The Twelve Chairs by Ilf & Petrov

June 18, 2010

Several years ago, I took a trip to Ukraine and, along the way, met a young veterinarian, Misha. We struck up a friendship and exchanged e-mail addresses. We e-mailed sporadically, sometimes in a flurry and sometimes a month or more would pass between messages. After a particularly long pause, Misha sent an e-mail indicating that he had arrived in the United States. I had not known he had any definite plans to come. He had found a job in the United States and had moved to within an hour’s drive of my childhood hometown (where most of my immediate family still live). It was quite a pleasant coincidence, because now I can see him fairly regularly and I have had the opportunity to show him where I grew up.

On one of my visits, we discussed literature (my Ukrainian is actually very, very poor Russian, but his English is good). We talked about Bulgakov, Nabokov, and some other authors. I asked Misha for a book recommendation. He suggested “The Twelve Chairs” by Ilya Ilf Fainzilberg (Ilya Ilf) and Evgeny Petrovich Kataev (Evgeny Petrov). He told me it was extremely funny, that I would certainly enjoy it. I promptly ordered it.

When I showed it to him (before I had read it), he looked at the back. The very first line of the publisher’s description is:

Ostap Bender is an unemployed con artist living by his wits in postrevolutionary Soviet Russia.

Misha gave a small snort of derision. Ostap Bender is an unemployed con artist living by his wits in postrevolutionary Soviet Ukraine, you see. Ukrainians dislike their country being called “The Ukraine” (instead of the accurate “Ukraine”) and they also dislike being confused with Russia. The Soviet Union was made up of fifteen Soviet republics, one of which was the Russian SFSR and another of which was the Ukrainian SSR. Westerners, in my experience, have tended to make little to no distinction between the Soviet Union and Russia, which is as baffling as it is annoying to Ukrainians (and, I presume, citizens of other former Soviet states). Anyway, American publishers (Northwestern University Press, in this case) are writing for Americans and, unfortunately, gloss over distinctions of Soviet geography that are on a Texas/Oklahoma scale.

But what a book. Northwestern University Press published The Twelve Chairs as part of their “European Classics” series. The series itself is outstanding. The entire thing is on my wish list, both the known and the (to me) obscure. However, I can wholeheartedly recommend this one as an entry point.

As The Twelve Chairs begins, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov is going through an ordinary day in the “regional center of N.” “Life in N. was extremely quiet.” Ippolit lives unhappily with his mother-in-law, Claudia Ivanovna. Before the revolution, Ippolit and Claudia were wealthy aristocrats. She rues her relative downfall in life and how poorly her son-in-law turned out. In the opening pages, she has a dream of ill portent. Ippolit waves it off as the superstition of an old woman. He carries on as usual.

Unless I begin quoting liberally, I cannot convey the humor of this first chapter in which the proprietors of the rival funeral homes “Do Us the Honor” and the “Nymph” play an amusing role and Ippolit goes to his job as the clerk in charge of registering births, marriages, and deaths. Trust me, the skewering of Soviet life is delicious and translates perfectly well. We (in America) do have the DMV, after all.

Claudia Ivanovna has an attack of some sort, prompting Ippolit Matveyevich to dutifully rush to her bedside. He is rewarded when Claudia tells him a secret she has been keeping. Before her property was confiscated by the state, she sewed her family jewels into the seat of one of Ippolit’s twelve dining room chairs. She did not have time to retrieve them before they had to flee and Ippolit’s chairs were taken as well. Ippolit spends the remainder of the novel trying to find the chair with the jewels sewn into it.

His task is complicated at every step. To begin, Claudia also made a deathbed confession to Father Fyodor Vostrikov in which she disclosed the story of the jewels in the chair. Father Fyodor sees his opportunity to finally realize his “cherished…dream of possessing his own candle factory.” He only went into the priesthood to avoid conscription and, so, still covets material things. He is “tormented by the vision of thick ropes of wax being wound onto the factory drums.” Father Fyodor becomes determinedly fixated on locating those jewels to sate his thirst for a candle factory.

Father Fyodor walked up and down the room for half an hour, frightening his wife by the change in his expresssion and telling her all sorts of rubbish. Mother could understand only one thing – for no apparent reason Father Fyodor had cut his hair, intended to go off somewhere, and was leaving her for good.

