Book Of A Lifetime: The Twelve Chairs, By Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov
Friday 12 February 2010
"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
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Does the path to true love really lie in these 36 questions?
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Presidential optical illusion offers clues to how brain processes faces
- 5 Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' rediscovered after 35 years
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after that Wembley Stadium rant
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Costa Book Awards: H is for Hawk named book of the year
Run DMC's Darryl McDaniels: 'Kendrick Lamar is killing it - but radios are too afraid to play him'
Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' rediscovered after 35 years
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Louise Mensch says 'F**K YOU' in explosive tweets about David Cameron, Saudi Embassy and the Queen over King Abdullah tributes