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THE LION OF STARGOROD

 

An image in art is a subjective reflection of reality. It is affected by the writer's power of imagination. Though every image is inspired by life, the writer reflects reality as he sees it. Moreover , he may create images of scenes which he could have never observed (as in historical novels).

An image is, on the one hand, a generalization and is never a complete identity of a person, thing or phenomenon. There is always something left out by the writer, and something that is emphasized or even exaggerated . On the other hand, an image in art is concrete with its individual peculiarities.

Since images in art reflect the writer's subjective attitude to them, they are always emotive. Literary art appeals to the reader through all the senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. In the reader's mind images call up not only visual pictures and other sense impressions, they also arouse feelings, such as warmth, compassion, affection, delight, or dislike, disgust, resentment.

Our emotional responses are directed by the words with which the author creates his images. This explains why writers are so particular about the choice of words. However, when we read fiction, it is not the words that we actually respond to, it is the images which these words create that arouse the reader's response. This does not mean that wording in literary art is irrelevant . Any change of a word affects the reader's response, as words may evoke sense impressions.

Compare:

He was a stout man.

 

"His features were sunk into fatness...

His neck was buried in rolls of fat. He sat in his chair... his great belly thrust forward..." (S. Maugham. Red)

 

The images created by figures of speech in S.Maugham's description call up a visual picture of a concrete fat man and evoke in the reader definite feelings, including those of antipathy and even aversion . Whereas "He was a stout man" does not arouse negative feelings.

As Joseph Conrad puts it, a writer creates images by means of the commonplace words that we all use, "the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage ... My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you

feel it is before all, to make you see. That and no more, and it is everything.'

It must be noted that the images of a literary work form a system, which comprises a hierarchy of images, beginning with micro-images (formed by a word or a combination of words) and ending with synthetic images (formed by the whole literary work). Between the lowest level (the micro-images) and the highest level (the synthetic images) there are images which may be termed "extended images".

In the story The Pawnbroker's Shop by M.Spark the scene of Mrs.Cloote's examination of the articles brought to her pawnshop affords a vivid illustration of the hierarchy of images. "The examination would be conducted with utter intensity, seeming to have its sensitive point, its assessing faculty, in her long nose ... She would not smell the thing actually, but it would appear to be her nose which calculated and finally judged .... A list of the object's defects would proceed like a ticker tape from the mouth of Mrs. Jan Cloote." The micro-images of the separate peculiarities of Mrs.Cloote constitute an extended image of a feature of her personality. Whereas the synthetic image of Mrs.Jan Cloote is comprised of a whole series of micro-images and extended images which the whole story contains.



In literature attention is by far centered on man, human character and human behaviour. That explains why the character-image (synthetic image) is generally considered to be the main element of a literary work; the images of things and landscape are subordinated to the character-image. Thus, landscape-images are generally introduced to describe the setting, to create a definite mood or atmosphere. Yet even a landscape-image, as well as an animal-image, may become the central character of the story. For instance, Nature is the main antagonist of the major character in The Old Man and the Sea by E.Hemingway or again animal-images are the central characters in The Jungle Book by R.Kipling.

Character-images are both real and unreal. They are real in the sense that they can be visualized, you easily see them act, you hear them talk, you understand and believe them. They are unreal in the sense that they are imaginary. Even if they are drawn from life and embody the most typical features of human nature, even if they are images of historical people, they are not identical with them, and are products of the writer's imagination. In The Summing Up S.Maugham writes, "I have been blamed because I have drawn my characters from living persons ... But people are all elusive, too shadowy, to be copied, and they are also too ... contradictory. The writer doesn't copy his originals; he takes what he wants from them, a few traits that have caught his attention." Nevertheless characters in literature often reveal so much of human nature and seem so real, that the readers tend to forget that they are fictions.

In most stories one character is clearly central and dominates the story from the beginning up to the end. Such a character is generally called the main, central, or major character, or the protagonist. The main character may also be called hero or h e r o i n e, if he or she deserves to be called so.

