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.


A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

October 4, 2011

A Hero of Our Time is an adventure story set among the Caucasus Mountains and a character study of a Byronic hero, Pechorin. The author claims in his preface that he has created “a composite portrait, made up of all the vices which flourish, fullgrown, amongst the present generation.” The literary conceit of the novel is that it is composed from the journals of the military officer Pechorin. Another character, Max Maximych, came into possession of Pechorin’s journals and passed them on, eventually, to the unnamed writer who is responsible for delivering them to us, with some additional commentary. There is a bit of the Matryoshka doll in the structure.

I read the original translation of Lermontov’s classic and, so, missed out on Vladimir Nabokov’s foreward. Rebecca Stanton has put forward an interesting argument that Nabokov, like Lermontov and several of his characters, tries to dictate the readers’ response to the novel. Also check out His Futile Preoccupations for a nice series of posts discussing various aspects of this seminal work of 19th Century Russian literature.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel involves the parallels between the author and his characters. As many other authors, Lermontov drew on events and specific experiences in his own life to create the people (military men serving in the Caucasus) who inhabit his novel. Lermontov was, after all, a Russian military officer who served in the Caucasus. Lermontov even writes: “Others have observed, with much acumen, that the author has painted his own portrait and those of his acquaintances.”

One of the events on which Lermontov drew, however, was his death two years after completing the novel. Both Lermontov and his character Grushnitsky were drawn into a duel as a result of a joke they played on a colleague. Both are killed. While I would not ascribe any presentimental value to Lermontov’s art, the coinciding characteristics of his life and fiction provide some validation that the adventures he describes are not wholly fantastic. The novel gives us a view, enhanced by the requirements of fiction, no doubt, of life as a Russian military officer serving in the Caucasus. For that alone, it is worth the read.

The tidbits of Russian folklore and the descriptions of the “typical” Russian outlook are fascinating, both for their exoticism and for their familiarity to present day readers.

I was involuntarily struck by the aptitude which the Russian displays for accommodating himself to the customs of the people in whose midst he happens to be living. I know not whether this mental quality is deserving of censure or commendation, but it proves the incredible pliancy of his mind and the presence of that clear common sense which pardons evil wherever it sees that evil is inevitable or impossible of annihilation.

But there is more to the novel than its ability to satisfy the voyeurism of tourists of history and culture. Lermontov’s purpose is, as he says, to highlight the sort of person who was the “hero” of that time. Of course, the sort of charismatic, ethically ambiguous, and ultimately dissatisfied hero Lermontov portrays populates Bryon’s work as well as our daily news. In other words, the hero for Lermontov’s time is a hero for our time too.

Another enjoyable aspect of the novel is the Shandyish nature of the unnamed narrator (the second largest, behind Lermontov himself, of the Matryoshka dolls stacked in the novel). He writes things like:

Perhaps, however, you would like to know the conclusion of the story of Bela? In the first place, this is not a novel, but a collection of travelling-notes, and, consequently, I cannot make the staff-captain tell the story sooner than he actually proceeded to tell it. Therefore, you must wait a bit, or, if you like, turn over a few pages. Though I do not advise you to do the latter, because the crossing of Mount Krestov (or, as the erudite Gamba calls it, le mont St. Christophe) is worthy of your curiosity.

This sort of thing probably does not amuse everyone, but it tickles me.

Lermontov also peppers his tale with references to literature and authors from all over. Byron is, obviously, a heavy influence and is mentioned several times. There are many others:

The history of a man’s soul, even the pettiest soul, is hardly less interesting and useful than the history of a whole people; especially when the former is the result of the observations of a mature mind upon itself, and has been written without any egotistical desire of arousing sympathy or astonishment. Rousseau’s Confessions has precisely this defect – he read it to his friends.

At this point, I am in danger of transcribing all of my many highlights, yet I have not even given a thorough outline of the structure and the story. The Matryoshka dolls are: Lermontov who tells the story of a traveller-writer who relates the story of Max Maximych who has come into the possession of the journals of Pechorin which are then reproduced within the novel. To get to Pechorin, the reader first passes through the story of how the traveller-writer met Max and the story of how Max met Pechorin and came into possession of his journals. The details are entertaining, but there is little need to summarize.

As for Pechorin, he is a man’s man. He womanizes, fights, drinks, and tells stories. As counterpoint, and to make him a bit more interesting, we have access to his private thoughts via his journals. They reveal introspection and doubt about the significance of any of his pursuits or accomplishments. His conquests of men and women make up the adventure and his musing on the meaning of it all provides depth.

The book is quick, but satisfying. I would say of it what someone long ago said of chess: A gnat can sip of it and an elephant can swim in it. There are layers and folds and story enough for anyone. For those looking for 19th Century Russian literature that is easier, though neither less serious nor less dark, than Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, A Hero of Our Time is an excellent alternative.

Okay, another quote:

Or, is it the result of that ugly, but invincilbe, feeling which causes us to destroy the sweet illusions of our neighbur in order to have the petty satisfaction of saying to him, when, in despair, he asks what he is to believe:

“My friend, the same thing happened to me, and you see, nevertheless, that I dine, sup, and sleep very peacefully, and I shall, I hope, know how to die without tears and lamentations.”


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.