When Tsar Nicholas II was asked which writers he’d like to see included in an anthology of Russian literature marking the 300th anniversary of Romanov rule, he replied, “Teffi. Her alone. No one else is necessary.” On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Teffi had a fan in Vladimir Lenin, with whom she worked in 1905 at the short-lived New Life [Novaia Zhizn’] newspaper. Teffi’s witticisms echoed throughout St. Petersburg’s salons. There were Teffi bonbons in multi-colored wrappers and a Teffi perfume. (Commendably, Teffi never let any of this go to her head, especially after she gorged on a kilo box of Teffi candy to the point of nausea, becoming — as she herself put it — sick of celebrity.) She was hailed as the female Chekhov, Gogol’s literary heir, the Queen of Russian Humor, and the Queen of Laughter.
She left Russia in 1919, during the Red Terror, when the Bolshevik Revolution began to devour its own children. But success followed her. She remained a literary A-lister, filling concert halls in Paris with Russian émigrés eager to hear her read. The émigré literary world, which may have been even more fractious than that of Imperial Russia, showered her with kindness; her stories were welcomed in Russian-language journals around the world, from Berlin to Harbin, China. Everyone had a sweet tooth for Teffi. As the icing on the cake, when her books “returned” to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, they were celebrated as recovered gems of Russian humor.
A charmed life any way you look at it, right? Not quite. Almost from the very beginning, Teffi’s life was tinged with darkness. Her beloved father died when she was only 12. She had a difficult relationship with her older siblings, especially Mirra, the famous poet, whom she envied and resented. A marriage to a provincial lawyer ended disastrously, when she abandoned him and their three young children to embark on a literary life in the capital. She suffered from what was then called neurasthenia, but what seems to be a combination of frequent bouts of depression and OCD. Teffi confided in Irina Odoevtseva, a poet and close friend, that she counted windows in every building she walked by, added up the numbers on every license plate she saw, and read every phrase she came across twice — once the normal way, and once backward — and that this was all sheer torture. She lived through two revolutions, a civil war, and two world wars — the last in Paris, under Nazi occupation. Her final and longest lasting relationship was with a wealthy married man, who would lose everything in the stock market crash of 1929 and experience a debilitating stroke; Teffi took care of him for many years until his death. For the rest of her days she suffered not only from a variety of serious physical ailments but also from intense loneliness. She died in 1952.
And as for Teffi’s literary life, she became a victim of her immensely successful but severely confining brand. Witty, elegant, sharp-eyed, kindhearted Teffi and her breathlessly funny stories about the foibles of Russians of all classes were in huge demand. But the editors and the reading public only wanted — and were willing to pay good money for — the Teffi they knew. What’s worse, they perceived all of her stories as funny, even when they were clearly tragic. Teffi was even attacked in the press for purportedly making fun of one of her most touching characters, an uneducated Russian peasant woman named Yavdokha, who loses her son in World War I but is too simpleminded to understand what has happened. Needless to say, the author wasn’t making fun of the poor woman’s plight, but rather drawing attention to it. (Because of this incident, her 1916 collection of stories came with what amounted to a warning label, informing readers that some of the stories were not meant to be funny.) Years later, in Paris, Teffi was asked to give a lecture on the subject of asceticism to a large émigré audience. She prepared a serious scholarly lecture, but when she started to deliver it, giggles broke out in the auditorium. Before long, the entire audience was howling with laughter, and when Teffi was done — flushed with embarrassment — she got a standing ovation. The verdict was unanimous: “Only Teffi could come up with something so hilarious!”
Teffi found this pigeonholing painful. She would say that, in truth, even the funniest of her stories were small tragedies given a humorous spin. Her appreciation of the absurd, of the comic minutiae of life, helps set off the darker or more transcendent aspects of our existence, but her main focus, in the tradition of the great 19th-century Russian writers, was always human nature itself: what makes us tick and why.
Banned in Soviet Russia, unknown in the West, and too often misunderstood by her fellow émigrés, Teffi seemed slated for oblivion even before her death. In the past few decades, however, her luck has begun to turn. And now, thanks to these two collections, her future looks bright indeed, Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi and Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea introduce Teffi to Anglophone readers in all her glorious complexity.
The Best of Teffi includes a selection of the author’s shorter texts, from her early sketches, to accounts of the various famous people she knew, some of which appeared in her last, posthumous collection. Not all the texts are strictly reminiscences. A few, like “Valya” (1926), are among Teffi’s most beloved short stories.
