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17 November 2018

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Teffi: The Best Russian Writer You May Not Have Heard Of

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Teffi: The Best Russian Writer You May Not Have Heard Of

by Alice E.M. Underwood

“Like the pediment of a Greek theater, I have two faces, one laughing and one weeping.”

One of Russia’s great satirists – skilled in finding humor in despair and painting the human condition as hilarious and hideous at one stroke – was born 145 years ago today. At least, maybe she was: there’s debate on whether May 21 was her actual date of birth, or if 1872 is even the right year. But approaching an uncertain situation with confidence and humor is exactly what Teffi would do, so today is as good a day as any to celebrate her life.

What’s a Teffi?

What kind of a name is “Teffi”? Wouldn’t Tevsky or Tevin be more fitting of a Russian writer? The author’s pseudonym – she was born Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya – is as mysterious as her birthday: one story is that she adopted it from a friend who was dubbed “Steffi” by his servant; another credits an English rhyme:

“Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief.”

Though not Welsh, male, nor a thief (as far as we know), Teffi might have identified with the mischievous air to the couplet, her being a satirist of Russian society.

So why does Teffi deserve our attention today? Robert Chandler, who has translated many of her stories as well as her memoirs, is uniquely qualified to answer:

“It’s more that she commands our attention. She is a vivid presence, especially in her autobiographical writing.  Readers relate to her in an unusually personal way.”  

That’s right: funny, commanding, and personal. And she’s in good company.

The Chekhov You Never Heard Of

Most often compared to Chekhov (and sometimes, by contemporary readers, to David Sedaris), and also bearing a striking resemblance to Zoshchenko, Teffi is most famous for her short stories that humorously – and sometimes scathingly – highlight human fallibilities, flaws, and subservience to material objects, but also reveal a psychological depth belied by her satirical subject matter. For example:

  • In “The Pipe,” a Russian journalist is transformed into an Englishman after purchasing a pipe reminiscent of one smoked by a British sea captain.
  • In “Life and the Collar,” a young wife buys a smart-looking collar that not only transforms the meek young woman into a rude, domineering spendthrift when she puts it on, but becomes the protagonist of the story itself.
  • In “The Princess’s Ruby” – you guessed it – a regular young woman’s ruby keepsake makes her act like a princess.

Although, as the scholar Edyth Haber has written, “her characters are puppets, manipulated by either outside forces or their own internal rigidity,” their susceptibility to manipulation also makes their stories poignant and sympathetic: we could all be swayed by a particularly starchy collar.

Chewing Language Like Taffy

Teffi was immensely famous during the 1910s: some fancy candy wrappers even bore her image (though the candies were chocolate, not taffy). But in subsequent decades, she faded into relative obscurity. According to Chandler, this is for three reasons:

  • She was a woman
  • She was deemed “lightweight”; “critics noticed her wit more than her perceptiveness”
  • Scholars in both the Soviet Union and the West paid little attention to émigré literature

But Teffi ought not to be forgotten, not only because of the wit and insight in her plots, but also because she is uniquely gifted with language, toying with it like a chewy, flavored, colorful taffy candy. Chandler writes:

“Her writing always appears simple but it is, in fact, extraordinarily subtle. It happens again and again that you take a sentence that is alive, graceful and witty in the original, you think you’ve translated it accurately – but it comes out completely dead. It takes a long time to understand how the loss has occurred – let alone to restore the sentence to life.”

In addition to the stories for which she is best known, she also wrote poetry, plays, feuilletons, memoirs, and essays about her experiences.

Teffi, Rasputin, and the Fate of Russia

In a striking essay describing meeting Rasputin soon before his murder and the fall of the Russian Empire, Teffi manages to blend her characteristically witty observations with an ominous tone. This comes across as much in her descriptions – “He had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to have been gathered up into a long fleshy nose”; “Rasputin was now leaping about like a goat”; “a spasm would go through his shoulder when he felt his hypnotic command was meeting resistance” – as in Rasputin’s menacing words whispered into Teffi’s ear:

“‘Remember, my clever girl: if they kill Rasputin, it will be the end of Russia.’”

In this essay, as with her other writing, Teffi at once elicits the ridiculous in everyday human behavior and brings a remarkable encounter down to earth, taking the mystic man sometimes charged with the fall of Imperial Russia off his pedestal while still highlighting his strangeness.

When Russia did fall – whether or not it was caused by Rasputin’s murder – Teffi left Russia for Ukraine, trudging through scenes of poverty, Civil War, and Bolshevik triumph until reaching Paris. Though she shared some of the beliefs held by socialists, she saw the Bolshevik’s movement as too rigid, lacking an appreciation for culture as well as a sense of humor. She wrote:

“Lenin had no feeling for beauty whatsoever.”

After leaving Russia in 1918 – a journey documented in Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea (newly published in a translation by Robert Chandler, and already shortlisted for the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize) – Teffi spent the rest of her life in France. Though her writing was largely forgotten in the Soviet literary scene and unknown in the West, her unique style and poignant satires of early twentieth-century life were rediscovered after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and translations of her work are deservedly multiplying today.

Go Read Teffi

Here are a few recent publications of works by Teffi, with translators noted in parentheses.

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