Teffi was so adored in prerevolutionary Russia that a chocolate candy was named after her, with her pretty face on its brightly colored wrapper. She was a well-regarded poet and a successful dramatist, but it was the feuilletons and funny stories that Teffi wrote for newspapers and magazines that made her a star. In 1910 a Teffi perfume was released to celebrate the publication in St. Petersburg of her first collection, Humorous Stories. Both Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin were devotees of her comic prose. Her made-up name was popular for pets. Laughter was in style at that time, Teffi said: “‘Laugh!’ readers said to me. ‘Laugh! It brings us money,’ said my publishers…and I laughed.” But the agreeable sweetness of Teffi’s image was deceptive. The translucent surface of her writing gives sight of the depths of the human spirit: its raging and yearning, its dark nights and joyous awakenings, its wild cries, its anarchic craziness.
In Teffi’s story “Shapeshifters,” set in St. Petersburg literary salons in the early-twentieth-century “era of ‘occultomania,’” a rural fable frames another story of transformation. In the framing fable, an unhappy young wife, confined by a jealous husband on a country estate, “dreams fangs and claws…dark and mighty strength, swift legs, a sinister howl.” The power of her longing transforms her into a she-wolf who roams the forest and fields at night until her husband shoots her dead. In modern St. Petersburg, a mysterious baroness puts a spell on a young lady named Ilya who hates cats. “I’m a cat,” Ilya says awkwardly the next morning, after a moonlit night on the rooftops. Later, the baroness also metamorphoses, emigrating to Germany, where she renames herself Eugene Onegin, starts wearing a man’s suit, and takes a wife.
In “Rusalka,” another of Teffi’s transformation tales, Kornelia, a chambermaid in a country house, with fishlike eyes and hair that hangs below her knees, is changed into a rusalka, the mermaid of Slavic folklore, by her unrequited love for Fedko the groom. On the day of his wedding to a strikingly ugly girl in the village, Kornelia, all fish scales below the waist, slips away forever into the waters of a millpond, half singing, half crying, “O-o-ee-o-o!” Or did she simply go mad? “What are we to make of this story?” the narrator asks at the end, searching for the truth in her clouded memories of childhood, where the strange, distant image of Kornelia can still be found. In the story “Wonder Worker,” the narrator remembers Panas, the head gardener on her family estate, who asked one day for his last wages so he could go home to die; the trees, he said, had let him know that his time was up. Panas then returned to the estate as a scrawny one-eyed chicken, bald and vicious. The servants and children all knew the chicken was Panas, and the children asked, “What on earth made him come back as a chicken?” “How are we to know?” the peasants replied. “Must we really understand everything?”
These three tales appear in Other Worlds, the third volume of Teffi’s writing to be published by NYRB Classics. Edited by Robert Chandler, it ranges across Teffi’s long and abundant career. It includes five stories from the 1916 collection The Lifeless Beast, published in Petrograd, but most of the stories were written in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s; three come from Teffi’s final collection, Earthly Rainbow, published in New York in 1952, the year she died. Questions ripple through them all concerning what we can understand about the nature of events, and about the transformative moments that thread events together into stories. Are these tales of witches, werewolves, demons, spirits, shape-shifters, and saving miracles really stories of the supernatural and the sacred? The short story, a genre Teffi mastered to perfection, is the ideal form for preserving enigmas in all their strangeness.
“I believe that many more miracles take place in the world than we think,” says Lyalya, the narrator of “The Dog.” “You only need to know how to see.” From mature adulthood, she looks back to an idyllic late summer, the beginning of a strange tangle of events that determined the course of her life. A fifteen-year-old orphan, full of delight in her own charms, Lyalya is staying on the country estate of a large and affectionate family, the Katkovs. On an evening walk, the young people swap scary stories. Tolya, the shy son of the estate steward, is in love with Lyalya; he tells the story of an abandoned mill whose last inhabitant, a strange, silent German man, had his throat ripped out one night by his huge dog, which then disappeared without a trace. Another boy suggests a way to make the story creepier: anyone who spends a night in the mill gains the power to turn into a dog whenever he wishes. “But that’s not true,” Tolya objects. Yet when Lyalya dares him, Tolya decides to spend the night at the mill, for he longs to be a dog and stay by her side forever. When he comes to her window at dawn, Lyalya teases him for still being Tolya. “Lyalechka,” he says, “can’t you see? Or maybe you simply don’t know how to look properly. I am a dog, Lyalechka. I am your faithful hound forever. How can you not see?”
