Ilya Il'f and Evgenii Petrov, The Twelve Chairs

Information on the Writers | Questions for Reading | If you liked this book...

small photo of Ilf and Petrov together

Ilf and Petrov may be the most loved humorists in the history of Russian literature. Their best known work is the novel Двенадцать стульев (The Twelve Chairs, 1928). Perhaps the title reminds you of a Mel Brooks film (The Twelve Chairs, 1970), which is indeed based on this novel:it tells you something about the nature of Ilf and Petrov's humor that the plot tempted Mr. Brooks. The joke repeated over and over while everyone enjoys groaning is a particular favorite device - though Ilf and Petrov themselves are less vulgar. (This is typical of Soviet literature as a whole, for good or ill). Both Ilf and Petrov did some solo work, but they were much better working together. So much so that the Handbook of Russian Literature (ed. Victor Terras, Yale UP, 1985) has an entry for "Ilf and Petrov," but nothing for either of them alone.

Nevertheless, let us pause for a moment to consider their biographies separately.

Ilf at work writing Ilya Ilf (Илья Ильф) Ilf looking out the window

Ilya (=Elijah) Ilf was the pseudonum of Ilya Arnol'dovich Fainzilberg, born in Odessa in 1897. His father was a bank clerk, and he himself finished technical school in 1913, then worked at an architect's office, an airplane plant, and a hand-grenade factory (! - those were the days!), while writing humorous sketches for a local magazine. He moved to Moscow in 1923 and began working in a library, writing for various newspapers and humor magazines (a big market in early Soviet literature, where so many new readers kept coming onto the market).

Young Petrov Evgenii Petrov (Евгений Петров) Cute Petrov in a cap

Evgenii (=Eugene) Petrov was the pseudonym of Evgenii Petrovich Kataev, born in Odessa in 1903. His father was a history teacher, and his older brother Valentin Kataev (1897-1986) became a prominent Soviet novelist and playwright. (Apparently he suggested the plot for The Twelve Chairs to I. and P., much as Pushkin "gave" Gogol' the plot for Dead Souls.) The older brother's success meant that a pseudonym was much to be desired. Unlike Ilf, Petrov graduated from a high school with a classical curriculum (a "gimnaziia"), in 1920, and began to work as a journalist in publications such as Ukrainian Telegraphy. He originally had no ambition to become a writer, but Valentin encouraged him to start writing short stories, and he published a small collection in 1924. (He married in 1929; so no, apparently he and Ilf just wrote together.)

And then, together at last...

Although both were from Odessa, Ilf and Petrov didn't meet until 1925 in Moscow, where both worked for a satirical newspaper for railway workers, Гудок ("Gudok," 'The Whistle,' in the sense of train whistle; Mikhail Bulgakov got his start there as well), but neither had met with any public success. Once they became acquainted, Ilf and Petrov began to write humorous pieces for Pravda and other publications. They wrote two novels, many short stories and humorous sketches, and at least one play, collaborating until Ilf died of tuberculosis in 1937. After Ilf's death, Petrov wrote nothing remarkable; he died in a plane crash in 1942, while working as a correspondent during the Second World War.

As a creative team, Ilf and Petrov brought together knowledge of elite culture and lower-class speech and expectations, the clashes between different social groups that shaped so much of the discourse of the 1920s in the Soviet Union and often bloomed into the rhetorical violence of the 1930s. Petrov had worked at the Odessa Criminal Investigation Department, and you can see traces of that experience as well. Most of all, they are masters of the Odessa tradition of humor (and of damn good writing: Isaac Babel was from there too, and his often brutal narratives contain a good dose of humor). Their writing is often inflected with the traditional jokes and storytelling of Odessa's large Jewish population. Despite its Greek name, Odessa was a "created" city: from 1819-1858 it was a "free" port, which encouraged all kinds of people to visit and settle, and the Russian state planners invited Jews and others to move to Odessa and do business there. The public architecture was grand (see the scene of the Odessa steps in Eisenstein's film The Battleship Potëmkin, and others), but talk on the streets was free indeed.

