Ra Ra Rasputin

Teffi, Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi

NYRB Classics, 192pp, $14.95, ISBN 9781590179963

reviewed by Izabella Scott

Who is Teffi? It was no secret in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Teffi was a literary star: the pen name of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, a woman born into an eccentric literary family in St Petersburg in the 1870s. All three of her sisters also became celebrated writers, and under her nom de plume Lokhvitskaya wrote for popular journals like The Russian Word and Satiricon, moving nimbly between narrative, polemic, drama and social critique. She was widely read and admired. Candles and perfumes were named after her. Toffees were christened in her honour. She attended parties with enigmatic figures like Rasputin, and she was beautiful, too: the muse of painters like Ilya Repin, who captured her wide brow and clever eyes. In short, Teffi/Lokhvitskaya was a celebrity.

She was also Russia’s favourite fool. In her 1931 essay ‘My Pseudonym’, Teffi writes of settling on her pen name: ‘It sounds like something you’d call a dog,’ she admits, ‘and a great many readers of The Russian Word have indeed given this name to their fox terriers and Italian greyhounds.’ ‘I didn’t want to hide behind a male pseudonym,’ she explains, reasoning that this would represent a ‘weak and cowardly’ choice. ‘I’d rather use a name that was incomprehensible… It had to be a name that would bring good luck. Best of all would be the name of a fool – fools are always lucky.’ And they appear everywhere in Russian folklore as beloved, lucky heroes. Like the Shakespearian fool, those of Russian literature court truth: Dostoevsky’s absurdly honest protagonist of The Idiot is mistaken, perversely, for a simpleton – for who but a simpleton would speak the truth so baldly?

Lokhvitskaya sustained this tradition, with Teffi as her mask. In her work, her life becomes a kind of prism, her project one of self-mockery – or so it seems. In an essay titled ‘The Green Devil’, Lokhvitskaya gets ready for her first ball. She smears her eyebrows with oil stolen from an icon lamp to make them grow thicker and rehearses enigmatic smiles in front of the mirror – as if, quite literally, learning her part. ‘“Why is Nadya looking so idiotic”, my family kept asking.’ At the ball, the teenage Lokhvitskaya sits beside a bearded officer. He leers over her: ‘You’re a typical Cleopatra! Have you done Cleopatra at school yet? You have her regal air and you’re just as sophisticated, and an experienced flirt. The only thing is,’ he goes on, ‘your feet don’t touch the ground. But that’s a minor detail.’ While her childish legs swing from the chair, Teffi reconstructs the scene. ‘My heart beat faster. That I was an experienced flirt, I had no doubt. But how had this old man spotted it so very quickly?’ Her irony is as sickly sweet as caramel.

In another essay, this time recounting a scene from adulthood, Teffi recalls working alongside Lenin at the Bolshevik journal The New Life. She brilliantly sketches the political turns of pre-Revolutionary Russia and the complicated pirouettes one had to make to keep up with the dance. ‘My uncle had been close to the royal court, and when we were children he often bought us sweets from the Tsar’s table (which was quite the done thing back then),’ she writes, ‘The sweets were made by the Tsar’s own confectioner and were in white wrappers with trimmed edges. We had chewed on them with awe. Now pointing at me, my mother said to my uncle: “This young lady mixes with socialists.”’ Awe of royal toffee soon sours into reproof of monstrous wealth, and Teffi turns to socialism. Lenin admires her polemics – but is equally determined to eliminate all literature and use the journal as a Party rag. Teffi sketches an unflattering portrait: ‘His appearance was unprepossessing. Slightly balding, rather short… There was nothing about him to suggest a future dictator… He just kept a keen watch with his narrow, Mongolian eyes, to see who could be used, and how.’

Teffi’s great achievement is to walk a curious tightrope strung across the political circus of her time. She wrote for the liberal press and was admired by Lenin – but was also a favourite writer of the Tsar. In her Paris exile (where she continued to write under her pseudonym for the émigré press, alongside other uprooted Russians like Vladimir Nabokov) her writing was highly esteemed; improbably, it was also reprinted, without permission, in the Soviet Union. ‘She was a true juggler; a tumbler,’ writes Robert Chandler in his introduction to this NYRBC's new edition of 16 autobiographical essays, translated by Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson. ‘Few Russian writers of the time were able to cross so many boundaries.’

Beneath the fool’s guise, Teffi was a shrewd observer of her era. On occasion, the mask of the light humorist slips to reveal an acute face beneath. Teffi is not what she seems. While the airs of a charmed life suffuse her writing – its toffee and perfume – Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya had many secrets. She lied about her date of birth so many times that historians cannot agree on a date. As a young woman in 1892 she married a Polish lawyer with whom she had several children, but in 1900, deeply unhappy, she abandoned them all to take up her literary career. And the precise reasons behind her departure from Russia in 1918 are not wholly understood, especially since she was an early supporter of the Bolsheviks.

The essay ‘Valya’ touches on her pre-literary days. Addressing the quandary of motherhood, glimpses of suffering are visible through the lightness of her prose. Valya, her daughter, is a fat girl who demands chocolate. ‘Sometimes she would pet me with her warm hand, which was always sticky from sweets,’ Teffi writes. When she buys a rosy wax angel for the Christmas tree, she hides it away from the child, afraid that her sweet-toothed creature will be unable to appreciate its beauty. But she soon gives in to guilt and hangs the angel on the tree, only to see her daughter kissing it in delight. ‘Valya’s mouth and cheeks were smeared with something raspberry coloured, and in her hands were the mica wings, crimped and broken.’ Works of art and children do not, Teffi suggests, exist together. As the story closes, Teffi berates herself. ‘How very silly of me!’ she writes, ‘I was crying!’

Teffi’s sharp eye and garrulous mode permit rare insights into the world of old Russia. If only for sheer firsthand detail, her account of meeting Rasputin is superb. A mystic healer and occultist, Rasputin became an influential figure in the Tsar’s court, and was feared by Russian society. In Teffi’s tale, she is invited to a covert dinner party and placed beside Rasputin in the hope she can get him talking. She describes his ‘close-set, prickly, glinting little eyes peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair.’ He was a known mesmerist and womaniser, and true to form, he attempts to put the beautiful Lokhvitskaya under his spell. To our delight, he fails, before leaping onto the dance floor ‘like a goat, his mouth hanging open, skin drawn tight over his cheekbones, locks of hair whipping across the sunken sockets of his eyes.’

The joker is always, of course, the highest trump in the pack. The pleasure of reading Teffi is to see Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya’s spectacular mind at work, surpassing any single political suit and bringing luminosity to the characters of her time. ‘I adore oranges,’ Teffi confides at one point: ‘beneath their peel are thousands of tiny pockets bursting with sweet fragrant juice. An orange is joy. An orange is a thing of beauty.’ She might well have been describing her own prose.

Izabella Scott is a writer and editor based in London.