The story moves from the countryside to St. Petersburg in the 1910s, several years later, a “chaotic period” in Lyalya’s life. She sees Tolya once, and he sends her an extravagant bouquet with a note saying that if she is ever in trouble, she can summon her dog. Now an undistinguished student of voice at the conservatory, Lyalya falls in with decadent types who spend their nights at the Stray Dog cabaret “discussing matters erotic.” She begins an affair with a sickly-looking dandy named Edvers, crops her hair and dyes it red, and starts smoking and wearing a black velvet gentleman’s suit with a green rose in the lapel to mimic Oscar Wilde. Kissing Edvers feels like kissing a corpse, but she cannot break away.
Then history begins to direct events. In 1914 World War I breaks out, and Tolya and the Katkov boys leave for the front. Edvers avoids the draft, finding ways to profit from the conflict. After the 1917 revolution, in the early days of civil war, when Lyalya’s “little world of aesthetes had grown distinctly counterrevolutionary,” Edvers poses as a White, then shifts to the winning side, joining the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. Lyalya, who has moved with him to Moscow, discovers that he is stealing from her and realizes that she must escape. She sends word to Tolya at the front: “Lyalya is calling on her dog for help.” Soon a huge dog appears in her apartment, staring at her from the corner of the room. She puts the dog out, but when Edvers appears, high on cocaine, eyes bloodshot, the dog is watching through the window. A violent row begins, and as Edvers grabs Lyalya by the neck, the dog crashes in and rips out his throat. Later, when she is “a free woman, in Odessa,” Lyalya learns that as soon as Tolya heard her appeal for help, he rushed to her rescue but was captured and shot trying to slip through Bolshevik lines on the same day that the dog killed Edvers. There is “nothing I can explain—or even want to explain,” Lyalya reflects. “But when I turn back and consider the past, I can see everything clearly…each separate event and the axis or thread upon which a certain force had strung them.”
Though “The Dog” is subtitled “a stranger’s story,” it is strewn with traces of Teffi’s life. Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me and Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, which were published in English in 2016, are more openly autobiographical than some of the fable-like tales in Other Worlds, in which we do not always know whether or not the storyteller is Teffi or a fictional persona.
Teffi was born Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya in St. Petersburg in 1872, the sixth of seven children born to a renowned law professor, Alexander Lokhvitsky, and his wife, Varvara von Goyer, both from gentry families. “My childhood passed in a large, carefree family…raised in the old-fashioned way,” she recalled. Fall and winter were spent in Moscow, where her father was a defense lawyer at the Circuit Court, spring and summer on her mother’s family estate in Volhynia, in the far west of the Russian Empire. From exile in Paris, after Soviet communism had obliterated that way of life, Teffi returned again and again in her writing to that “wonderful, blessed” place, contemplating with European eyes her childhood in Russia, a “truly strange country” inhabited by “amazing, incomprehensible people”:
What slipped quickly through the lives of adults was for us a matter of complex and turbulent experience, entering our games and our dreams, inserting itself like a brightly colored thread into the pattern of our life, into that first firm foundation that psychoanalysts now investigate with such art and diligence, seeing it as the prime cause of many of the madnesses of the human soul.
Teffi’s stories recreate this world of games, dreams, and madness, with its cast of nannies, servants, local peasants, house spirits, bathhouse devils, shape-shifters, and vampires. It is a world of “folk Orthodoxy,” in which Christianity is seamlessly interwoven with pagan belief in nature spirits and magic. The daughter of the local priest is the subject of the story “Liza,” in Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me. Liza, who is tutored with Teffi and her youngest sister, Lena, “told lies as if she lied for a living.” After Liza’s visits to their house, “everything felt somehow special, mysterious and unsettling.” The sisters listen to her fantastic assertions in amazement: she has four golden grand pianos in the hayloft and fourteen velvet dresses to wear when no one is watching; she sees devils above her parents’ heads at night and knows, as “the robbers all know,” that the girls’ nanny has three million gold rubles hidden in her eiderdown.
Liza and her fibs reappear in the eerie story “Vurdalak,” in Other Worlds. A painting of the scourging of Christ hangs in the church; it was “donated by my father,” the narrator writes, and “has stayed with me throughout my life.” In Father Savely the priest’s household, there is a servant called Baba One-Eye, who, Liza says, can hear “dead unbaptized babies weeping in the bog,” once saw a green creature by the mill “catching thunderclaps in his paw and hiding them under his rump,” and knows that the chambermaid Kornelia has fish scales hidden underneath her shift. When Father Savely’s wife gives birth to a son, a sickly “late fruit” named Venyushka, Baba One-Eye identifies him as a vurdalak, the vampire of Slavic mythology, and pushes garlic up the baby’s nose; he dies soon after.
