First lady of wit in Moscow and Paris
A meticulous biography unravels the ribald life and star quality of the 19th-century Russian humorist Teffi, writes Miranda Seymour
Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter Edythe Haber
IB Tauris, £20, pp288 Nothing dates faster than humour. The Russian writer Teffi (born Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya in 1872, the sixth child of a lawyer) had the misfortune not only to be an astringently witty and fiercely professional female author – an unusual breed in 19th-century Russia – but almost untranslatably so.
“Miss Duncan, why go barefoot when tights have been invented?” (You’re smiling? Neither am I.)
After her death in Paris in 1952 – keenly awaited by Teffi herself, who compared God to a dentist who had mixed up the order of his patients’ appointments – her status as an international celebrity was forgotten until, in 2014, a group of skilful, determined and humour-alert translators took up Teffi’s cause, assisted by Pushkin Press.
What followed was Subtly Worded, an exquisitely published collection of sharp-eyed vignettes culled from Teffi’s enormous output that earned their author comparisons to Chekhov. In 2016, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, an audaciously jaunty series of articles recalling Teffi’s hazardstrewn journey towards Europe in 1918, became a Radio 4 book of the week. Commanding awe for her irreverent ability to laugh in the face of tragedy, Teffi was back.
What was dimly apparent to any careful reader or listener was the protective wall behind which a brilliant and painfully self-aware writer had buried every trace of her personal existence. In 2019, Teffi’s Wikipedia entry still hesitates over her precise date of birth. Her innumerable lovers go unmentioned. Her second husband is nowhere in evidence.
Edythe Haber has been engaged with Teffi’s life and work for 40 years. Her biography is a masterpiece of sober and diligent scholarship that flatly refuses to disguise Teffi’s failings. Instead of cooing over Teffi’s jokes, Haber brings into view a formidable woman who worked as hard as an entire army of scribes and who bewitched her lovers as effortlessly as she abandoned them. Chekhov might have to give way to Colette or Madame de Stäel when we next start seeking comparisons for a writer who charmed Tsar Nicholas II, rebuffed an amorous Rasputin and was praised by Lenin (an “obsessed maniac” in Teffi’s disgusted view).
Haber’s meticulous research raises as many questions as it answers. A personal request to Tolstoy that Prince Andrei in War and Peace should be kept alive (Teffi was just 13) surely connects to the loss of her own father, just one year earlier. Defending her brusque abandonment of a husband and three children in 1898, after six years of marriage, Teffi pleaded that she had no choice: “In essence I was good… circumstances drove me from home.” Wasn’t it more likely that domesticity stifled her hunger to create?
Moving back to St Petersburg, Teffi rapidly found her metier in comedy. (“Laugh! It brings us money,” ordered her publishers.) Laughter was at a premium in those febrile times. On stage, Teffi’s wittily topical skits (The Woman Question; Love Through the Ages) made her a star. By 1917, she was producing three bright columns a week for Russkoe slovo, Moscow’s most popular newspaper, while bringing a welcome spirit of apolitical playfulness to the country’s leading comic magazine, Satirikon. Arkady Averchenko was billed as Satirikon’s comic star, but it was the dashingly irreverent Teffi whose work most delighted readers. Her name became ubiquitous. Admirers dabbed their wrists with Teffi perfume and nibbled on Teffi chocolates.
Habitually savvy – as Haber’s photographic archive shows – about her public image, Teffi was equally skilful in concealing a ribald private life. The discovery of her second marriage has come to light only recently, buried within the dying request in 1919 of a dashing White Russian officer, Dmitry Shcherbakov, that his wife “écrivain connu Teffy” (sic) should
Haber brings into view a formidable woman who worked as hard as an army of scribes
be informed of his demise. Haber also establishes that Shcherbakov was literate enough to review two of his wife’s plays. That her spouse also happened to be gay was a likely plus, given Teffi’s unquenchable relish for extramarital love affairs.
Three decades of exile in Paris – where, typically, she opened the first émigré salon – brought Teffi a new and devoted audience. But estrangement from her homeland blunted the author’s relish for satire. “We have died,” she wrote of refugee life in her essay Nostalgia. “We feared a Bolshevik death – and have met our death here.”
The playfulness remained intact. Grateful for a daughter’s thoughtful gift of cosy slippers in icy winter, an ageing Teffi quipped that her thawing toes were getting ready for a spot of Liszt.
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Teffi: ‘buried every trace of her personal existence’. Heritage Images/Getty