"There were so many hairdressing establishments and funeral homes in the regional centre of N. that the inhabitants seemed to be born merely in order to have a shave, get their hair cut, freshen up their heads with toilet water and then die. In actual fact, people came into the world, shaved, and died rather rarely in the regional centre of N... The spring evenings were delightful, the mud glistened like coal in the light of the moon, and all the young men of the town were so much in love with the secretary of the communal-service workers' committee that she found difficulty in collecting their subscriptions." This is the opening paragraph of The Twelve Chairs, my favourite book of all time. I re-read it several times a year – now mostly in English translations. Re-reading my favourite Russian books in my second mother tongue has become an addiction: it adds some coveted balance and symmetry to my otherwise rather chaotic life. I find it both reassuring and calming – like looking at the quiet sea.
The Twelve Chairs and its sequel The Little Golden Calf were both penned by the brilliant Odessa-born tandem of Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Hilarious, vitriolic and deeply anti-Soviet, the novels became cult reading for the embattled Soviet intelligentsia. They were like a breath of fresh air in the stuffy communal flat of Soviet reality, replete with stale smells of cabbage soup and rotten political dogma.
By the age of 16, I had read the novels dozens of times and knew them almost by heart. In 1966, when I was 12, we were asked at school to write an essay on our literary hero. Instead of extolling the virtues of Pavel Korchagin, the clichéd proletarian protagonist of Nikolai Ostrovsky's politically correct drivel, How Steel was Tamed, I chose to write about Ostap Bender, the "great schemer" from The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf. In The Twelve Chairs, Bender travels about the Soviet Union trying to find which one of a dozen dining-room chairs contains the jewels hidden in its upholstery by a provincial aristocratic family during the Revolution.
As a result of my timid literary deviation, my grandfather, an old Bolshevik and a revolutionary in his youth who had become profoundly disillusioned with communism, was summoned to the school headmistress, a blue-stocking and virago, and reprimanded for his grandson's "dangerous literary tastes". He came back home very upset. But instead of telling me off, he said: "I am ashamed. Not for you but for your teachers. They want you all to like the same books. They want you to have the same tastes and thoughts. If this is what we fought for in the revolution, then I am ashamed for myself, too." I will remember this first lesson of literary integrity, taught by my granddad and by Ilf and Petrov, for as long as I live.
Vitali Vitaliev's 'Life as a Literary Device' is published by Beautiful Books