The antagonist is the personage opposing the protagonist or hero.

The villain is the character with marked negative features.

Sometimes in a literary work the writer will give us two characters with distinctly opposing features, we then say that one character serves as a foil to the other. The foil is so different that the important characteristics of the opposite personage are thereby sharply accentuated. Thus a mean person will act as a foil to a kind and generous man. It is through the use of the foil that the contrast between the characters is seen more clearly. Sherlock Holmes and Dr.Watson are designed as foils for each other. In J.B.Priestley's novel Angel Pavement Mr. and Mrs.Smeeth are also foils, as they are distinctly opposed personalities. Mr.Smeeth's constant apprehension and fear of losing his job is contrasted to Mrs.Smeeth's jolly nature and thoughtlessness, his worries about the insecurity of his family and his desire to save money for a rainy day are emphasized by the contrast with Mrs.Smeeth's extravagance and passion to spend immediately all the money she gets.

When a character expresses the author's viewpoint directly, he is said to be the author's mouthpiece. Dr.Watson is considered to be Conan Doyle's mouthpiece.

If a character is developed round one or several features, he becomes a type or a caricature. A type is characterized by qualities that are typical of a certain social group or class. A caricature is a character so exaggerated that he appears ridiculous and distorted, yet recognizable.

M.Twain's story Mistaken Identity contains masterfully created caricatures. The conductor's and the porter's slavish politeness and eagerness to dance attendance on a man whom they took for a general, are exaggerated to the utmost. Their "bows and a perfect affluence of smiles", the way they approached "oozing politeness from every pore", Tom's smiling face which was "thrust in at the crack of the door" create a grotesque caricature on servility to men of rank and wealth. It is contrasted to vanity, cocksureness and satisfaction at being treated servilely, the features round which the narrator's character is developed,

Characters may be simple (f1at) or complex (well-rounded). Simple characters are constructed round a single trait . Complex characters undergo change and growth, reveal various sides of their personalities. Hamlet is a complex character, as he is brave and hesitant, sensitive and unyielding. Contradictory features within a character make it true-to-life and convincing.

The main character is most relevant in a literary work, since it is through his fate that the message is conveyed. The minor characters are subordinate, they are generally introduced to reveal some aspects of the main character, or his relationship with people.

Complete descriptions of absolutely all the actions, thoughts, feelings of the characters in fiction are impossible and unnecessary. The writer selects only those that have special meaning in relation to the message of the story. Moreover, a full and photographic description is often substituted by a detail. Depending on the value which details have in fiction, one should distinguish between the so-called artistic details and particularities.

The artistic detail is always suggestive . It therefore has a larger meaning than its surface meaning, as it implies a great deal more than is directly expressed by it. An artistic detail acquires expressive force and has both direct and indirect meaning. It is a poetic representation of a whole scene. In this sense an artistic detail may be treated as a metonymic expression of the whole. An artistic detail, just as any micro-image, is stimulating to the imagination.

A few artistic details may suggest a whole life-story. Thus, the "swollen" face, feet and hands with "fingers worked to the bone", which Priestley mentions about Mrs Cross (in Angel Pavement) tell us just as much of her hard life as a whole page of her life-story would. The sharpness of those artistic details stimulates the reader's imagination and creates the image of a woman exhausted by a life full of hardships.

At the same time an artistic detail contributes to individualization and verisimilitude . It creates the sense of reality, the sense of getting to know a concrete real individuality with its specific characteristics. An artistic detail is therefore both implicative and individualizing.

In fiction not all details are artistic details. There often occur details that cannot be treated as poetic representations of the whole (such as the colour of the eyes of a character, the time at which he left his home, etc.) They serve to add something new about a character, or place, or event. Such details are called particularities. They are incidental in the sense that it is difficult (or impossible) to explain the writer's choice of this rather than that colour, or time, etc. Nevertheless, particularities are not absolutely irrelevant. They contribute to verisimilitude, as they help to create a realistic picture of a person or event. Particularities are used for representing reality in a concrete form.

