This biography is fair and sure-footed. It offers, but does not impose, interpretations. Its key theme is captured in Teffi’s phrase ‘life inside a joke is more tragic than funny’. The concentration is on events and works rather than on general topics. I would have welcomed a section on languages (how good was Teffi’s French? Or her English?) and on Teffi’s Christianity (the cross, which we learned in Memories Teffi took with her throughout her travels, gets just one glancing mention at the end). However, the book ends movingly with an account of the composition of her final poems, which expressed acceptance and hope.
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.
Edythe Haber has been engaged with Teffi’s life and work for 40 years. Her biography is a masterpiece of sober and diligent scholarship that flatly refuses to disguise Teffi’s failings. Instead of cooing over Teffi’s jokes, Haber brings into view a formidable woman who worked as hard as an entire army of scribes and who bewitched her lovers as effortlessly as she abandoned them. Chekhov might have to give way to Colette or Madame de Stäel when we next start seeking comparisons for a writer who charmed Tsar Nicholas II, rebuffed an amorous Rasputin and was praised by Lenin (an “obsessed maniac” in Teffi’s disgusted view).