The Story Behind Literature’s Silliest Pseudonym

"Teffi" sounds like the name of a dog. Or a fool.

“No other major writer chose a name as silly as Teffi,” Robert Chandler admits in his excellent introduction to Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me, a wide-ranging new translation of the Russian author’s shorter work. Of course, as Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya (her given name) points out in the below essay, “Teffi” is a nonsensical pseudonym, a layer of protection, a suit of ill-fitting armor worn to make a brilliant writer look like a holy fool. But as Chandler also points out, as funny as Teffi is — and she was widely admired as a humorist by opposed factions, including Vladimir Lenin and Tsar Nicholas II — she is more than just “the light humorist that Russians and Russianists still sometimes imagine her to be.” She is, as it happens, a variegated writer “of astonishing, fearless intelligence.” Both Teffy’s humor and piercing wit can be found in the below essay, where she explains how she came about her pseudonym, which, she confesses, “sounds like something you’d call a dog.” — Jonathon Sturgeon, Literary Editor

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My Pseudonym

I’m often asked about the origin of my pseudonym: “Teffi”. Why Teffi? It sounds like something you’d call a dog. And a great many readers of the Russian Word have indeed given this name to their fox terriers and Italian greyhounds.

And why would a Russian woman sign her work with a name that sounds English?

If I felt I needed a pen name, I could have gone for something with more of a ring to it, or at least a hint of some political ideal, like bitter Maxim Gorky, poor Demyan Bedny or Skitalets the Wanderer. Their names all hint at suffering in the name of some cause and help to win the reader’s sympathy.

Besides, women writers tend to go for male pseudonyms. A wise and circumspect move. It is common practice to regard ladies with a somewhat ironic smile, and even with incredulity:

“How on earth did she come up with something like this?”

“Her husband must be doing the writing for her.”

Among those women who have used male pseudonyms are the writer known as “Marko Vovchok”, the talented novelist and public figure who signed her work as “Vergezhsky” and the talented poetess who writes her critical essays under the name of “Anton the Extreme”. All this, I repeat, has its raison d’être. It makes sense and it looks good. But “Teffi”? What sort of nonsense is that?

So I’d like to give an honest account of how this literary name came into being. It was as I was taking my first steps in literature. At the time I had published only two or three poems, to which I’d put my own name, and I had also written a little one-act play. I had no idea at all how I was going to get this play on stage. Everyone around me was saying that it was absolutely impossible — I needed to have theatrical connections and a literary name with clout. Otherwise the play would never be staged — and no one would ever even bother to read it.

“What theatre director wants to read just any old nonsense when he could be reading Hamlet or The Government Inspector? Let alone something concocted by some female!”

At this point I began to do some serious thinking. I didn’t want to hide behind a male pseudonym. That would be weak and cowardly. I’d rather use a name that was incomprehensible, neither one thing nor the other.

But what? It had to be a name that would bring good luck. Best of all would be the name of some fool — fools are always lucky.

Finding a fool, of course, was easy enough. I knew a great many of them. But which one should I choose? Obviously it had to be someone very special. Then I remembered a fool who was not only special, but also unfailingly lucky — someone clearly recognized even by fate as the perfect fool.

His name was Stepan, but at home everyone called him Steffi. After tactfully discarding the first letter (so that the fool would not get too big for his boots), I decided to sign my play “Teffi”. Then I took a deep breath and sent it straight to the Suvorin Theatre. I didn’t say a word to anyone because I was sure my enterprise would fail.

A month or two went by. I had nearly forgotten about my little play. It had taught me just one thing: that not even fools always bring you good luck.

But then one day in New Times I read: “The Woman Question, a one-act play by Teffi, has been accepted for production at the Maly Theatre.”

I felt terror. Then utter despair.

I could see immediately that my little play was rank nonsense, that it was silly, dull, that you couldn’t hide for long behind a pseudonym, and that the play was bound to be a spectacular flop — one that would shame me for the rest of my life. I didn’t know what to do, and there was no one I could turn to for advice.

And then I recalled with horror that when I sent the manuscript I had included my name and return address. That wouldn’t be a problem if they thought I had sent the package on behalf of somebody else, but what if they guessed the truth? What then?

I didn’t have long to think it over. The next day an official letter came in the post, giving me the date of the first night and informing me when rehearsals would start. I was invited to attend.