Therefore, an artistic detail is significant beyond its literal meaning and has expressive force, whereas a particularity signifies only what is directly expressed by it and has no implication. However, both artistic details and particularities contribute to verisimilitude and credibility of the story, as they individualize, particularize and specify the characters, objects and events, thus representing actual life in all its diversity. They encourage acceptance on the part of the reader and increase convincingness of what is described.

One of the most essential factors in literature is the convincingness of the characters. Their behaviour, thoughts and feelings will arouse the reader's response if he believes them.

"The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else ... Style counts; plot counts; originality of outlook counts. But none of these counts anything like so much as the convincingness of the characters. If the characters are real, the novel will have a chance; if they are not, oblivion will be its portion ... (A.Bennett) The characters may be described from different aspects: physical, emotional, moral, spiritual, social. The description of the different aspects of a character is known as characterization. There are two main types of characterization: direct and indirect. When the author rates the character himself, it is direct characterization. For example, when J.Priestley says that Golspie "was dogmatic, rough, domineering, and was apt to jeer and sneer", he uses the direct method of characterization. Direct characterization may be made by a character in the story. But when the author shows us the character in action, lets us hear him, watch him and evaluate him for ourselves, the author uses the indirect method of characterization.

The various means of characterization are as follows:

1. Presentation of the character through action.

A character in fiction is not just a static portrait, he acts. Since action, movement, change, development always occur in fiction, action serves as the main means of characterization. People are generally judged by their deeds. Actions are the most effective means of character presentation. They may reveal the character from different aspects.

For example, the actions of Matfield in Angel Pavement show that physically she is strong, healthy, energetic, active, spirited; emotionally she is bitter, dissatisfied, depressed; in spite of her more or less satisfactory education, mentally she is a mediocrity (though she fancies herselt sophisticated and shrewd); morally she is honest, strong-willed-, spiritually Matfield is shallow as she is doped by cheap literature and is given to illusions, all her ideals are affected by the adventure stories she is fond of.

Actions include small gestures. In Chapter I Matfield's resoluteness, decisiveness and dissatisfaction are suggested by her gestures: "... she flung down a library book, ... rummaged in her bag, ... said "Curse! ", then closed the bag with a sharp snap, seized her gloves and marched them over to her coat".

Action includes a thought, a word, a decision, an impulse, and a whole event. For example, Matfield's decision to have a weekend with the brigandish Golspie is an action, her impulse to make a change in her life is also an action. Each of these actions characterizes a definite aspect of her personality.

2. Speech characteristics.

Speech characteristics reveal the social and intellectual standing of the character, his age, education and occupation, his state of mind and feelings, his attitude and relationship with his interlocutors.

When analysing speech characteristics, one should be alert for:

(1) style markers, such as (a) markers of official style ("I presume", "I beg your pardon", etc.); (2) markers of informal conversational style-, contracted forms, colloquialisms, elliptical sentences, tag constructions (as "you know"), initiating signals (as "Well", "Oh"), hesitation pauses, false starts all of which normally occur in spontaneous colloquial speech and often remain unnoticed, but in "fictional conversation" they may acquire a certain function, as they create verisimilitude and may indicate some features of the speaker's character, his state of mind and his attitude to others;

(3) markers of the emotional state of the character: emphatic inversion, the use of emotionally coloured words, the use of breaks-in-the-nar-rative that stand for silence (e.g. "and I asked her if she'd rather I ... didn't get married", "and there 1 stayed in the middle of the road ... staring" the pause lays emphasis on the words that follow the pause), the tailing off into silence which reflects deep emotions or doubt, the use of italics, interjections; hesitation pauses and false starts if they are frequent may be a sign of nervousness, irresoluteness or great excitement;

(4) attitudinal markers-, words denoting attitudes (as "resent"; "despise", "hate", "adore" etc.),intensifiers(as "very", "absolutely"etc.);

(4) markers of the character's educational level: bookish words, rough words, slang, vulgarisms, deviations from the standard;

(5) markers of regional and dialectal speech, which define the spea er as to his origin, nationality and social standing: foreign words, local words, graphons;

(6) markers of the character's occupation-, terms, jargonisms-,

(7) markers of the speaker's idiolect (i.e. his individual speech peculiarities), which serve as a means of individualization and verisimilitude.