What's up in Ilf and Petrov besides the humor? If you look closely, it's safely contained by the plot, while still letting readers fit in their own worldviews: Ostap Bender ends badly in both of the novels where he appears, but readers love him, and his unexpected appearance in The Little Golden Calf (I won't be more explicit so as not to spoil the plot of The Twelve Chairs!) suggests that he is a more successful trickster figure than he might at first appear. In fact, the combination of slyness and stupidity, success at gulling the gullible and then vulnerability to his own misconceptions or a trickier con artist's tricks, is traditional in tales about tricksters. (See for example Lewis Hyde's book Trickster Makes This World.) In short, the many negative characters identified as belonging to undesirable social groups (the former aristocrat, the priest, and so on), plus Bender's own misfortunes and flaws that suggest his alignment with "the old order," provided cover that kept Ilf and Petrov out of big trouble in a highly censored era. You can tell they knew exactly what was going on in the story "Как создавался Робинзон" ('How Robinson Was Created,' 1933), in which a prose assignment that starts off as a version of Robinson Crusoe is turned into predictable hack prose by the demands of the predictable Soviet editor. In spite of the acceptable propaganda traits of The Little Golden Calf, Soviet publishers wouldn't take on the book until Maxim Gorky intervened personally. Ilf and Petrov had planned a third novel, in which Ostap Bender would be sent to do hard labor in the infamous camp on the Solovki Islands - and it's fascinating to wonder how they would have made the GULag funny - but maybe it's just as well they never wrote that one, and that Ilf at least died in bed.

Ilf and Petrov knew that they were good - one early pseudonym they used for their joint creations was "Tolstoyevsky." A four-volume set of their collected works was published in 1938, testifying to their success and recognition.

The Twelve Chairs was a huge success when it came out in 1928, towards the end of the relatively liberal period of the NEP ("New Economic Policy"), and it's still a favorite with anyone who can read Russian - lines such as "You want the key to the apartment where the money is?" are cited in conversation like proverbial expressions. I. and P.'s other works in English translation include:

small sepia photo of Ilf and Petrov

Ilf and Petrov, as model Soviet writers, were allowed to make a trip to Western Europe in 1933-34 (note: by that time it was getting difficult for Soviet citizens to get permission to travel abroad; this issue apparently contributed to Vladimir Mayakovsky's suicide in 1930), and after meeting the prominent Soviet journalist Ilya Ehrenburg there they wrote a script with him for a film comedy (it was never produced). Ehrenburg commented, interestingly, that Ilf's humor was bitter, while Petrov's was more optimistic. In 1936, they visited the United States and drove across the country; One-Story America was written after this jaunt, during which they met both Henry Ford and Ernest Hemingway and saw over a hundred movies. Of course the two preferred their own, Communist country, but they had a warm reaction to many aspects of American life in the 1930s, such as small-town high-school football. On the other hand, Ilf's death in 1937 from tuberculosis was a terrible blow to Petrov, who continued writing but could not duplicate their famous style on his own. In 1940 Petrov joined the Communist Party, and he might have had a career as an editor and/or literary bureaucrat if he had not died in July of 1942.

A quick web search turned up several books on Ilf and Petrov, particular paying attention to their humor, so if you're intrigued there are places to look with information in English, starting with Gleb Struve's Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin (1971).

Questions for Reading:

1. Who is Ostap Bender? The name "Ostap" sounds very Ukrainian; he claims to be (and the narrative repeats several times that he is) the son of a citizen of Turkey. Yet Bender is not a particularly Turkish-sounding name - what does it suggest to you? Ostap has no patronymic, suggesting that 1) he, or his mother, didn't know his father's first name, or even that 2) "Bender" is itself a fabrication. A Russian without a patronymic is most unusual, though of course Bender isn't trying to pass as Russian.

2. Speaking of "speaking names," Ippolit Matveyevich's last name, Vorobyaninov, comes from the word for "sparrow" - which makes his nickname, "Kitty" (in Russian, Киса) especially funny.

3. Why might the reader like Ostap Bender in spite of his amorality and association with non-socialist, non-Soviet values? (We could make a long list of his flaws!)

4. How does the picaresque structure of the novel, as our [anti-]heroes travel around the Soviet Union and meet all kinds of people, allow a broader satirical portrait of society? If you know Gogol's novel Dead Souls (1841-6), compare Bender to Chichikov.

5. What does the depiction of Vorobyaninov suggest about the Russian aristocracy?

6. Ostap Bender is called a "smooth operator" in our translation by John H. C. Richardson. The original Russian is "великий комбинатор" - literally, "a great combiner" - or maybe "great manipulator," which has slightly different connotations. Charles Malamuth's translation of The Little Golden Calf renders it as "the great schemer.") How does Ostap Bender imagine himself, and how does that self-image contrast with the new Soviet values of behavior and ambition?

7. And what does this novel present as the new Soviet values of behavior and ambition? Do you find them persuasive? (Are we laughing at Ostap Bender and Vorobyaninov because we're different, or because we see ourselves in them?)

8. How does this novel stack up in terms of Socialist Realism, which became the dominant school in the USSR after 1934 (that is, after The Little Golden Calf but before One-Story America)?

9. What does the range of professions and businesses we see mentioned tell you about the freedom of private enterprise possible in the late 1920s?

10. And what can you conclude by looking at which of the characters are positive, which negative or ambiguous?

11. In what plot elements might we see the authors' attempts to "Sovietize" their work, to avoid trouble with the censors and the critics - who were already common in 1928 despite the relative liberalism of the period's cultural politics?