In “Valya,” a depressed young mother is trying to deal with an entrepreneurial three-year-old, who is constantly blackmailing her for sweets. The mother buys some Christmas ornaments and takes a special liking to a delicate little angel “all covered in gold glitter, with iridescent mica wings.” She decides to keep it for herself and not put it up on the Christmas tree, because Valya would probably break it. But when Valya sneezes, the mother panics and changes her mind: “I didn’t take good enough care of her. I was a bad mother.” Still, she hangs it high on the tree, in the vague hope that it won’t be noticed. At the long-awaited Christmas party Valya is so kind and well behaved that the mother herself shows her the angel. Valya asks to have it, and the mother, touched by such an appreciation of beauty, gives it to her. She then realizes that Valya, left to her own devices for a moment, has tried to eat it. The mother throws what’s left of the angel — the broken mica wings — into the fire and cries. “Valya stroked [her] indulgently on the cheek with her soft hand, which was warm and sticky, and tried to comfort [her]: ‘Don’t cry, you silly. I’ll buy you some money.’”
Characteristically for Teffi, the humor in the story comes from the contrast between the worldview of the adult and that of the child, from the penetrating insight into the mother-child relationship. All these things transcend time, which goes some way toward explaining why Teffi’s stories still touch and amuse. The humor in “Valya” both leavens and highlights the tragedy: the mother’s internal conflict is not resolved but deepened by the demise of the angel, whose broken wings resonate deeply. Will the mother be able to go on living? Will she abandon her child and her marriage? What will happen to Valya? All these questions form the undertow that keeps the reader submerged in the story long after it’s finished.
Like Chekhov, Teffi writes about the dreams, fears, and conflicts of the child with understanding and compassion. There is never any saccharine sweetness or condescension in her portrayals of children. In “Liza” (1927), Teffi’s young narrator and her sister are confronted with the nonstop lies of the priest’s daughter. The lies are obvious (the priest has four golden grand pianos all hidden away; the gardener’s wife gave birth to two puppies and then fed them to her husband; the nanny has gold hidden in her bedding and the robbers know about this), but also inspired, and while they destabilize the children’s world, making things “somehow special, mysterious, and unsettling,” they are also an introduction to storytelling, a demonstration of art’s power to transform reality.
In “Love” (1924), the nine-year-old female narrator becomes infatuated with a beautiful peasant girl working on her family’s estate and tries to make her a gift of a stolen orange. The peasant girl, who doesn’t know that an orange must be peeled, throws it away in disgust after biting the bitter rind: “Everything was over. I had become a thief in order to give her the best thing I knew in all the world. And she hadn’t understood.” The narrator learns not only that she will sometimes be radically misunderstood, but that she must develop defenses against the world’s intrusions. All these stories, along with the equally piquant “The Green Devil” (1925), show children in the process of getting to know the world around them and finding the means to cope with it.
Teffi also writes with great insight about the extraordinary individuals she met during her life, like Rasputin, Tolstoy, and Lenin, always aiming to show them “simply as real people.” Perhaps the most interesting of these texts is her portrait of Rasputin, who remains one of the most enigmatic figures of his time: “he lived in legend, he died in legend, and his memory is cloaked in legend.” Teffi first shows the intrigues and collective hysteria surrounding him, with secret police shadowing his movements, informers and double-agents lurking about, and women “suddenly, shamelessly, los[ing] all self-control at the mere mention” of his name. Then she describes Rasputin as he appeared to her when she first saw him at a dinner:
Dressed in a black woolen Russian kaftan and tall patent boots, he was fidgeting anxiously, squirming about in his chair. One of his shoulders kept twitching.
Lean and wiry and rather tall, he had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to have been gathered up into a long fleshy nose. His close-set, prickly, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes. […] I felt at once that he was rather preoccupied, confused, even embarrassed. He was posturing.
Rasputin tries to work his magic on Teffi, telling her that she must come to him, that he is pining for her. He writes to her in his illiterate peasant scrawl, “God is lov. Now lov. God wil forgiv yu.” Teffi guesses that he is attempting to make her into his pawn, so that she’ll “write whatever he wants [her] to write, at his dictation,” in the newspaper where she works. She resists — but she also perceives why others might not have found it easy to do so. The man is pathetic and revolting, the atmosphere around him is like a filthy mire, but there is a strange force within him. Later, Teffi reads in the papers that Rasputin has been killed and his corpse burnt. She remembers their final meeting, with Rasputin looking like a “black, bent, terrible sorcerer,” and she remembers his words: “Burn me? Let them. But there’s one thing they don’t know: if they kill Rasputin, it will be the end of Russia.” To Teffi, at least, it looked like he was right.
Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea is Teffi’s longest work and is considered by many to be her masterpiece. In the introductory note, she calls it “a simple and truthful account of the author’s involuntary journey across the entire expanse of Russia — a journey she made along with millions of other ordinary people” in the terrifying year of 1919, before she took a boat to Istanbul, leaving Russia forever. It is hardly a diary, however, but rather a carefully constructed, imaginative, and richly poetic narrative. The translation is preceded by an informative and evocative introduction by Edythe Haber, who is writing a much-awaited critical biography of Teffi. Haber writes that Teffi wanted to write a different kind of memoir from the ones being written all around her in the Parisian émigré colony, which usually glorified the author and slammed his comrades-in-arms: Teffi
makes no claim of heroism, warns us that she does not consider herself any more interesting than the others […] portray[ing] herself […] as a quite ordinary woman — frivolous, of limited understanding, guided more by emotions and naïve ideals that by abstract principles. But when need be she drops the mask, and the reader views events through her penetrating gaze.
