Teffi with Guitar, St. Petersburg, 1915
(Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library,
Bakhmeteff Archive, Nadezhda Teffi Papers)
My admiration for the great Russian writer known as Teffi (né Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, 1872-1952) knows no bounds — and is no secret to readers of this blog or of my anthology of writings from the Russian Revolution. And so, when I was asked to endorse Edythe Haber’s elegant and engrossing new biography, titled Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter, I jumped at the chance. It was a thrill to read this revelatory book before its official publication (September in the UK, January in the US). The biography is crammed with insights and studded with wonderful quotations from letters, interviews, and other long-buried sources. Here, for example, is a comment that exposes the wellsprings of Teffi’s art — her magical ability not only to balance but to blend the deepest melancholy with irresistible gaiety:
I was born in St. Petersburg in the springtime and, as everyone knows, our St. Petersburg spring is extremely changeable: now the sun is shining, now it’s raining. Therefore, like the pediment of a Greek theater, I also have two faces, one laughing and one weeping.
As Haber notes in her introduction, it is only recently that “very good translations have brought Teffi burgeoning recognition in the English-speaking world and elsewhere, where her writing has proven fresh and compelling to the present day.” That burgeoning recognition is largely due to the efforts of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and the crack team of Teffi translators they have assembled, which includes Clare Kitson, Rose France, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg.
Their work is ongoing. As a matter of fact, just a few weeks ago, the Chandlers’ exquisite translation of “Solovki” — “one of Teffi’s best works,” Haber writes, in which “spontaneous feeling breaks through the stultified surface of human relationships” — appeared in Natasha Perova’s anthology Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature, which also features the prose of Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Svetlana Alexievich, among others. I recommend it to anyone interested in the experience of women — and not just women — in Russia from the 1910s to the present day. (I should say that I translated one of the pieces in the volume, the literary scholar Lydia Ginzburg’s painful reckoning with personal grief and remorse, which I have called “Conscience Deluded.”) Slav Sisters was recently reviewed, alongside Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales, in Russian Art + Culture.