Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, born in Saint Petersburg in 1872, used Teffi as her nom de plume. (“It sounds like something you’d call a dog,” she wrote, explaining that she wanted “a name that was incomprehensible, neither one thing nor the other … best of all would be the name of some fool.”) In prerevolutionary Russia, she was renowned for her satire. To celebrate two new editions of her work, here’s a 1929 piece in which she remembers her “first steps as an author.” —Dan Piepenbring
My first steps as an author were terrifying. I had never, in any case, intended to become a writer, even though everyone in our family had written poetry from childhood on. For some reason this activity seemed horribly shameful, and should any of us find a brother or sister with a pencil, a notebook, and an inspired expression, we would immediately shout out, “You’re writing! You’re writing!”
The guilty party would begin to make excuses and the accusers would hop around, jeering, “You’re writing! You’re writing!”
The only one of us above suspicion was our eldest brother, a creature suffused with sombre irony. But one day, when he was back at the lycée after the summer holidays, we found scraps of paper in his room covered in poetic exclamations, and one line repeated over and over again:
“Oh Mirra, Mirra, palest moon!”
Alas! He, too, was writing poetry.
This discovery made quite an impression on us. And who knows, it may even have influenced my older sister Masha’s choice of pen name. When she became famous, she adopted the name “Mirra Lokhvitskaya.”
My own dream was to become an artist. I had even, on the advice of a businesslike friend from kindergarten, written this wish down on a piece of paper, chewed it a little, and thrown it out of the window of a train. My kindergarten friend assured me that this was a “foolproof ” method.
When my older sister began to publish her own poetry after leaving college, I sometimes went with her to the editorial office on the way back from school. My nanny would come, too, carrying my satchel of schoolbooks.
And while my sister was sitting in the editor’s office (I don’t remember now what journal it was, but I remember that the editors were Pyotr Gnedich and Vsevolod Solovyov), Nanny and I would wait in the outer room.
I would sit a little way away from Nanny, so that nobody would guess that she was accompanying me. I would assume an inspired expression, and imagine how everybody—the delivery boy and the copy-typist and all the would-be contributors—would take me for a writer.
The only thing was, the chairs in the reception were inconveniently high, and my feet didn’t touch the ground. However, the inspired expression on my face more than made up for this handicap—and for my short dress and school pinafore.
By the age of thirteen, I already had some literary works under my belt. I had written some verses on the arrival of the Tsaritsa and on the anniversary of the founding of our school. These latter—hastily composed in the form of a high-flown ode—contained a stanza for which I was later made to suffer a great deal:
And may for future generations
The light of truth shine, like a sun,
In this great shrine of education,
For many, many years to come.
My sister tormented me for a whole year over that “great shrine of education.” If I pretended I had a headache and wasn’t going into school, she would immediately start up a chant: “Nadya, Nadya, why aren’t you going to the great shrine of education? How can you bear the light of truth to shine without you?”
And then, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I wrote a comical poem called “The Song of Margarita,” and, without showing it to anyone, of course, I decided to take it along to the journal Oskolki.
The editor of Oskolki was Leikin. At that time he was already very old and in poor health. And he did, in fact, die soon afterward.
I went to the editorial office. It was terrifying. Particularly when I was on the staircase, about to ring the bell. The door was small and dirty. There was a smell of cabbage pie, something I can’t abide. I rang the bell—and thought, “Quick! Run away!”
But then I heard a scrabbling sound from behind the door. Somebody was taking the chain off the hook. The door opened a crack, and an eye peeped through. Then another eye. Then the door opened the rest of the way.
“Who do you want?” It was a very thin, elderly lady with an Orenburg shawl worn crosswise over her chest.
“I’ve co-come to-to see Leikin.”
“Sir isn’t here yet,” said the lady. “Come in. Sit down and wait. He will be here presently.”
She ushered me into a tiny room and went away. From there I could see another room, also rather small, with a writing desk and, above it, a stuffed bird.
Above the desk, a stuffed bird
gawps at the editor without a word.
I waited a long time. Occasionally the lady would come back and, stroking the front of her shawl with her bony hands, would whisper, “Just a little longer. He won’t be long now.”
Then I heard the doorbell. A stamping of feet, a coughing and a wheezing. I could make out the words:
Then the wheezing stopped, and once again the thin lady came in and said in a nervous whisper, “Sir still needs to warm up.” Then she went out again. I sat and thought how awful it was to lead a literary life.
Once again, the thin lady came in, and, clearly feeling sorry for me and hoping to cheer me up, she whispered, “Sir still hasn’t quite warmed up.”
Such a kind woman! I wanted to put my arms around her neck, so that we could weep in each other’s arms. She went out again. Oh heavens! I so wanted to leave! But I didn’t dare leave now. Here she was again, “All over now. He’s done.”
At first I didn’t realize what she meant. For a moment I thought Leikin had died. I got to my feet, horrified.
“Don’t fret yourself,” said the lady. “Sir will see you now.”
I frowned, then stepped forward. After all, he wasn’t going to kill me. In an armchair, in front of the stuffed bird, sat a thickset, crook-shouldered, apparently cross-eyed man with a black beard. He seemed very gloomy.
“To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” he asked, not looking at me. “What do you want?”
“Poetry,” I mumbled.
“ ‘The Song of Margarita.’ ”
“Eh? I don’t think we’ve ever had that here. Can you give me a clearer idea of what you mean?”
“I wrote it. Here it is.”
He held out his hand, still not looking at me. I thrust my sheet of paper into it.
“Well?” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“Well—good-bye. You’ll be able to read the answer in our ‘post bag.’ ”
A month later, I read in the Oskolki “post bag”: “ ‘The Song of Margarita’ has nothing to recommend it.”
This was my first step as a writer. Later, by way of a secret triumph over that angry (albeit by then deceased) editor, I managed to get it printed no fewer than four times, in a number of publications.
Though, I think, had I been an editor myself, I wouldn’t have printed it even once.
Originally published in 1929. Translated from the Russian by Rose France.
Reprinted from Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi, available next week from New York Review Books.