Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ostap Bender: The (NEP-Era) Rich Cry, Too

Ilya Ilf and Evgenii Petrov’s Двенадцать стульев (The Twelve Chairs) and Золотой телёнок (The Golden Calf or The Little Golden Calf) don’t provide much practical advice on finding diamonds in antique furniture or conning a crooked Soviet millionaire. But anyone who reads them will certainly come away rich with insights into Russian humor and catchphrases.

I read the two books back-to-back – 600-plus pages of satire published in 1928 (Chairs) and 1931 (Calf) – and admit I was itching to get back to contemporary fiction when I finished. But I also confess that I miss Ostap Bender, the rather charming conman who links the two books. In The Twelve Chairs, Bender collaborates with one Ippolit Matveevich (“Kisa,” roughly “Kitty”) Vorobyaninov, to chase down a set of upholstered dining room chairs. One chair is stuffed with family jewels. In The Golden Calf, Bender and three accomplices head out to find a millionaire who hides his wealth using the combination of a suitcase, train station baggage check, and a low-paying job.

The Ilf and Petrov marathon highlighted the similarities and differences between the two books. Both are funny and both contain numerous tangents, many of which don’t relate much to the plotting but reveal aspects of culture. My favorite, in The Twelve Chairs, addresses the Russian phenomenon of not opening many doors, even at crowded places like the circus. I laughed out loud: How many times was I part of a crowd of people trying to squeeze through one open door, while several others remained locked?! The authors also list some door signs, including “Своим посещением ты мешаешь занятому человеку” – I like this one best literally: “With your visit you bother a busy person.” Words to remember.

Though the humor is similar in the two books, The Golden Calf is far more biting and politically risky. On the lighter side, there are American tourists searching for самогон (home brew) recipes during prohibition. There is also ample commentary on the Soviet regime, including one minor character who refuses to work toward socialism, preferring to hole up in a сумашедший дом (“crazy house,” psychiatric hospital) because he has personal freedom there. Ostap Bender himself yearns for Rio de Janeiro.

I’m hypersensitive to narrative devices, so the biggest difference between the books felt formal: The Twelve Chairs, with its ongoing hunt for furniture dispersed all over the landscape, strings together adventures and escapades about looking for one or two chairs at a time. Everything does fit together in Chairs but The Golden Calf’s story line feels more linear and cohesive, with Bender and his small band following one person’s trail. Plus it includes the Department of Horn and Hoof, one of my favorite fictional business ventures.

I enjoyed The Golden Calf’s other Biblical and political references, plus the portrayal of the difficulties of possessing wealth during the NEP era. The satire struck me as more historically rooted and more enduringly relevant than what I found in The Twelve Chairs. Yes, I liked both books and laughed at little things in Chairs, like the conversation with the naked engineer or the absurdity of Bender calling Vorobyaninov “Kisa.” But I laughed hardest at comments on more serious subjects. One of my favorite passages in the books is at the beginning of Chapter XVIII of Golden Calf, when Bender discusses his feelings about religion. He starts by saying “Я сам склонен к обману и шантажу…” (“I myself am inclined toward deception and blackmail…”) Like I said, I kind of miss the guy.

Translation Note: Readers looking for The Golden Calf in English translation will have two new choices later this year. I’ve already mentioned Open Letter’s upcoming release, translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson. Galleys are still available for online previews here. I learned on Saturday, at a reading of Life Stories, that Russian Life Books is preparing a translation by Anne O. Fisher, who also translated texts for Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip (samples on Google books here). Open Letter calls their translation The Golden Calf; RIS calls theirs The Little Golden Calf.

Photo: AllenHansen, via Wikipedia

Ilf and Petrov on Amazon


  1. a very good essay, well done.

    Is the biblical reference of the golden calf clear to English readers?

    and are you aware of the several film versions of the two novels?

  2. Thanks very much for the comment, Alexander.

    I think the golden calf reference should probably be clear to most English-language readers, though I'm not sure... I wasn't a very attentive Sunday school student, so I usually figure that if I catch the references, most other readers will, too.