If we turn to Mistaken Identity, we can see how skilfully M.Twain used speech peculiarities as a means of characterization. The markers of informal conversational style ("Years ago I arrived one day ...". "asked ... if I could have some poor little corner somewhere", "a couple of armchairs" etc.), the markers of dialectal speech ("dey" for "there", "dat" for "that", "sah" for "sir" etc., which are typical of "Black English"), the numerous markers of the emotional state of the characters and their attitudes to one another contribute to creating verisimilitude. The reader gets the impression of hearing the characters and witnessing the scenes. Besides, the reader gets all the necessary information about the characters-, their feelings, mood, relations with one another, their social and intellectual standing, and even their origin.

In one of his pamphlets M.Twain wrote that conversation in fiction should "sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and show a relevancy, and remain in the neighbourhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say." (M. T w a i n). The story Mistaken Identity may well serve as an illustration of all the requirements that the writer sets. His characters are well-conceived not only due to their speech characteristics, but also due to the exactness in the choice and presentation of their actions. They are defined in full accordance with his principle: characters should be "so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency."

3. Psychological portrayal and analysis of motive.

The penetration into the mind of the character, description of his mental processes and subtle psychological changes that motivate his actions, the penetration into his thoughts all that is an effective means of characterization that writers very often resort to. Priestley's Angel Pavement, abounds in illustrations of psychological portrayal. For example, the description of Miss Matfield's state of mind when she realized at the station that she had been waiting for Golspie in vain, standing there with a suitcase and a cheap imitation of a wedding ring in her bag, while Golspie was miles away from London "not caring if she spent the rest of her life in Victoria Station. Never before had she felt such bitter contempt for herself. She could have cried and cried, not because he had gone and she would probably never set eyes on him again, but because his sudden indifference, at this time of all times, left her feeling pitiably small and silly. The misery of it was like the onslaught of some unexpected, terrible disease. Her mangled pride bled and" ached inside her, so that she felt faint." This description of her psychological state and thoughts not only reveals the shame and humiliation that she experienced, it also characterizes Matfield as a sensitive creature, capable of experiencing profound and acute feelings.

The psychological state of a character is generally revealed by means of inner represented speech in the form of either free indirect speech or free direct speech. In the following example J.Priestley resorts to free indirect speech to reveal Turgis's state when he was dismissed: "His job was gone. What could he do? A bit of typing and clerking, that was all, and anybody could do that; even girls would do it, ... just as well as he would ... Something had gone wrong. Where, how had it gone wrong? He could be as happy as anybody, if only he had a chance to be; and why hadn't he a chance to be? ". His thoughts reveal his despair, his awareness of the injustices that were done to him. It also reveals his ability to think clearly and to realize how unfair life was to him.

4. Description of the outward appearance, the portrayal of a character.

In fiction there exist some relationships between the character and his appearance. Thus, features as "hard eyes" or a "cruel mouth like a scar" create the picture of a man who is capable of mean and wicked actions. The writer often marks some suitable feature in the character's portrait which is suggestive of his nature. In literature physical portayal often suggests moral, mental or spiritual characteristics. For example, Turgis from Angel Pavement a weak-willed day-dreamer who is doped by trashy Hollywood films - is introduced to the reader in the following way: "This was Turgis, the clerk ... a thinnish, awkward young man, with ... poor shoulders, ... a small, still babyish mouth, usually open, ... a drooping rather than retreating chin. ... the faint grey film that seemed to cover and subdue him ..." All that suggests that he is feeble, defenceless, irresolute, weak-willed, unintelligent. Whereas Miss Matfield's description is as follows: "What they saw was a girl of twenty-seven or twenty-eight, or even twenty-nine, with decided eyebrows, a smouldering eye, ... a mouth that was a discontented crimson curve, and a firm round chin that was ready to double itself at any moment." All that suggests a resolute, decisive personage, though dissatisfied with her life.