Classic Russian literature intertwined with rural folklore in the formation of Teffi’s imagination. When she was nine, she writes in “My First Tolstoy,” the characters in Lev Tolstoy’s novel Childhood, which she read over and over again, were her brothers and sisters, “their home in Moscow…our Moscow home.” As a thirteen-year-old, she neglects her homework, instead reading and rereading War and Peace, so in love with Prince Andrei and tormented by his death that she resolves to go with her nanny to Tolstoy’s Moscow home and beg him to rewrite the novel. Tolstoy greets her in the hallway, and she observes that he is shorter than she expected, but, faced with the maker of her dreamworld, she is unable to do more than ask for his autograph, humiliated by her inability to pronounce her words properly: “Would you pwease sign your photogwaph?”
Teffi was meticulously discreet about her personal life: her bereavements, marriages, children, and love affairs, and the lifelong depression she called “neurasthenia.”1 Soon after her graduation from a St. Petersburg gymnasium (an academically elite high school), she married Vladislav Buchinsky, a lawyer with Polish gentry ancestry. They moved to a remote steppe town and then to his family estate. They had two daughters and a son, of whom there is scarcely any recorded trace. In 1898 Teffi left her husband and children and moved back to St. Petersburg to write for a living. There are glimpses in her fiction of the provincial settings of her buried years of marital unhappiness. “Witch,” first published in Paris in 1931, is set in a steppe town where the narrator’s husband is a magistrate: “And what a dull place that little town was! Full of dust in summertime, and in winter the snowdrifts would bury the streetlamps; in spring and autumn it was so muddy that a whole troika almost sank out of sight…. All as boring as can be.”
By the time Teffi returned to St. Petersburg, her elder sister, Mirra Lokhvitskaya, had become a well-known poet, acclaimed as the “Russian Sappho” for her ecstatic erotic verse. Teffi yielded the family name to Mirra, briefly publishing her own poetry under her married name, Buchinskaya, before adopting her pen name in late 1901. In “My Pseudonym” Teffi writes that she took it from a fool she once knew whose nickname was “Steffi,” because “fools are always lucky.”
Teffi wrote feuilletons on life in the capital city, satires on contemporary manners and social pretensions, light dramas gently mocking the illusions of love, and verse in the Symbolist mode. At highbrow salons, she was a “merry and unfemininely clever” presence, as one Petersburg professor remarked. For a while, she expressed socialist sympathies, publishing a poem called “The Banner of Freedom” in a Bolshevik newspaper in Geneva in 1905, a year of revolutionary unrest. After 1908 she became a star writer for the new humor magazine Satirikon (later New Satirikon). She was also on the staff of the leading daily newspaper the Russian Word. Between 1910 and 1916, Teffi published a book a year of comic sketches and short stories. Other writers marveled at the easy clarity of her prose and her gift for reaching readers up and down the social hierarchy. Mikhail Kuzmin praised her “natural Russian humour.” Alexander Kuprin called her writing “one of the humble wonders of nature.” She was an honored guest at the Stray Dog cabaret, the bohemian nightclub portrayed in “The Dog,” where in the early 1910s poets such as Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Mayakovsky recited their verse, mingling with Wildean aesthetes and druggy femmes fatales.
There were shape-shifters in St. Petersburg too. Teffi used the word to describe the self-styled holy man Grigory Rasputin, who, she wrote, played “a tragic role in the fate of Russia.” The collective hysteria in high society around Rasputin gave Teffi moral nausea. Her account of two meetings with him in 1915 simultaneously unmasks him as a cunning fraud with a repertoire of seduction techniques and portrays him as a “terrible sorcerer” whose sinister charisma emanates from somewhere “very dark and beyond our knowledge.” “Remember, my clever girl: if they kill Rasputin, it will be the end of Russia,” Rasputin says to Teffi. “I did,” Teffi concludes laconically.