    I'm glad you mentioned the films -- I meant to and forgot! The only one I've seen is the 1971 Gaidai Twelve Chairs, though that was so many years ago that I don't remember anything! The most recent adaptation, I guess, is probably the Golden Calf miniseries starring Menshikov.

  3. ... and in between, 1976 TV series starring Andrei Mironov as Ostap. It was more of a musical.

    You point out two versions of the title of the Golden Calf. I'm not sure if the pun in the Russian title is clear to English readers. Золотой телец is the symbol of materialism, money-grabbing (телец is taurus, as in zodiac), turning it into a телёнок - calf) ridicules the petty machinators of the NEP period.

  4. Yes, this is an interesting situation with the two translated titles for the same book and the reasons behind them. Ah, translation!

    The two translations seem to take differing approaches to the complexities of translating Ilf and Petrov. Russian Life tells me their version "Includes several hundred copiously researched and detailed endnotes, providing unparalleled insight into this important cultural and historic touchstone." Meanwhile, the "From the Translators" note in the Open Book translation says (and I'll paraphrase here) their version simplifies or partially deciphers Soviet realia and personalities. They also provide around 20 end notes. Their comments mention that names were difficult to translate because of puns, so they simply transliterated most... I took a quick look and noticed right away that they left Balaganov.

  5. I was running just now and remembered another screen version of The Golgen Calf, 1968, b/w with a star set lead by Yurski (Ostap), Kuravlev (Balaganov) and Evstigneyev (Koreiko). It is a rather lyrical take on the novel.

    I think end-notes are unavoidable.

  6. I used to like the two novels for being genuinely funny; later I started -- partly from sheer mischief -- to pick up arguments with the admirers of I. & P., trying to prove that the books are actually tragic: they invite the reader to participate in young and talented opportunists' ridiculing all those who couldn't -- or didn't want to -- join the new elite. There is indeed something Nietzschean in how they despise and caricature anybody who didn't participate in the Soviet project, just because the project seemed, or was made to look, so strong and successful. Now, of course, the two novels are a gold mine for the historian of the period.

  7. Maxim, I'm glad you mentioned the tragedy that you found in Ilf and Petrov's books. I almost always seem to have a feeling of "было бы смешно, если не так грустно" (it would be funny if it weren't so sad) when I read satire, including I&P. Though I might find a lot of humor in satire, there's almost always some sort of failing or tragedy, minor or major, lurking behind the laugh. That dichotomy often makes me feel uneasy when I read satire. I'm sure part of the unease is that we all have flaws, so there's always something to identify with, whether consciously or subconsciously.

    Alexander, thanks for mentioning the other film. As for endnotes, yes, the publishers, despite their differing approaches, apparently agree with you! I like many of my Soviet editions of books, with their notes on history and language.

  8. Yes, a big part of it is that the laughs, most of the time, are at someone's expense. But I.&P.'s laugh is even more than that -- reading the novels we, among other things that the authors want us to see, can also see something they have left out: two young, very talented provincial journalists trying to make names for themselves by ridiculing the downtrodden in a system that was getting progressively more cruel and unforgiving; the new commented edition leaves no doubt their satire was fine-tuned to Party politics of the day (e.g. Stalin-Trotsky polemics).

  9. Maxim, are you referring to the Russian Life translation of The Little Golden Calf? I haven't read it or a Russian edition with comments or notes... but the obvious increase in the scope of political humor between The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf certainly made it feel like there was was something going on!

  10. I meant the commented edition of 1990s, e.g. this one, the text is accessible online.

  11. Thank you for adding the link, Maxim... I took quick looks at a few sections, and this looks very interesting. My edition has nice pen-and-ink drawings but not one word of commentary!

  12. Lisa:

    Pen and ink drawings? Is that the small-sized version with the whimsical and often dark illustrations by Tishkov (Kniga publishers)? If so, that's quite a collector's edition now...


  13. editor, no, my book is a 1988 edition from Северо-Западное книжное издательство (Архангельск) with a print run of 255,000! It's probably only a collector's item for me: a friend brought me to meet the artist (Евгений Зимирев) at his studio. He also illustrated an edition of Bulgakov that includes Master and Margarita.