5. Description of the world of things that surround the character. The character's room, clothing and other belongings may also serve as a means of characterization. For example, "the blue serge suit that bagged and sagged and shone, ... the pulpy look about his shoes ... which soaked up the rain" characterize Turgis as a miserable creature, who lives in need, with no one to care for him. It adds to his portrait and helps the reader to understand the character. Or again, the description of the books that Miss Matfield was so fond of "the exotic and adventurous tales" with "coral reefs, jungles and a strong, adventurous brigandish hero" is a key to understanding her idea of happiness. It explains why Mr Golspie claimed her attention, it reveals that she was also doped by the cheap literature which she so often turned to, and that she was not at all sophisticated as she tried to appear.

Domestic interiors of the setting are sometimes treated as metonymic, or metaphoric, expressions of character. "A man's house is an extension of himself. Describe it and you have described him ... These houses express their owners; they affect as atmosphere those who must live in them ..."

6. The use of a foil.

The writer may introduce a foil as a means of characterization. The foil accentuates the opposed features of the character he is contrasted to.

7. The naming of characters.

The naming of characters may also serve as a means of characterization. The name may be deliberately chosen to fit a certain character. Take, for example, Fielding's Sir Benjamin Backbite, or Dickens's Mr. and Mrs. Murdstone (murder 4- stone), or O'Henry's Shark Dodson. Such names are suggestive, as they bring into play the associations which the words they are composed of have. For instance, Shark has acquired symbolic meaning. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1983) defines "shark" as follows: "a person clever at getting money from others in dishonest or merciless ways, as by lending money at high rates". The use of a proper name to express a general idea is called antonomasia.

All the means of characterization writers resort to, enable the reader to visualize and understand the characters, to think, feel and worry with them as they face their problems, to trace the changes and growth in their personalities.

 

THE LION OF STARGOROD

 

1 Bezenchuk and the Nymphs

2 Madame Petukhov's Demise

3 The Parable of the Sinner

4 The Muse of Travel

5 The Smooth Operator

6 A Diamond Haze

7 Traces of the Titanic

8 The Bashful Chiseller

9 Where Are Your Curls?

10 The Mechanic, the Parrot, and the Fortune-teller

11 The Mirror-of-Life Index

12 A Passionate Woman Is a Poet's Dream

13 Breathe Deeper: You're Excited!

14 The Alliance of the Sword and Ploughshare

 

PART II:

IN MOSCOW

 

15 A Sea of Chairs

16 The Brother Berthold Schwartz Hostel

17 Have Respect for Mattresses, Citizens!

18 The Furniture Museum

19 Voting the European Way

20 From Seville to Granada

21 Punishment

22 Ellochka the Cannibal

23 Absalom Vladimirovich Iznurenkov

24 The Automobile Club

25 Conversation with a Naked Engineer

26 Two Visits

27 The Marvellous Prison Basket

28 The Hen and the Pacific Rooster

29 The Author of the "Gavriliad"

30 In the Columbus Theatre

 

PART III:

MADAME PETUKHOV'S TREASURE

 

31 A Magic Night on the Volga

32 A Shady Couple

33 Expulsion from Paradise

34 The Interplanetary Chess Tournament

35 Et Alia

36 A View of the Malachite Puddle

37 The Green Cape

38 Up in the Clouds

39 The Earthquake

40 The Treasure

 

INTRODUCTION

 

It has long been my considered opinion that strains in Russo-American

relations are inevitable as long as the average American persists in

picturing the Russian as a gloomy, moody, unpredictable individual, and the

average Russian in seeing the American as childish, cheerful and, on the

whole, rather primitive. Naturally, we each resent the other side's unjust

opinions and ascribe them, respectively, to the malice of capitalist or

Communist propaganda. What is to blame for this? Our national literatures;

or, more exactly, those portions of them which are read. Since few Americans

know people of the Soviet Union from personal experience, and vice versa, we

both depend to a great extent on information gathered from the printed page.

