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Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter

Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter
Edythe Haber

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Teffi was one of twentieth century Russia's most celebrated authors. Born Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya in 1872, she came to be admired by an impressive range of people - from Tsar Nicholas II to Lenin - and her popularity was such that sweets and perfume were named after her. She visited Tolstoy when she was 13 to haggle with him about the ending of War and Peace and Rasputin tried (and utterly failed) to seduce her. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 she was exiled and lived out her days in the lively Russian emigre community of Paris, where she continued writing - and enjoying comparable fame - until her death in 1952. Teffi's best stories effortlessly shift from light humour and satire to pathos and even tragedy - ever more so when depicting the daunting hardships she and her fellow emigres suffered in exile. While best known for her stories and feuilletons, she also moved over to other genres, from serious poetry to theatrical miniatures and even music, and inhabited an extraordinary range of spheres connected to both high and popular culture. In the first biography of her in any language, Edythe Haber here brings Teffi - who has recently been 'rediscovered' in the West to resounding acclaim - to life. Teffi's life and works afford a unique panoramic view of the cultural world of early twentieth century Russia, from the debauchery of the Silver Age to the terror and euphoria of revolution, and of interwar Russian emigration. But they also offer fresh insights into the seismic events - from the 1905 Russian Revolution and World War II to life as a refugee - that she experienced first-hand and recreated in her vivid, penetrating, moving and witty writing.

Table of Contents


A Divided Life Chapter 1:

"An Interesting Bunch":

Family Background and Early Years Chapter 2:

Literary Beginnings:

1898-1908 Chapter 3:

Feasts and Plagues:

1908-15 Chapter 4:

Poetry and Prose, 1910-6 Chapter 5:

A Farewell to Russia, Past and Future Chapter 6:

Russia Abroad:

1919-27 Chapter 7:

Between Two Worlds in Poetry and Prose Chapter 8:


Life's Reversals;

More about Love Chapter 9:

A Downward Slope;

The Witch (1932-6) Chapter 10:

Prelude to War:

Zigzags in Life and Art Chapter 11:

War and Its Aftermath:

1939-46 Chapter 12:

The Post-War Years:

Struggle and Perseverance

Author Info

Edythe Haber is Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a Center Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of an acclaimed book on Mikhail Bulgakov's early years and of many publications on Bulgakov, Teffi and Nabokov. She wrote the introduction to Teffi's Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, which was awarded 2017's Pushkin House Prize 'Special Award for Best Book in Translation', and has been researching and enjoying Teffi's work for more than 40 years.


"Teffi was the favourite writer of both Tsar Nicholas II and his nemesis, Lenin. Her extraordinary life has been superbly narrated in this fascinating and compelling biography. A tremendous discovery." 
– William Boyd

"Edythe Haber’s book is a labour of love; she has left no stone unturned in her quest to reconstruct Teffi’s story.  The book combines sharp insights into Teffi’s many varied writings with a warm appreciation of the toughness of her life after she left Russia forever in 1919.  It is a fascinating account and it will appeal to Teffi’s growing band of admirers, but it also speaks directly to a world where millions once again face the challenges and sorrows of lifelong exile from their homelands.  Above all, it’s a very good read!"
– Catherine Merridale, author of Lenin on the Train and Red Fortress

"Teffi was a Russian literary genius on a par with her more famous compatriots: she could be as penetrating as Chekhov, as darkly funny as Nabokov. She was also considered the most 'English' of Russian writers – and her wit can remind one of Saki and Waugh. She was by far the most amusing chronicler of the Russian revolution and the emigration to Paris. Indeed her insights into what it means to be a refugee, what is identity, couldn't be more relevant today. It's high time she joined the ranks of Russian greats, and Haber has brought her out wonderfully."
– Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia

"The fruit of decades of careful scholarship – all the more valuable in view of Teffi’s extreme reticence about many aspects of her own life."
– Robert Chandler, co-translator of Teffi's Memories - From Moscow to the Black Sea and Rasputin and Other Ironies

"Teffi claimed to have ‘two faces, one laughing and one weeping’. In her penetrating and utterly captivating biography, Edythe Haber reconciles the twinned aspects of this Russian master, who is now, after decades of neglect, gaining recognition not only as a humourist but also as an astute chronicler of her era. What’s more, by painstakingly reconstructing the life that gave rise to Teffi’s exquisite writings, Haber provides us with invaluable insight into the eternal struggles of exiles and émigrés."
– Boris Dralyuk, Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books

"While most of the major Russian women writers of the first half of the twentieth century have been the subject of important critical biographies in English, this honour has until now eluded Nadezhda Lokhvitskaia who published under the penname Teffi. Drawing on archival materials, letters, memoirs and literary texts, Edythe Haber masterfully reconstructs the life of this remarkable woman writer who, on the one hand, contributed significantly to the rich, comic and satirical tradition in Russian associated with figures like Chekhov, Gogol and Zoshchenko but who, on the other hand, remained acutely aware of how the comedic mode was inherently fraught for a woman. In the process of doing so, Haber succeeds in shedding light on the mechanisms of Russian literary life both at home and in emigration, as well as in foregrounding the special role that humour played in Russian émigré circles. Written with clarity and verve and handsomely illustrated, Haber's Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter will appeal to scholars and general readers alike with interests in women writers, exile, and modernism. This is a fascinating and timely biography – one that has particular relevancy in our current age of emigration."
– Jenifer Presto, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Russian and Director of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, University of Oregon


Bibliographic Info

Imprint: I.B.Tauris
Publisher: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd.

ISBN: 9781788312585
Publication Date: 29 Sep 2018
Number of Pages: 336
Illustrations: 25 Halftones, black and white

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