12. The Twelve Chairs (1928) was first translated into English (as Diamonds to Sit on: A Russian Comedy of Errors by Elizabeth Hill and Doris Mundie) in 1930; The Little Golden Calf (1931) was translated (by Charles Malamuth) in 1932, and One-Story America (1936) was translated (by Charles Malamuth) in 1937. (Just for comparison, Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov was first published as a complete book in 1880, while the first translation into English came out in 1912.) What does that set of strikingly fast translations suggest about Soviet-American literary relations in the 1930s - or else about how well humor makes the shift between cultures?

13. There have been multiple film versions of this novel in Russian, as well as Mel Brooks's version. If you can get hold of any of these, how do they compare to the book?

14. Like War with the Newts, this book depends in part on clashing stylistic levels of language for its humor. Trust me, it's extremely funny, though a lot of this is unfortunately lost in the translation! (And why on earth did Northwestern UP, who should know better given their very strong publication list in translation, include an introduction from 1960, two years before Thompson Bradley came to Swarthmore to teach? Not that it's a bad introdudction, just very dated.) The style here is too stodgy, without enough low-style comedic relief and the resulting funny clash of styles.

15. What might it suggest that both our authors wrote under pseudonyms?

16. Where does the humor rely on ethnic stereotypes?

17. I hope you can perceive (despite the stuffy translation) the pure antic humor of a set of characters like the sound-effects men, Galkin, Palkin, Malkin, Chalkin and Zalkind - where part of the fun is the inexact rhyme of Zalkind (a Jewish name) after all the exactly-rhyming Russian last names.

18. Does it surprise you that an ethnic Russian writer and a Russian Jewish writer could work together so productively for so many years, and agree so well on what was funny? What do you know about Russian and then Soviet society that might make it surprising? (Odessa's very mixed society was an exception to a lot of Russo-Soviet truisms, though there were pogroms there in the early 20th century - see Isaac Babel's "Story of My Dovecote" for one heart-breaking depiction.)

If you liked The Twelve Chairs, you might also enjoy works by two other twentieth-century Russian writers, Nadezhda Teffi and Mikhail Zoshchenko.

Tèffi was the pseudonym of Nadezhda Aleksandrovna Lokhvitskaia (1872-1951), one of a set of very talented sisters. Her older sister Mariia (Mirra) Lokhvitskaia (1869-1905) was one of the most famous and successful fin-de-siecle Russian poets, winning not one but TWO Pushkin Prizes for her poetry. Apparently the Lokhvitskaia sisters reached an understanding that they would not impinge on one another's fame; Nadezhda Lokhvitskaia therefore chose a pseudonym for signing her work, "Tèffi," which seems to be taken from the English "taffy" (she claimed it was the name of a sailor, though it sounds more like a clown to me). Her stories were so widely beloved that after the 1905 revolution, when press freedoms broadened considerably in the Russian Empire, she could publish in almost any periodical, from radical to conservative. After the 1917 Revolution, she left Russia and spent the rest of her life in France. There her writing began to include the wistful and absurd experiences of the Russian émigré community, remaining very funny but moving ever more into the beloved, somewhat Chekhovian zone that Russians call "laughter through tears." Her continuing popularity as a writer meant she had no trouble publishing her work even in the worst years of the depression. She is buried in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery in France. Her work has not been translated into English as much as you might expect (after all, what's more fun than a funny story!?), but these editions are out there:

Mikhail Mikhailovich Zoshchenko (1895-1958) began his writing career as an ally of the famous Serapion Brothers in Petrograd. Part of his self-education as a humorist was a close study of Teffi's writing. He became extremely popular in the 1920s, using a style of narration known as "skaz," a deadpan, folksy style that recollects oral narration by an uneducated or poorly educated speaker. An American equivalent to Zoshchenko's style would be a tale full of "So I says... so he says..." and a narrator sitting in front of the local 7-11 chewing on a toothpick. (The term "skaz" was used by the Russian Formalists.) Eventually Zoshchenko's very funniness and popularity made him a threat to the Soviet establishment, and he was publicly banned (along with the poet Anna Akhmatova) by Stalin's literary stooge, Andrei Zhdanov, for being an "un-Soviet writer." This understandably gave him an almost complete writer's block for many years. Zoshchenko's journal entries, published in 1965 and translated as No Day Without a Line, suggest that (like many funny people) Zoshchenko was manic-depressive. Or perhaps it was just the experience of being a Soviet writer, or an un-Soviet writer, pace Zhdanov. Stalin died in 1953, so at least Zoshchenko had the pleasure of outliving him.

Works by Zoshchenko available in English translation include: