How does a comic writer describe a world that has stopped being funny? What to say when the system you satirise is swept away, when parts of the population are killed, when the survivors become refugees, drifting away en masse but it’s unclear where to? Teffi was faced with these questions as she tried to make sense of revolution in St Petersburg, as she fled through the Civil War, as she crossed the Black Sea along with other refugees to start a new life in a place which would in turn be engulfed by fascism and war. By the time she left Russia she was one of its most famous journalists and short-story writers, a favourite of both Lenin and the tsar, with her own brand of ‘Teffi chocolates’ and perfume. She was best known for a bittersweet tone that left it unclear whether one was to laugh or cry: ‘A joke is not so funny when you are living inside it. It begins to seem more like a tragedy,’ she wrote more than once. ‘My life has been one long joke. Therefore a tragedy.’ She was thought of as the ‘most English’ (i.e. sarcastic) of Russian writers but has been virtually unknown in English until this series of new translations from Pushkin Press, planned to appear in time for the anniversary of 1917, one assumes, but uncannily relevant to 2017.
Teffi was born Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya in 1872. Her father was a lawyer, criminology professor and editor of the Courts’ Gazette. Her three sisters were all published writers; the eldest, Maria, wrote bestselling but now forgotten Symbolist poetry and was nicknamed ‘the Russian Sappho’. Nadezhda grew up books-obsessed: as a 13-year-old she travelled to see Tolstoy to beg him not to kill off Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace, then being serialised; she lost her nerve when she met him and just gave him a photo to sign. She got married when she was 18, to a judge, and moved to his estate in the provinces, but after ten years and three children she decided she’d had enough: she divorced the judge and went back to St Petersburg to become a writer. She left her children behind, including an infant son, but there’s no mention of this in her prose: the most the translator Robert Chandler has dug up is a letter from 1946, when she was 74, in which she tells her eldest daughter that had she stayed in the marriage ‘it would have been the end of her.’
This sort of silence on personal things is quite typical: she never mentioned the fact that a jealous admirer shot one of her lovers, or anything about her second marriage. She often uses the first-person singular but there is nothing confessional about her writing. Even her ‘honest account’ of how she got her pseudonym is playful: since women writers weren’t taken seriously in turn-of-the-century Russia, she explained in 1931, and since she didn’t want to hide behind a male pseudonym, she adapted the name of a clown called ‘Steffi’ she had known as a child, dropping the ‘S’ to become just Teffi – though journalists assumed it somehow had to do with Taffy, the Welshman, a delusion she was happy for them to hang on to. She seems, in fact, to have started using the pseudonym years earlier than she claimed (she was always lying about her age) and she didn’t mention another potential motivation: her sister’s extraordinary fame. Nadezhda’s first publications after her return to St Petersburg were Symbolist poems published under her own surname. They went unnoticed: there was apparently room for only one Lokhvitskaya in the Silver Age pantheon. It was only as Teffi that she came into her own.
Maybe because she is so conscious of her own mask she is constantly analysing the masks of others, and her jokes more often than not turn on the contrast between appearance and reality. Her early work prods at the hypocrisies of late tsarist Russia: stories have titles like ‘Willpower’ or ‘Duty and Honour’ – and then show how people subvert their own intentions. A drunk demonstrates his ‘willpower’ by drinking himself into a stupor; a cheating, ‘honourable’ wife rewrites a letter meant to turn away her suitor until it turns into a demand that he see her. Teffi was describing a world where values had lost their meaning, and like many of her circle, she believed in radical change.
After the 1905 Revolution – the year absolute monarchy was finally abolished – she joined the leftist magazine the New Life, where some of the country’s best-known bohemians campaigned for social and political progress. She would describe it as a time when everything had gone topsy-turvy: generals smarting from humiliating military defeat by Japan snorted at how badly the country was being run; police chiefs launched Marxist magazines with millionaire revolutionaries; and the only person at her parents’ dinner parties who disapproved of her socialism was the manservant. At the New Life Teffi wrote about the masses united in a ‘mighty and triumphant procession’, their red banners outlined against the sky ‘like gigantic dark streams of resurrected triumphant blood’, leading the people through the ‘black night, to a new dawn, to the new life’.
But, according to the version of events she wrote in exile, it didn’t take her long to sniff out the gaps between appearance and reality at the magazine itself. So caught up were the editors with talking about revolution that, Teffi noticed, they tended not to notice real strikes and labour movements. The first issues of the New Life sold out quickly. ‘Our comrades, the workers, have shown their support!’ the editors cheered, but the only people buying the paper were other intellectuals. The workers ‘remained loyal to the Petersburg Gazette, which was printed on a special type of paper ideal for rolling cigarettes’.
Clothes are a favourite device used by Teffi to indicate a lack of substance, and what the New Life’s staff really enjoyed was dressing up. A middle-aged editor tried to disguise herself as a 16-year-old by putting on a red shirt and taking off her pince-nez. One revolutionary was admired for carrying grenades in her muff; another took 14 pairs of shoes to prison (‘the comrades would repeat this number with reverence’). On the one occasion Teffi encountered an actual working-class person at an editorial meeting he sat there in silence. He was arrested soon afterwards and reappeared dressed in yellow gloves and a pale suit: ‘I’ve been dressed as a bourgeois, so as not to attract attention,’ he explained.
Lenin appeared from Geneva. ‘A plain, plump man … he could have been some minor official from some remote local council’, he quickly took over the newspaper. Unlike everyone else he ‘didn’t pose. People generally pose because they want others to like them, because they yearn for beauty. Lenin had no feeling for beauty whatsoever. He just kept a keen watch, with his narrow, Mongolian eyes, to see who could be used, and how.’
Teffi left the paper when she felt it was becoming a party organ, and gradually she became a star. She published 19 books in a dozen years and her plays were staged all over the country. She was invited to dinner by Rasputin, who struck her as a shabby actor: ‘The mysterious voice, the intense expression, the commanding words – all this was a tried and tested method … Whenever he said something, he would look round the whole group, his eyes pricking each person in turn, as if to say: “Have I given you something to think about? Are you satisfied? Have I surprised you?”’ She thought him ‘too twitchy, too easily distracted, too confused’ to have a political strategy, reckoned he took bribes and was involved in plots he didn’t understand. He tried to hypnotise her into bed but his legendary seduction tactics were pathetic: he told women God was Love, therefore they should Love and God would forgive them. At first Teffi couldn’t understand how anyone could fall for that, then she saw him dance and whirl and felt he was in touch with some sort of destructive force about to sweep everything away.
When the monarchy was overthrown in 1917 Teffi was among the celebrants, but she detested the Bolshevik takeover of language along with power. ‘If several robbers attack one passer-by this is called the “socialisation of capital”. But if one person attacks several passers-by, this is ideologically unsound and is called “capitalist individualisation”.’ One after another the Bolsheviks closed down the newspapers she worked at. She helped open new ones but they too were shut down. People went hungry and Teffi’s insights about clothes became more discomfiting. In the 1918 short story ‘The Hat’ a chorus girl believes her personality is transformed by a new headpiece; she wears it on a date and is convinced her new boyfriend loves her because of it. When she gets home she realises she was wearing an old hat all along. Teffi leaves her sitting in front of a mirror, eyes glazed, endlessly trying on different hats to work out who she is. ‘Her brilliant philosophy about those who were richly endowed with hats began to totter. It began to totter and then it collapsed – and there was nothing to plug the gap it left behind.’
At the end of 1918 Teffi thought it prudent to embark on a reading tour of Kiev and Odessa, still both held by the Whites. She took two evening gowns and a bottle of perfume, thinking she would be back within a month, once things had settled down. At the frontier she and her group of writers and actors were held up in a village that had been commandeered by a small Bolshevik who introduced himself as the ‘commissar for arts for this shtetl’. As she writes in Memories, the commissar was dressed in a magnificent beaver coat ‘that trailed behind him like a royal mantle’. Over tea she noticed that there was a black hole in the back of the otherwise flawless coat, with dark, dried blood all around it: the commissar had just executed someone and then put on the dead man’s prize. The joke about his pretentious clothing turns terrifying.
As she follows the trail south through Kiev, Odessa and along the Black Sea coast, she has an increasing sense that they are all being sucked into a void. In ‘The Gadarene Swine’, written in 1919, she writes that what the refugees fear as much as the Bolsheviks is no longer knowing who they are: ‘To hang in the air without any familiar footing – with no sure, firm, earthly footing – is something only heroes and madmen can do … Where there’s no religion, no law, no conventions, no settled routine (even if only the routine of a prison or a penal camp), an ordinary, everyday person cannot exist.’
In Memories Teffi returns again and again to a refugee’s sense of losing not only their livelihood but their individuality: ‘People themselves were whirled this way and that way, left and right, over the mountains or into the sea. Soulless and mindless, with the cruelty of an elemental force, the whirlwind determined our fates,’ she writes as ships full of refugees set sail across the Black Sea. Lying in her bunk she feels her closeness to the ‘cold blue abyss’ of the water; on deck ‘a pearl-grey fog, thick and motionless, gripped hold of me and cut me off from the entire world … I stretched out my arms – and lost sight of my own fingers.’ The coming apart of the social self is accompanied by imagery of bodies being destroyed and returned to nature. There are stories from other refugees of children tortured to death by having their eyes gouged out, executions where the victims’ mouths and noses were filled with dirt until they suffocated. On a train between boat trips some soldiers sitting on the floor ‘formed a single, dense, murky shadow. This shadow muttered, swayed, cried out … It was like the voices of those who are no more – at a spiritualist séance or an old gramophone recording.’
Teffi’s line about jokes not being funny any more when you are living inside them has meaning beyond showy paradox. A joke is the action of pulling pretentious appearance away from reality, but at times of tumultuous change the reality you’re meant to be judging appearance against collapses. Just below the surface of Teffi’s sarcastic social comedy you feel not just sadness but an elemental will to destruction. Walking one night around the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, she experiences a moment when ‘the threads snap … All of the huge and important thing we call life fades away and you become that primordial nothing out of which the universe was created.’ The abyss! Confronted by it, what is one to do in order to survive? ‘I was brought back by the sound of voices,’ she continues. ‘People were walking past, talking loudly about the theatre.’ She remembers with a start this is the night of her final performance in Russia.
‘Please! For the love of god!’ I called out. ‘Which way is the theatre?’
Someone told me.
I hurried off, clacking my heels on the pavement, so I could hear that I had returned to my ordinary everyday life.
On the one hand, Teffi seems to be saying that roles and clothes are pretensions to be picked apart; on the other, that only theatre, acting and the sound of shoes on the pavement can save you from meltdown. In her memoirs this message is made literal. Teffi escapes the Bolsheviks by going on what is essentially a stand-up comedy tour. Other refugees work out that the best way to be waved across the frontiers between Reds, Germans and Whites is by pretending to be part of a theatre or ballet troupe. In one of Memories’ most memorable scenes refugees, all dressed in their finest gowns, slippers and shawls, find themselves having to work their ship’s engine, haul coal and clean fish. At first they hesitate, and then approach the thing as a piece of musical theatre. ‘They play at being coalmen – and once they know the role, they get carried away.’ One soft-bodied man ‘was carrying a heavy basket which, without the inspiration afforded by his role, he would never have been able to lift at all’.
From Novorossiysk , Teffi made her way across the Bosphorus and eventually to the Russian community in Paris. She lived in a small flat in Montmartre and continued publishing at a prodigious rate. She was still a star, but the galaxy of Russians around her had shrunk. Her first collection from the 1920s, Gorodok (‘Small Town’), picked apart the hapless role-playing games of Paris émigrés. It’s gentler than her writing between 1917 and 1919, where in pieces like ‘The Gadarene Swine’ she attacked not only Bolshevik cruelty but the Whites’ too, though you always have the sense of horror close by. In ‘Marquita’, she describes a Russian émigré café in Paris where the waitresses all claim to be daughters of provincial governors (‘Did we ever imagine our governors could end up with so many daughters?’), and where a shy, poor, single mother, Sashenka, catches the eye of a wealthy Tatar. Sashenka’s silly friend encourages her to be ‘Carmen’ when they go on a date, to be wild, demonic. Sashenka gets drunk and tells the Tatar that glamour and danger are more important than being a mother. The Tatar, who was attracted to Sashenka because he thought her modest and caring, isn’t turned on. The story suddenly switches from comedy of manners to brutal realism as Sashenka is left in her bare single room, ‘under a lightbulb shaded by a newspaper’, slapping and then crying over her bawling child as he repeatedly calls her ‘thtupid’.
In another story, ‘Subtly Worded’, Teffi tries to send a letter back to Russia. Since saying that things are going well in Paris and badly in Russia would get her correspondent in trouble if the letter is read by the Cheka, a friend instructs her to write in code and to conceal – or even reverse – her questions. So ‘is it really true that people have now begun eating human flesh?’ becomes ‘is it really true that now people have stopped eating human flesh?’; ‘they say your death rate is terribly high’ becomes ‘they say your birth rate is terribly high.’ It’s droll until you imagine the reality that it satirises.
As it dawned on Teffi in the 1930s that she would never return home she began to write about the Russia she had lost, recording memories of childhood (like the Tolstoy anecdote) and motifs from folklore, tales in which she explored ‘our ancient Slavic gods’. They are among her most frightening works. In ‘The Dog (A Story from a Stranger)’ children play together in the countryside at a spot where it is said anyone who stays the night turns into a dog; one boy does so to prove his love for a girl. Many years later, when the girl is caught up in the Revolution and has been bankrupted by a cocaine-addicted symbolist poet turned Chekist mole, she begs for the boy to come and rescue her. He is killed on the way, but a huge, red-brown dog arrives and rips the scoundrel’s neck out. It’s hard not to look for political allegories, the killer dog as an expression of the Revolution which is itself part of some sort of savage unconscious. Teffi must have been aware of similarly dark impulses on the rise in Europe: by 1936, when the story was written, some of her émigré Russian friends had started to flirt with fascism in the hope it would be an antidote to communism. In the same year she wrote ‘The Kind That Walk’, in which villagers come to believe that a Jewish carpenter is a ghoul. He lives in a disused bathhouse by the cemetery, and the locals are convinced that at night he lets in the living dead. They smash the building and he has to leave town.
Teffi spent the war in Paris. When the émigré newspapers shut down she lost her source of income and was left old and ailing ‘in an unheated building, on a hungry stomach’. Her fans tried to sustain her, though their gifts could be odd: one woman wanted to send a velvet dressing-gown; another gave 3000 francs for an umbrella though she already had a perfectly good one. In 1945 a New York journal reported she had died. She wrote back to correct the mistake, regretting that there was no formal etiquette to debunk reports of one’s own death.
Earthly Rainbow, her final story collection before her real death, in 1952, is full of morphine. In one story a tragic actress kills herself with an overdose. In another Teffi has a morphine trip which mixes delicately detailed memories of childhood with abstract conversations with a shamanic figure who tells her about various doors of perception. ‘There is no love greater than that of someone giving his own morphine to his brother,’ Teffi scrawled on her deathbed. But the crispest, and least morphine-powered, story in the collection was her own favourite.
‘The Blind One’ is set on a grey, dismal day by a leaden sea. An ageing woman has a date with a dandy but ruins it by being horrible to him for no good reason: her past affairs haunt her and destroy everything. The dandy drops a flower on the ground as he leaves. Two blind girls pick it up. They persuade themselves the flower was thrown their way by an admirer, that the day is beautiful and the sea gorgeous, and that the sound of the jilted woman crying near them is actually the sound of angels laughing. Is this story a tragedy that seeks redemption through comedy? Or is it a comedy that leaks into tragedy? In previous Teffi pieces you can usually find the crease between the funny and the depressing, but here she has perfected her method to the point where the story moves seamlessly from sadness to laughter and back again like a hologram sticker: you end up drifting from one feeling into another with no sense of a border between joke and tragedy.