The Russians know us-let us forget for a moment about Pravda-from the works

of Jack London, James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and O. Henry. We know the

Russians-let us temporarily disregard the United Nations-as we have seen

them depicted in certain novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and in the later

dramas of Chekhov.

There are two ways to correct these misconceptions. One would be to

import into Russia a considerable number of sober, serious-minded,

Russian-speaking American tourists, in exchange for an identical number of

cheerful, logical, English-speaking Russians who would visit America. The

other, less costly form of cultural exchange would be for the Russians to

read more of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, and for

us to become better acquainted with the less solemn-though not at all less

profound-Russians. We should do well to read more of Gogol,

Saltykov-Shchedrin, Chekhov (the short stories and the one-act plays)

and-among Soviet authors-to read Mikhail Zoshchenko and Ilf and Petrov.

Thus, in its modest way, the present volume-though outwardly not very

"serious" should contribute to our better understanding of Russia and the

Russians and aid us in facing the perils of peaceful coexistence.

If writers were to be judged not by the reception accorded to them by

literary critics but by their popularity with the reading public, there

could be no doubt that the late team of Ilf and Petrov would have few peers

among Soviet men of letters. Together with another humorist, the recently

deceased Mikhail Zoshchenko, for many years they baffled and outraged Soviet

editors and delighted Soviet readers. Yet even while their works were

officially criticized in the literary journals for a variety of sins (the

chief among them being insufficient ideological militancy and, ipso facto,

inferior educational value), the available copies of earlier editions were

literally read to shreds by millions of Soviet citizens. Russian readers

loved Ilf and Petrov because these two writers provided them with a form of

catharsis rarely available to the Soviet citizen-the opportunity to laugh at

the sad and ridiculous aspects of Soviet existence.

Anyone familiar with Soviet press and literature knows one of their

most depressing features-the emphasis on the pompous and the weighty, and

the almost total absence of the light touch. The USSR has a single Russian

journal of humour and satire, Krokodil, which is seldom amusing. There is a

very funny man in the Soviet circus, Oleg Popov, but he is a clown and

seldom talks. At the present time, among the 4,801 full-time Soviet writers

there is not a single talented humorist. And yet the thirst for humour is so

great in Russia that it was recognized as a state problem by Malenkov, who,

during his short career as Prime Minister after Stalin's death, appealed to

Soviet writers to become modern Gogols and Saltykov-Shchedrins. The writers,

however, seem to have remembered only too well the risks of producing humour

and satire in a totalitarian state (irreverent laughter can easily provoke

accusations of political disloyalty, as was the case with Zoschenko in

1946), and the appeal did not bring about desired results. Hence, during the

"liberal" years of 1953-7 the Soviet Government made available, as a

concession to its humour-starved subjects, new editions of the old works of

Soviet humorists, including 200,000 copies of Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve

Chairs and The Little Golden Calf.

Muscovites and Leningraders might disagree, but there is strong

evidence to indicate that during the first decades of this century the

capital of Russian humour was Odessa, a bustling, multilingual, cosmopolitan

city on the Black Sea. In his recently published memoirs, the veteran Soviet

novelist Konstantin Paustovsky fondly recalls the sophisticated and

iconoclastic Odessa of the early post-revolutionary years. Among the famous

sons of Odessa were Isaac Babel, the writer of brilliant, sardonic short

stories; Yurii Olesha, the creator of modernistic, ironic tales; Valentin

Katayev, author of Squaring the Circle, perhaps the best comedy in the

Soviet repertory; and both members of the team of Ilf and Petrov.

Ilya Ilf (pseudonym of Fainzilberg) was born in 1897; Yevgeny Petrov

(pseudonym of Katayev, a younger brother of Valentin) in 1903. The two men

met in Moscow, where they both worked on the railwaymen's newspaper, Gudok

(Train Whistle). Their "speciality" was reading letters to the editor, which

is a traditional Soviet means for voicing grievances about bureaucracy,

injustices and shortages. Such letters would sometimes get published as

feuilletons, short humorous stories somewhat reminiscent of Chekhov's early

output. In 1927 Ilf and Petrov formed a literary partnership, publishing at

first under a variety of names, including some whimsical ones, like Fyodor

Tolstoyevsky. In their joint "autobiography" Ilf and Petrov wrote :

It is very difficult to write together. It was easier for the

Goncourts, we suppose. After all, they were brothers, while we are not even

related to each other. We are not even of the same age. And even of

different nationalities; while one is a Russian (the enigmatic Russian

soul), the other is a Jew (the enigmatic Jewish soul).

The literary partnership lasted for ten years, until 1937, when Ilya

Ilf died of tuberculosis. Yevgeny Petrov was killed in 1942 during the siege

of Sebastopol.

The two writers are famed chiefly for three books-The Twelve Chairs

(1928; known in a British translation as Diamonds to Sit On); The Little

Golden Calf (1931), a tale of the tribulations of a Soviet millionaire who

is afraid to spend any money lest he be discovered by the police; and

One-Storey-High America (1936; known in a British translation as Little

Golden America), an amusing and, on the whole, friendly account of the two

writers' adventures in the land of Wall Street, the Empire State Building,

cars, and aspiring capitalists.

The plot of The Twelve Chairs is very simple. The mother-in-law of a

former nobleman named Vorobyaninov discloses on her deathbed a secret: she

hid her diamonds in one of the family's chairs that subsequently was

appropriated by the Soviet authorities. Vorobyaninov is joined by a young

crook named Ostap Bender with whom he forms a partnership, and together they

proceed to locate these chairs. The partners have a competitor in the priest

Vostrikov, who has also learned of the secret from his dying parishioner.

The competing treasure-hunters travel throughout Russia, which enables the

authors to show us glimpses of little towns, Moscow, and Caucasian resorts,

and also have the three central characters meet a wide variety of people

-Soviet bureaucrats, newspapermen, survivors of the pre-revolutionary

propertied classes, provincials, and Muscovites.

The events described in the novel are set in 1927, that is, toward the

end of the period of the New Economic Policy, which was characterized by a

temporary truce between the Soviet regime's Communist ideology and limited

private enterprise in commerce, industry and agriculture. The coffin-making

and bagel-making businesses referred to in the novel have long since been

nationalized; the former noblemen masquerading as petty Soviet employees and

many of the colleagues of the priest described by Ilf and Petrov are no

longer alive; and it is impossible to imagine the existence today of an

anti-Soviet "conspiracy" similar to the humorists' "Alliance of the Sword

and Ploughshare".

Other than that, however, the Soviet Union described in the novel is

very much like the Soviet Union of 1960, industrial progress and the

Sputniks notwithstanding. The standard of living in 1927 was relatively

high; it subsequently declined. Now it is just slightly higher than it was

thirty years ago. The present grotesquely overcrowded and poor-quality

housing (there is not even a Russian word for "privacy" I) is not much

different from the conditions Ilf and Petrov knew. There are now, as there

were then, people to whom sausage is a luxury, as it was to the newlyweds in

The Twelve Chairs. Embezzlers of state property, though denounced as

"survivals of the capitalist past", are found by thousands among young men

in their thirties and forties. The ominous door signs protecting Communist

bureaucrats, from unwanted visitors still adorn Soviet offices. Nor has the

species of Ellochka the Cannibal, the vulgar and greedy wife of a

hardworking engineer, become extinct. And there are still multitudes of

Muscovites who flock to museums to see how prosperously the bourgeoisie

lived before the Revolution-Muscovites who are mistaken for art lovers by

unsuspecting Western tourists who then report at home a tremendous Soviet

interest in the fine arts. Why, even the ZAGS remains unchanged; only a few

months ago Komsomolskaya Pravda, a youth newspaper, demanded that something

be done about it, because brides and grooms are embarrassed when the

indifferent clerk inquires whether they came to register a birth, a death,

or wish to get married-just as Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov did over

thirty years ago in the little Soviet town deep in the provinces.

Similarly, the "poet" Lapis who peddled nearly identical verse to

various trade publications-providing his hero Gavrila with different

professions such as chemist, postman, hunter, etc., to give the poem a

couleur local suitable for each of the journals- enjoys excellent health to

this day. There are hundreds of recent Soviet novels, poems and dramas

written by as many Soviet writers which differ only in the professions of

their protagonists; in their character delineations and conflicts they are

all very much alike. And, finally, the custom of delivering formal political

speeches, all of them long, boring, and terribly repetitious, persists to

our times. These speeches are still a regular feature at all public events

in the USSR.

Thus the Western reader, in addition to being entertained, is likely to

profit from the reading of The Twelve Chairs by getting a glimpse of certain

aspects of daily life in the Soviet Union which are not normally included in

Intourist itineraries.

The hero of The Twelve Chairs (and also, it might be added, of The

Little Golden Calf) is Ostap Bender, "the smooth operator", a resourceful

rogue and confidence man. Unlike the nobleman Vorobyaninov and the priest

Vostrikov, Bender is not a representative of the ancient regime. Only

twenty-odd years old, he does not even remember pre-revolutionary Russia: at

the first meeting of the "Alliance of the Sword and Ploughshare" Bender has

some difficulty playing the role of a tsarist officer. Ostap Bender is a

Soviet crook, born of Soviet conditions and quite willing to co-exist with

the Soviet system to which he has no ideological or even economic

objections. Ostap Bender's inimitable slangy Russian is heavily spiced with

cliches of the Communist jargon. Bender knows the vulnerabilities of Soviet

state functionaries and exploits them for his own purposes. He also knows

that the Soviet Man is not very different from the Capitalist Man-that he is

just as greedy, lazy, snobbish, cowardly and gullible-and uses these

weaknesses to his, Ostap Bender's, advantage. And yet, in spite of Ostap

Bender's dishonesty and lack of scruples, we somehow get to like him. Bender

is gay, carefree and clever, and when we see him matching his wits with

those of Soviet bureaucrats, we hope that he wins.

In the end Ostap Bender and his accomplices lose; yet, strangely

enough, the end of the novel seems forced, much like the cliche happy ending

of a mediocre Hollywood film. One must understand, however, that even in the

comparatively "liberal" 1920s it was difficult for a Soviet author not to

supply a happy Soviet ending to a book otherwise as aloof from Soviet

ideology as The Twelve Chairs. And so, at the end of the novel, one of the

greedy fortune-hunters is killed by his partner, while the other two end up

in a psychiatric ward. But at least Ilf and Petrov have spared us from

seeing Ostap Bender contrasted with a virtuous upright Soviet hero, and for

this we must be grateful. Much as in Gogol's Inspector General and Dead

Souls and in the satires of Saltykov-Shchedrin, we observe with fascination

a Russia of embezzlers, knaves and stupid government officials. We

understand their weaknesses and vices, for they are common to all men.

Indeed, we can even get to like these people, as we could not like the

stuffy embodiments of Communist virtues who inhabit the great majority of

Soviet novels.

Inevitably, some of the humour must get lost in the process of

translation. The protagonists in The Twelve Chairs are for the most part

semi-educated men, but they all aspire to kulturnost, and love to refer to

classics of Russian literature-which they usually misquote. They also

frequently mispronounce foreign words with comical effect. These no

translator could possibly salvage. But the English-speaking reader won't

miss the ridiculous quality of the "updated" version of The Marriage on a

Soviet stage, even if he has never seen a traditional performance of Gogol's

comedy; he will detect with equal ease the hilarious scheme of Ostap Bender

to "modernize" a famous canvas by Repin even if he has never seen the

original painting. Fortunately, most of the comic qualities of the novel are

inherent in the actions of the protagonists, and these are not affected by

being translated. They will only serve to prove once again that, basically,

Soviet Russians are fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,

subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by

the same winter and summer" as all men are.

 

MAURICE FRIEDBERQ

 

Hunter College 1960

 

Part I

 


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 961


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