What makes Memories so extraordinary is that amid the uncertainty, horror, sorrow, and fear, Teffi still acknowledges and vividly depicts moments of levity, humor, and even pure joy. Here she is stuck on Shilka, a ship soon to be declared unseaworthy, which is taking passengers to Sebastopol, if it doesn’t fall apart first. Everyone must contribute some volunteer labor, but no one really knows what to do with Teffi, since, as someone puts it, they can hardly make her scrub the deck. It turns out, however, that scrubbing the deck was Teffi’s childhood dream and she can hardly wait to start. So there is Teffi, facing the unknown, just having gone through all kinds of terror — and she feels nothing but bliss. She thinks that kind fate had taken pity on the little girl she once was: “It staged a war and a revolution. It turned the whole world upside down and now, at last, it had found an opportunity to thrust a long-handled brush into the girl’s hands and send her up on deck.” When others tell her that she must be tired and should stop, she rebuffs them, thinking that they’re just jealous. Finally, she is told that she must stop, not only because it turns out that she is terrible at scrubbing the deck, but also because she looks much too happy.
In one of the darkest moments of the journey, Teffi, along with her companions — the writer Arkady Averchenko and several actresses — is bound for Kiev but finds herself waylaid in a small shtetl, “a hornet’s nest,” ruled by a monstrous woman commissar who is terrorizing the entire region, torturing and murdering with impunity. Teffi’s impresario, the unforgettable “pseudonymous Gooskin,” manages to secure an agreement for the entire group to proceed on its way after they give one performance to the “dear proletariat.” Right before the event starts, Teffi looks through the curtain at the sadistic commissar, “a dumpy, short-legged girl with a sleepy-looking face, a face as flat as if she were squashing it against a pane of glass. […] All her features are smudged, somehow blurred together. Nothing you could call diabolical here.” Then Teffi remembers a peasant woman she once knew who always volunteered to slaughter the chickens and who had eyes just like the commissar’s. Staring in horror, she thinks:
I know. Your life […] was nothing but boredom […] and monstrous ugliness […] you would probably have hanged yourself […] and that would have been the end of your story. But what a splendid banquet fate turned out to have prepared for you! […] You’ve quenched your thirst, your sick, black sensual thirst. […] Your comrades […] are just murdering thieves, a criminal mob. You disdainfully toss them a few scraps — furs, rings, money. […] But I know better. I know that there is no worldly treasure for the sake of which you would renounce your black work.
The darkness and dreadfulness of it all is really beyond compassion, but in an extraordinary moment, Teffi turns to God, crying in wordless horror “that the divine potter […] should have shaped so terrible a fate for a piece of human clay.”
Translating Teffi is difficult. Robert Chandler, one of Teffi’s main translators (along with Anne Marie Jackson, Rose France, and Elizabeth Chandler) and champions, writes in his excellent translator’s note to Memories that Teffi’s is a poet’s prose, that she expresses herself “precisely, colloquially and with delicate modulations of tone. […] Irony, tragedy, absurdity, and high spirits interweave, sometimes undercutting one another, sometimes reinforcing one another.” Both books are the products of collaborative translation (without any doubt the best way to work) and the results speak for themselves. The many different registers of Teffi’s narrative, from children’s voices, to Rasputin’s peasant speech, to the Yiddishisms of Gooskin, are rendered with accuracy and fluency. All those many moments that go almost unnoticed by readers but convey mood, render the texture of an experience, suggest a symbolism, and contain much of the poetry, are given the attention they deserve. Here, for example, is the depiction of Shilka on the waves, where the rhythms and even the sounds of the original Russian are captured beautifully in English:
The Shilka creaked and swayed. A black wave crashed dully against her side, then bounced back. It shattered the rhythm of the song; it was alien to the small, cheerful light shining out from the saloon into the dark night. The wave had its own deep and awful life; it had its own power and will, about which we knew nothing. Not seeing or understanding us, not knowing us at all, it could lift us, drag us, hurl us about. It was elemental; it could destroy.
These two volumes introduce Teffi in all her moods and modes. One hopes they will fulfill the prophecy of Teffi’s friend and admirer, the émigré poet Georgy Ivanov: “Teffi the humorist is a good, smart, and cultivated writer. Serious Teffi is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon in Russian literature, a true miracle at which everyone will marvel a hundred years hence.”
Maria Bloshteyn received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007) and the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015).