Dead Man’s Coat

Peter Pomerantsev

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.

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