Is there anything one can never laugh about? A question inevitably hanging over humour writing, it’s best answered by the masters of the genre who, rather than inventing jokes (a skill many possess), notice life’s winks and chuckles and tease them out of their surrounding matter, even if the latter happens to be of grave concern. Teffi was one of those writers.
Born in 1872 in St Petersburg, by her early twenties Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya was a housewife with three children stranded in a provincial town; by her early thirties she was back in the capital, a literary celebrity writing for various publications under a snappy pseudonym, her witticisms quoted ‘in the streets, in trams, in clubs, in living rooms, at student gatherings’. To get there she had abandoned her family, a step she never publicly discussed, telling her eldest daughter years later: ‘Had I remained, I would have perished.’
Teffi was generally reserved about her private life, and Edythe Haber, her first ever biographer, often admits that ‘little concrete is known about’ a particular period or event. Nevertheless, she assiduously traces scattered sources to paint the writer into a canvas of Russian literature spanning the first half of the 20th century: from the Stray Dog cabaret in pre-revolutionary Petersburg, where decadents gathered to hear Anna Akhmatova read, to Paris émigré salons, presided over by Ivan Bunin.
Teffi ended up emigrating — soon after leaving in 1919, she settled in Paris, where she died in 1952 — despite her initial enthusiasm for the Russian revolutionary movement. In 1917 she wrote, ‘the road is open to a free struggle with evil’, but her sympathy didn’t extend to the Bolsheviks. Recalling Lenin at a meeting, she compares him to ‘a leather football, squeaking and cracking at the seams, but unable to fly in the air unless it is kicked’. Next she describes a scene in which a Bolshevik supporter shouts: ‘Down with Anne Exations, to hell with her!’ (in Rose France’s translation of his take on ‘annexations’) while an old woman prays for the ‘reactionary hydra’. ‘It all sounds like a comic sketch made up for the papers,’ Teffi concludes, ‘but I swear it was stupider than anything anyone could have thought up.’
In her five decades of writing, Teffi produced feuilletons (sometimes several a week, often in verse) and short stories, poems and theatre plays, their subjects ranging from political scandals to everyday squabbles. Her journalism included war reportage and social commentary; her fiction, ‘serious’ stories and a novel. Still, she is mainly known for her humorous short-form works. The protagonist of the most famous of them, ‘The Demonic Woman’, with her ‘portrait of Oscar Wilde on her left garter’, is the archetypal fin-de-siècle bohemian; fellow émigrés, mocked in another piece, are ‘divided into two categories: those selling Russia and those saving it’.
Teffi’s satire is always on target, but it’s in her less caustic pieces that her trademark style fully emerges, as she balances irony with compassion. Those unfamiliar with her stories should read them before turning to this book, all the better to laugh at them. Haber’s analysis of her subject’s work is perceptive, but explaining a joke is tantamount to killing it. That aside, her analysis of Teffi’s methods — for instance, the observation that ‘the absurdity of the situation makes a tragic end more inappropriate, laughter more suitable’ — can be illuminating.
A beauty and a wit, Teffi was rumoured to have had many liaisons (one of her real affairs culminated in a shooting scene; another ended with her responding to a marriage proposal, ‘I am not the end, but the means’). Her stories hinging on that never failing device, ridiculously tall tales concocted by someone’s inflamed imagination, acquire an extra layer of humour when you picture her smiling to herself as she watches her own milieu reflected in these comic situations as if in a funhouse mirror. It’s satisfying to think that an acquaintance who reported that Teffi ‘jumps around like a she-goat, having got herself an admirer [able] to treat her lavishly’ must have provided comedy material for the object of her gossip.
After the second world war, when the USSR began flirting with émigrés, trying to lure them back while stepping up its campaign against Soviet writers, Teffi, asked if she might return, said her worry was that on arrival she might ‘see a placard with the inscription: “Welcome, Comrade Teffi”, and Zoshchenko and Akhmatova will be hanging from the supporting poles’. A triumph of gallows humour, the retort is also proof that a phenomenon as sinister as totalitarianism can be dealt with by means of a joke.
Objecting to being pigeonholed as a humourist, Teffi wrote in one of her last letters: ‘I have not sacrificed the literary worth of a work in the name of laughter.’ She didn’t need to: it was always there, amid the things she wrote about. All she had to do was rearrange them so that everyone could join in.