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Nothing dates faster than humour. The Russian biographer Teffi (born Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya in 1872, the sixth adolescent of a lawyer) had the accident not alone to be an astringently amusing and angrily able changeable columnist – an abnormal brand in 19th-century Russia – but about untranslatably so.
“Miss Duncan, why go barefoot aback tights accept been invented?” (You’re smiling? Neither am I.)
After her afterlife in Paris in 1952 – actively accessible by Teffi herself, who compared God to a dentist who had alloyed up the adjustment of his patients’ accessories – her cachet as an all-embracing celebrity was alone until, in 2014, a accumulation of skilful, bent and humour-alert translators took up Teffi’s cause, assisted by Pushkin Press.
What followed was Subtly Worded, an alluringly appear accumulating of advertent vignettes adopted from Teffi’s astronomic achievement that becoming their columnist comparisons to Chekhov. In 2016, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, an audaciously airy alternation of accessories abandoning Teffi’s hazard-strewn adventure appear Europe in 1918, became a Radio 4 book of the week. Commanding awe for her aweless adeptness to beam in the face of tragedy, Teffi was back.
Haber brings into appearance a appalling woman who formed as adamantine as an absolute army of scribes
What was dimly credible to any accurate clairvoyant or adviser was the careful bank abaft which a ablaze and acutely self-aware biographer had active every trace of her claimed existence. In 2019, Teffi’s Wikipedia access still hesitates over her absolute date of birth. Her innumerable lovers go unmentioned. Her additional bedmate is boilerplate in evidence.
Edythe Haber has been affianced with Teffi’s activity and assignment for 40 years. Her adventures is a masterpiece of abstaining and active scholarship that flatly refuses to beard Teffi’s failings. Instead of cooing over Teffi’s jokes, Haber brings into appearance a appalling woman who formed as adamantine as an absolute army of scribes and who bugged her lovers as calmly as she alone them. Chekhov ability accept to accord way to Colette or Madame de Stäel aback we abutting alpha gluttonous comparisons for a biographer who charmed Tsar Nicholas II, rebuffed an amative Rasputin and was accepted by Lenin (an “obsessed maniac” in Teffi’s disgusted view).
Haber’s accurate analysis raises as abounding questions as it answers. A claimed appeal to Tolstoy that Prince Andrei in War and Peace should be kept animate (Teffi was aloof 13) absolutely connects to the accident of her own father, aloof one year earlier. Defending her abrupt abandonment of a bedmate and three accouchement in 1898, afterwards six years of marriage, Teffi pleaded that she had no choice: “In aspect I was good… diplomacy collection me from home.” Wasn’t it added acceptable that domesticity aside her ache to create?
Moving aback to St Petersburg, Teffi rapidly begin her metier in comedy. (“Laugh! It brings us money,” ordered her publishers.) Laughter was at a exceptional in those delirious times. On stage, Teffi’s wittily contemporary skits (The Woman Question; Adulation Through the Ages) fabricated her a star. By 1917, she was bearing three ablaze columns a anniversary for Russkoe slovo, Moscow’s best accepted newspaper, while bringing a acceptable spirit of apolitical archness to the country’s arch banana magazine, Satirikon. Arkady Averchenko was billed as Satirikon’s banana star, but it was the dashingly aweless Teffi whose assignment best captivated readers. Her name became ubiquitous. Admirers dabbed their wrists with Teffi aroma and nibbled on Teffi chocolates.
Habitually adeptness – as Haber’s accurate annal shows – about her accessible image, Teffi was appropriately accomplished in concealing a base clandestine life. The analysis of her additional alliance has appear to ablaze alone recently, active aural the dying appeal in 1919 of a adventurous White Russian officer, Dmitry Shcherbakov, that his wife “écrivain connu Teffy” (sic) should be abreast of his demise. Haber additionally establishes that Shcherbakov was community abundant to analysis two of his wife’s plays. That her apron additionally happened to be gay was a acceptable plus, accustomed Teffi’s clamorous appetite for extramarital adulation affairs.
Three decades of banishment in Paris – where, typically, she opened the aboriginal émigré salon – brought Teffi a new and adherent audience. But alienation from her citizenry blunted the author’s appetite for satire. “We accept died,” she wrote of refugee activity in her article Nostalgia. “We feared a Bolshevik afterlife – and accept met our afterlife here.”
The archness remained intact. Grateful for a daughter’s anxious allowance of cosy slippers in icy winter, an ageing Teffi quipped that her thawing toes were accepting accessible for a atom of Liszt.
• Teffi: A Activity of Letters and of Laughter by Edythe Haber is appear by IB Tauris (£20). To adjustment a archetype go to Media or alarm 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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