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

The Observer - The New Review - - Books -

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.

To or­der Teffi: A Life of Let­ters and of Laugh­ter go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

Teffi: ‘buried ev­ery trace of her per­sonal ex­is­tence’. Her­itage Images/Getty

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