“I’m not leaving you,” he kept saying. “I’m not. I’ll be back in a week. A man can have a job to do, after all. Can he or can’t he?”

“No, he can’t,” said his wife.

Father Fyodor even had to strike the table with his fist, although he was normally a mild person in his treatment of his near ones. He did so cautiously, since he had never done it before, and, greatly alarmed, his wife threw a kerchief around her head and ran to fetch the civilian clothing [for Father Fyodor] from her brother.

Ippolit’s biggest obstacle, however, is not his rivalry with the mildly ruthless Father Fyodor, it is his ally. Ostap Bender is a con artist and quickly convinces Ippolit to share Claudia’s secret. Ostap immediately requests a sixty percent share and manages to negotiate to an even split of the proceeds. The numerous renegotiations throughout the novel are a running joke as the new split is always to Ostap’s advantage.

Ostap Bender does have the necessary shadiness of character and intelligence to make progress on their quest. At first, it seems things will be easy as they are able to find a record of the twelve chairs which all were sent to the same place. Through missteps on Ippolit’s part, they lose the opportunity to purchase the whole lot, the chairs are sold individually, and end up spread all over the Soviet Union.

[T]here cannot be less than twenty-six and a half million chairs in the country. To make the figure truer we will take off another six and a half million. The twenty million left is the minimum possible number.

Amid this sea of chairs made of walnut, oak, ash, rosewood, mahogany, and Karelian birch, amid chairs made of fir and pinewood, the heros of this novel are to find one Hambs walnut chair with curved legs, containing Madam Petukhova’s treasure inside its chintz-upholstered belly.

The heros persist, locating and searching the chairs one by one. Ostap must continually devise new plans to raise proceeds for the quest, from charging tourists to view a landscape to marrying a woman. Ippolit helps out in ways always inept and sometimes degrading.

Aside from nicely rendered comic set pieces, the novel has excellent references to both high and low culture from all over the world. For instance, Ostap makes a reference to O’Henry’s stories about Jeff Peters and Andy Tucker and Ippolit tries to disguise himself with “Titanic” hair dye which, of course, ends disastrously. Hilariously, a Soviet debutante (Ellochka) has a rivalry, in her own mind, with “the daughter of the American billionaire, Vanderbilt” after seeing the latter’s picture in a magazine.

A dog skin made to look like muskrat was bought with a loan and added the finishing touch to the evening dress….

The dog-trimmed dress was the first well-aimed blow at Miss Vanderbilt. The snooty American girl was then dealt three more in succession. Ellochka bought a chinchilla tippet (Russian rabbit caught in Tula Province) from Fimka Sobak, a private furrier, acquired a hat made of dove-grey Argentine felt, and converted her husband’s new jacket into a stylish tunic. The billionaire’s daughter was shaken, but the affectionate Daddy Vanderbilt had evidently come to the rescue.

The latest number of the magazine contained a portrait of the cursed rival in four different styles…

Ilf and Petrov get laughs not only from Ellochka’s rivalry with Miss Vanderbilt, but, after pointing out William Shakespeare’s “estimated” vocabulary of twelve thousand words, also from her ability to “manage[] easily and fluently on thirty.”

Another comic set piece brings to mind Monty Python’s dead parrot skit and yet another, involving an argument over whether Tolstoy ate sausages while writing War and Peace seems a precursor to Seinfeld’s Tolstoy reference (“War, what is it good for.”). The novel is a belly shaker.

I will only quote one more passage, this one on official Soviet humor:

Iznurenkov manged to be funny about fields of activity in which you would not have thought it was possible to say anything funny. From the arid desert of excessive increases in the cost of production Iznurenkov managed to extract a hundred or so masterpieces of wit. Heine would have given up in despair had he been asked to say something funny and at the same time socially useful about the unfair tariff rates on slow-delivery freight consignments; Mark Twain would have fled from the subject, but Iznurenkov remained at his post.

Fortunately, the comedic duo of Ilf and Petrov remained at their post for one more novel which, Misha assures me, is better than this one. I strongly urge you to snag a copy of this quick and enjoyable read if any of the above has made you smile.

If you need a literary reason, the Complete Review gives it an A-.

If you like movie tie-ins, Mel Brooks made a film version.

If you want to make the earth a better place for our children, the 1960s introduction will assure you that, by reading this book, you are doing your part to mend “strains in Russo-American relations”.

Promote world peace, read The Twelve Chairs.