Everything was out in the open. My lines of retreat had been cut off. This was rock bottom. Since nothing could be more terrifying, I could now give serious thought to my situation.

Why exactly had I decided the play was so very bad? If it was bad, they wouldn’t have accepted it. That they had accepted it could only be thanks to the good luck of the fool whose name I had taken. If I had signed the play “Kant” or “Spinoza”, they would surely have rejected it.

I needed to pull myself together and go to the rehearsal. Otherwise they might try to track me down through the police.

Along I went. The play was being directed by Yevtikhy Karpov, someone suspicious of any kind of innovation, a man of the old school.

“Box set, three doors, and your lines from memory — rattle them off facing the audience.”

He greeted me with condescension. “So you’re the author, are you? All right. Find yourself a seat and keep quiet.”

Need I say that I did indeed keep quiet? Up on stage a rehearsal was underway. The young actress Grinyova (whom I sometimes still see here in Paris — she has changed so little that when I look at her my heart flutters as it did back then…) was in the lead role. She was holding a crumpled handkerchief that she kept pressing to her mouth — the latest mannerism among young actresses.

“Stop muttering under your breath!” shouted Karpov. “Face the audience! You don’t know your lines! You don’t know your lines!”

“Yes I do!” said Grinyova, offended.

“Oh do you? All right then. Prompter — not another word from you! Let her stew in her own juice — like a sprat in a pan!”

Karpov was a bad psychologist. No one would remember their lines after intimidation like that.

Oh this is dreadful, I thought, really dreadful! Why had I even written this dreadful play? Why had I sent it to the theatre? The actors were suffering — being forced to learn all this claptrap of mine by heart. And now the play was going to fail and the papers would write, “It is a shame that a serious theatre should be wasting its time on such nonsense when people are going hungry.” And then, when I went to my grandmother’s for Sunday breakfast, she would give me a stern look and say, “We’ve been hearing things about you. I very much hope they’re untrue.”

Nevertheless I carried on going to the rehearsals. I was amazed by the friendly way the actors greeted me — I had expected them to hate and despise me. Karpov laughed loudly and said, “The poor author’s wasting away. She’s getting thinner and thinner.”

The “poor author” held her tongue and tried not to weep. And then came the point of no return. The day of the performance. To go or not to go? I decided to go but to find myself a place somewhere at the very back where no one would see me. After all, Karpov was capable of anything. If the play flopped, he might stick his head out from the wings and shout, “Leave this theatre and don’t come back, you fool!”

My little play followed a long and extremely tedious four-act work by some novice. The audience was bored — yawning and whistling its disapproval. Then, after the last jeering whistle and after the interval, up went the curtain and my characters began to prattle away.

“Utterly dreadful!” I was thinking. “What a disgrace!”

But the audience laughed once, laughed again, then began to enjoy themselves. I promptly forgot I was the author and laughed along with everyone else as old Yevgenia Yablochkina played a woman general marching around the stage in uniform and tooting martial fanfares with no instrument but her lips. All in all, the actors were very good. They did my play proud.

“Author!” the audience began calling out. “Author!”

What was I to do?

Up went the curtain. The cast took a bow and made a show of searching for the author.

I leapt from my seat and began to make my way down the aisle towards the wings. Then the curtain came back down, so I returned to my seat. But once again the audience called for the author, and once again the curtain went up, the cast took a bow and someone on stage shouted, “But where’s the author?” Once again I made for the wings, but once again the curtain came back down. And so it went on. I carried on dashing backwards and forwards until someone with a shock of wild hair (I learnt later that this was Alexander Kugel) grabbed me by the arm and bellowed, “For the love of God — she’s right here!”

But at this point the curtain, after going up for the sixth time, came down once and for all. The audience began to disperse.

The following day I had my first ever conversation with a journalist, who had come to my apartment to interview me.

“What are you working on right now?”

“I’m making some shoes for my niece’s doll…”

“Oh really? And what does your pseudonym mean?”

“It’s… the name of a foo… I mean it’s a surname.” “Someone said it’s from Kipling.”

Saved! I was saved! There is indeed such a name in Kipling.

And not only that, but in Trilby there’s a little ditty that goes:

Taffy was a Wale-man,
Taffy was a thief…

It all came back to me straight away. Yes, of course, it was from Kipling!

Beneath the photograph of me that appeared in the newspapers was the word “Taffy”.

That was it. There was no going back.

And so it remains.

1931.
Translated by Anne Marie Jackson