The end came soon. Some “cunning devil poked his stick somewhere near Moscow and began spinning Russia like a whirlwind top…. The pieces are flying in various directions like sparks,” Teffi wrote in New Satirikon in 1918, as the empire descended into civil war. Her feuilleton “The Gadarene Swine,” written in Odessa the following year, depicts the “refugees from Sovietdom”: everyday people, with only the possessions they can carry, in headlong flight from a land where all religion, laws, conventions, and settled routines have been wiped away. Memories recounts Teffi’s own journey from the “dead city” of Petrograd to Moscow, then to Kiev and Odessa, across the Black Sea on a perilous steamship called the Shilka to Crimea, and on toward Constantinople. Her unlikely guardian angel, guiding a troupe of writers and performers through the chaos, is a squint-eyed Odessa impresario known pseudonymously as Gooskin. Memories is a tragicomic masterpiece, threading wit through horror, evoking the unspeakable shared sorrow of refugees as they try not to look back. “A joke is not so funny when you’re living inside it,” Teffi noted, though she never lost her ability to see what was funny.
Like tens of thousands of the million or so people who fled Russia in the years after the revolution, Teffi ended up in Paris. Aside from an interlude in Germany and numerous stays in spa resorts to repair her troubled health, she lived there, often in hotels and rented rooms, for the rest of her life. She maintained warm contact with her daughters, who had settled in Poland. The Symbolist poets whose verse and affectations she had parodied in the early 1900s—Zinaida Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky—were her companions in indigent old age. She captures the married couple’s “tragic egocentricity” in her memoir “The Merezhkovskys,” achieving a perfect balance of satire and compassion. She had a long, often difficult friendship with the Nobel Prize–winning writer Ivan Bunin and his wife, Vera. Teffi continued to produce a stream of feuilletons and stories for her deracinated audience, capturing with flawless comic pathos the predicament of les russes, a “small town” (as her most popular émigré book was called) held together by the force of “mutual repulsion.” The title of her feuilleton “Que Faire?” became the catchphrase of the emigration.2
Teffi’s stories often turn on juxtapositions of illusion and reality, moments when the intensity of the inner life bursts out. “The Heart” and “Solovki,” both included in Other Worlds, describe women experiencing sudden spiritual awakenings on pilgrimages to remote Russian monasteries; one is a worldly actress, the other an illiterate peasant. In both stories, an unseen transformation in the human soul is set within a populous comic tableau. “We all live on two levels,” Teffi wrote in “Thy Will,” one of two stories in her last collection, Earthly Rainbow, that meditate on the Russian word volya, which means both “will” and a certain kind of freedom:
One level is our artless real life. The other is all made up of premonitions, impressions, inexplicable but irresistible sympathies and antipathies. Of dreams. This second life has its own laws, its own logic, for which we are not responsible. Brought to the light of reason, they surprise and frighten us, but we cannot overcome them.
The other tale on this theme, “Volya,” which Chandler places last in Other Worlds, is not so much a story as an ecstatic prose hymn to Teffi’s lost motherland and to volya, its untranslatable spirit of freedom: “There we have it—the eternal aim of the Russian soul. To go where your eyes look. Like in the old fairy tales—to go thither, I know not whither.” There are two further stories from Teffi’s last book in Other Worlds. “Kishmish” portrays the “predawn anguish” in the soul of an eight-year-old child. Curled up in bed in Moscow one night during Lent, the little girl (nicknamed Kishmish after a miniature raisin from the Caucasus) has “terrible dreams of power…seething inside her head.” She dreams of becoming a brigand, a strongman, an executioner, a monster. Eventually, Kishmish resolves to astonish everyone by becoming a saint. Her attempts to set out on the path of sainthood the next day, in her artless real life, are a comical failure, so Kishmish remains a sinner. Yet “the impression made by this predawn anguish will remain with this little creature for many years, for her whole life,” Teffi writes. “Nothing will erase from her soul the imprint of that pre-dawn despair.”
“Baba Yaga” imagines the inner life of the hag of Russian fairy tales. This was Teffi’s nickname for herself in old age, when, in severe pain, disappointed by old friends and the fractious émigré community, she too “lived alone. Except for a cat.” “Other nations did not have goddesses like Baba Yaga,” Teffi writes. As she whirls through the blizzard on her mortar and pestle, howling and weeping, the man-eating witch feels “terrible and powerful. Free as free can be. She flies over the earth like the song of the storm.” The story ends with Baba Yaga lying on her stove after the storm has fallen silent, water dripping from her icy hair: “Boring. Boring. B–o–r–i–n–g.”
An account of all that is known of Teffi’s life can be found in Edythe Haber’s excellent biography Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter (I.B. Tauris, 2018). ↩
“Que Faire?” is included in Teffi, Subtly Worded and Other Stories, translated by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg, and Natalia Wase (London: Pushkin, 2014). ↩