The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov (Trans. by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson)

February 12, 2013

The Golden Calf is the sequel to Ilf’s and Petrov’s hilariously brilliant first novel, The Twelve Chairs. Ostap Bender, one of the greatest con artists to appear in print, is back from the first novel only slightly worse for the wear. He is as outrageously non-comformist as before and, somehow, Ilf and Petrov find even more ways to skewer not only Soviet society, but civilization and humankind generally. It can only be due to their wild success that Ilf and Petrov managed to stay alive and published at a time and in a place where doing so was not so easy. If their writing was too entertaining for Stalin to kill them, well, need I say more?

In Ostap’s first literary vehicle, the MacGuffin was a set of jewels sewn into one of those eponymous chairs. Here, Ostap sets his sights on the wealth of a secret millionaire: Alexander Koreiko. Being a millionaire in the Soviet Union of the 1930s is a risky business made all the more so when con artist extraordinaire Ostap Bender has caught wind of your stash and wishes to use it to live a life of luxury in South America. The lure of the easy life will take Ostap and his reluctant and ragtag gang on amusing adventures across the Soviet Union. But before that, we must be reintroduced to Ostap and his genius. First, though, a little about pedestrians and automobiles.

[J]ust when everything was ready, when our native planet had become relatively comfortable, the motorists appeared.

It should be noted that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But, somehow, motorists quickly forgot about this. They started running over the mild-mannered and intelligent pedestrians. The streets – laid out by pedestrians – were taken over by the motorists….

In a big city, pedestrians live like martyrs. They’ve been forced into a kind of traffic ghetto. They are only allowed to cross the streets at the intersections, that is, exactly where the traffic is heaviest – where the thread by which a pedestrian’s life hangs is most easily snapped.

Cars, specifically one christened “The Antelope”, play a central role in The Golden Calfthis riotous romp. But our good friend Ostap is still a mere pedestrian when he walks into this novel and onto the streets of a small Russian town. He saunters into city hall to meet with the city council chairman. His purpose is to extract money and, perhaps, a few privileges from a predictably naive small town bureaucrat. He does this by impersonating Nikolay Schmidt, the son of the famous hero Lieutenant Schmidt, first name of whom neither he nor the chairman can remember. The setup is reminiscent of Gogol’s 1936 play The Government Inspector which was, apparently, inspired by an anecdote told to Gogol by Alexsandr Pushkin who was himself, three years prior to the publication of the play, mistaken by locals as a government inspector. Ilf’s and Petrov’s treatment comes with an original twist which sets in motion the alliance that powers the rest of the story.

To wit, Ostap’s plan is going mildly well, having produced so far “only eight rubles and three meal vouchers to the Former Friend of the Stomach cooperative dinner”, when a similarly enterprising stranger walks in claiming also to be the son of Lieutenant Schmidt.

This is a very delicate situation for the two con artists. At any moment, the long and nasty sword of retribution could glisten in the hands of the unassuming and gullible chairman of the city council. Fate allowed themselves just one short second to devise a strategy to save themselves. Terror flashed in the eyes of Lieutenant Schmidt’s second son.

His imposing figure – clad in a Paraguayan summer shirt, sailor’s bell bottoms, and light-blue canvas shoes – which was sharp and angular just a moment earlier, started to come apart, lost its formidable edges, and no longer commanded any respect at all. An unpleasant smile appeared on the chairman’s face.

Ostap, ever calm in the most tense of situations, saves them both by pretending they are brothers, two sons of Lieutenant Schmidt reunited by chance in the chairman’s office.

The happy encounter was marked by chaotic expressions of endearment and incredibly powerful hugs – hugs so powerful that the face of the second son of the Black Sea revolutionary was pale from pain. Out of sheer joy, his brother Nick had thrashed him badly.

After the two sons of Lieutenant Schmidt make it out of the city council chairman’s office, they see a third man heading inside. The second, thrashed son, whose real name is Shura Balaganov, recognizes the man as his friend, Panikovsky. Panikovsky’s trade is also to go about impersonating Lieutenant Schmidt’s son. Ostap is going to stop him from a sure beating, or worse, but Balaganov stops him, explaining:

”[N]ext time, he’ll know better than to break the pact.”

Ostap Bender, with his superior con man skills, will of course discover the secrets of the pact, an agreement among the many impersonators of Lieutenant Schmidt’s offspring and the offspring of various other heros. And Ostap will turn this knowledge of the pact, as he seems to turn everything, to his pecuniary benefit. He wants it known, however, that the Lieutenant Schmidt scheme was not a career for him, as it apparently is for Balaganov and similarly pitiable members of the pact. Rather, for Ostap, the swindle is merely a morning’s amusement:

”What happened this morning was not even a phase, it was nothing, a pure accident, an artist’s whim. A gentleman in search of pocket money. It’s not in my nature to fish for such a miserable rate of return. And what kind of trade is that, for God’s sake! Son of Lieutenant Schmidt! Well, maybe another year, maybe two, and they’ll simply start beating you up.”

“So what am I supposed to do?” asked Balganov, alarmed. “How am I supposed to win my daily bread?”

“You have to think,” said Ostap sternly. “I, for one, live off ideas. I don’t beg for a lousy ruble from the city hall. My horizons are broader. I see that you love money selflessly. Tell me, what amount appeals to you?”

“Five thousand,” answered Balaganov quickly.

“Per month?”

“Per year.”

