrote Rasputin and Other Ironies and Mem­o­ries from Moscow to the Black Sea un­der the pen name Teffi

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