Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ilya Ilf and the Twelve Chairs

"In Soviet Russia the insane asylum is the only place a normal person can live. Everywhere else is worse than bedlam. Nope, I can't live with those Bolsheviks. I'd rather live here, with the regular crazies. At least they aren't building socialism. And they feed you here, too." (The Little Golden Calf, transl. Fisher, p. 217)
Ilya Ilf (Ilya Arnoldovich Fainzilberg), co-author of the comic novel Twelve Chairs and its sequel, The Little Golden Calf, was born in the assimilated Jewish community of Odessa in 1897. A century ago, he was 15 years old, a student in an Odessa technical school from which he graduated in 1913. Needless to say, the Revolution had a major role in his formation as a satiric novelist of the deficiencies and ironies of life under the emerging new Soviet system.

His writing career began in Moscow. He teamed up with Evgeny Petrov, also an Odessan, though not Jewish. Both Ilf-Petrov novels are highly amusing send-ups of the emerging political paradoxes in the new Soviet Union – they also reverberate when you think about news from 1990s of how these disfunctional habits or forced actions were dissolved after the fall of Communism.

A passage from The Little Golden Calf illustrates the authors' attitude by explaining why one of the two con men in the novel became a con man. "The Revolution of 1917 drove Koreyko off the velvet couch." He began by noticing that good stuff was up for grabs -- "gold, valuables, magnificent furniture, paintings and carpets, fur coats... ."

He stole. However, he was soon arrested. After serving his time he realised that his goal "would requre secrecy, slow and steady action, and the cover of darkness." He began impersonating an employee of the Requisistions Department, and later teamed up with Ostap Bender, who had also been the center of the earlier Ilf-Petrov novel The Twelve Chairs.

The authors describe the age in which these con men operated:
"In those restless times, nothing made by human hands worked as well as it had before: buildings didn't protect you from the cold, food didn't make you full, electricity was only turned on for massive round-ups of deserters and looters, plumbing only provided running water to the first floor, and trams didn't run at all. At the same time, the elements turned meaner and more dangerous: the winters were colder than before, the wind was stronger, and the chill that used to make a person take to his bed for three days now took those same three days to kil him stone dead. Young men who had no steady employment stolled the streets in groups..." (p. 83)
The central character of both books, Ostap Bender, is considered to be a prototype of an Odessa con man; in both books and in the film The Twelve Chairs he's a delightful character. In the version of The Twelve Chairs directed by Mel Brooks in 1970 Frank Langella is Bender and Dom DeLuise is the opportunistic priest. Some images from the film:

A struggle over the first chair --
which didn't contain the family jewels.

Finally, in the presence of the last chair,
Bender and the rightful claimant of the jewels are first at the buffet.

The final chair.

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