“In that case, I have nothing to talk about. I need five hundred thousand. A lump sum preferably, not in installments.”

The five hundred thousand is to get away from Russia, to the good life in Rio de Janeiro. Rio, as Ostap understands it, is populated by “[a] million and a half people, all of them wearing white pants, without exception.” He wants to make it there because, as he says, he has “developed very serious differences with the Soviet regime.”

”The regime wants to build socialism, and I don’t. I find it boring.”

Ilf and Petrov manage to make the Soviet regime anything but boring. They tread what must have been a thin line, but do so with bravura:

”I used to pay a cop standing on the corner of Kreshchatik and Proreznaya five rubles a month, and nobody bothered me. The cop even made sure I was safe. he was a good man! His name was Semen Vasilyevich Nebaba. I ran into him recently – he’s a music critic nowadays. And now? Can you really mess with the police these days? I’ve never seen nastier guys. They’re so principled, such idealists.”

Presumably, one can only get away with such sarcasm in a country where it was, more or less, legally required that you say such things about law officers, “principled…idealists”, in earnest. Ilf and Petrov take full advantage of facts, like the absence of crooked cops in the Soviet system, to both appease and skewer.

Because I can’t resist:

[Ostap to a young man suffering from nightly “strictly Soviet” dreams:] “The principal cause of your dreams is the very existence of the Soviet regime. But I can’t remove it right now. I’m in a hurry. I’m on a sports tour, you see, and my car needs a few small repairs. Would you mind if I put it in your shed?…”

“So you think there’s hope for me?” [the young man] asked, mincing behind his early morning guest.

“Don’t give it another thought,” replied the captain dismissively. “The moment the Soviet regime is gone, you’ll feel better at once. You’ll see!”

But America, where “people…drink straight from the bottle”, comes in for some ribbing too. For instance, Ostap sells two naïve, Prohibition-era tourists from Chicago a recipe for moonshine.

Ilf and Petrov are comic geniuses. If you want something “serious”, and yet incredibly fun, this is the novel for you. The humor is subtle enough to tickle your frontal cortex, but outrageous enough that you ought not drink milk while reading it. And, of course, there is a Nabokov link. In addition to the blurb Nabokov provided (“…wonderfully gifted writers…first-rate fiction…”), Ostap mentions an “exiled king outfit” which put me immediately in mind of Pale Fire.

I cannot rave about Ostap Bender and his novelistic vehicles enough. Just say “antelope” and I am liable to chuckle.


The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

January 11, 2010

Nothing odd will do long.” – Samuel Johnson on Tristram Shandy

This is an unfortunate quote from the author of the much less oft read The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia which came out the same year as the first volume of this novel. Still, Samuel Johnson is far more well known generally, than Laurence Stern, so perhaps he had his revenge in the end.

Tristram Shandy is odd. It must have seemed particularly odd when the first installment came out in 1759. The novel uses stream-of-consciousness and is very self-referential. It is an early example of a poioumenon. If you are neither as learned nor as curious as I am, here is the definition: “a novel that has a narrative that superficially is about the writing of a book.” If I must explain further, the narrator, Tristram Shandy, promises throughout to tell his story, but ends up telling far more about the events giving rise to his book, his literary theories, and many other topics even farther afield from his promised plot. The digressions are playful and comic. My recommendation is to read the book in small chunks. The book was originally published in nine volumes over the course of ten years, maybe eleven or maybe nine. The details are not important. My point is that too much of a good thing at one sitting is too much. While I do not necessarily recommend extending your reading over a decade, a few months to a year will likely keep the humor from wearing too thin.

I am not steeped in literature from this period and before, but Tristram Shandy seems to me quite modernist (almost post-modernist) for such a bygone era. In fact, the novel had a significant influence on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. It is one of the landmarks of literature and, for that reason alone, is a novel with which it is worth becoming acquainted. But do not think of it as duty, or only a duty. The book is exceedingly fun.

Laurence Sterne, according to his own dedication, was “persauded that every time a man smiles, – but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of Life.” To that end, Sterne does his best to expand your fragment to a full portion. He succeeds often enough to make himself proud.

”That it is an abominable thing for a man to commend himself,” – and I really think it is so.

And yet, on the other hand, when a thing is executed in a masterly kind of a fashion, which thing is not likely to be found out; – I think it is full as abominable, that a man should lose the honour of it, and go out of the world with the conceit of it rotting in his head.

This is precisely my situation

As the narrator is too modest, I will tell you. The novel is a comic masterpiece.

The book is filled with digressions. In fact, the entire book is a digression. This is not a bad thing. As Tristram explains:

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading! – take them out of this book, for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them; – one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it.

Tristram’s entertaining digressions touch on all manner of things, from love stories to adventures, from philosophy to politics, from war games to religion. On this last point, Tristram is startlingly irreverent for the time. Of course, he apologizes, in his way, for his more heathen outbursts.

I told the Christian reader – I say Christian – hoping he is one – and if he is not, I am sorry for it – and only beg he will consider the matter with himself, and not lay the blame entirely upon this book.

But really, the book is little threat to your religion, if you have one, so do not worry. It is, though, a threat to your decorum on the train as you will have difficulty stifling your laughter. The book is riotously funny. I will refrain from sharing the excellent quotes on marriage, military matters, courtship, philosophy, and hobby horses on the understanding between us that you will read this book and, so, discover the best bits yourself.

When you crack this one, you will have “the happiness of reading [one of] the oddest books in the universe.”