Thursday, November 22, 2018

who needs context - novels by Gyula Krúdy and Ilf & Petrov - drink to the irrigation of Uzbekistan!

Two novels that seem like they should depend heavily on their context, but really do not.

The Twelve Chairs by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov (1928), tr. Anne O. Fisher, a serialized comic Soviet picaresque that transcends it genre, as they say.  By “transcends,” I mean it is better than almost everything like it, Soviet or not.  It must be, right?  It is still funny, the characters make sense as people and are at the same time completely ridiculous, and the blatantly episodic satirical chunks are essentially universal while keeping their amusing specificity.

For example:

Ostap continually proclaimed speeches, addresses, and toasts.  Everyone drank to popular education and to the irrigation of Uzbekistan.  (186)

I do not have to know too much about early Soviet culture to think that these toasts are pretty funny, a sign about what has gone wrong.  Eh, if it’s not funny, read something else.

The story is a comic classic: a former nobleman learns from his mother-in-law, on her deathbed, that in the Revolution she hid her jewels in one of his chairs.  Which one?  There are twelve possibilities, and the Revolution scattered some, and the events of the novel scatter the rest.  The nobleman takes a con artist as a partner, Ostap in the above quote, and they’re off after the jewels.

I was impressed by Ilf and Petrov’s true sense of comedy, by which I mean that they systematically, gleefully, grind their characters to powder.  They push the joke to its logical conclusion.  The comedy gets a little dark, as they say.

Big targets beyond the greed at the novel’s core include journalism, corruption, the theater, priests, and the craze for chess, the latter being maybe a little Soviet-specific, but what time and place does not have an equivalent.

Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy (1918), tr. John Bátki.  Another big hit, this time from Hungary, where readers apparently enjoyed wallowing in their nostalgia for a lost Romantic pre-war sense of something or another.  This is probably lost on non-Hungarian readers, who will take it as ironic, and hilarious:

Mr Pistoli spent his days perfecting his ennui.  (140)

Pistoli is an over-the-hill Casanova.  The last third of the novel chronicles his last days, his final meetings with old flames, his death and dramatic funeral.  Maybe he is more of a Don Juan.  Krúdy, one of the most prolific writers in history, wanders among characters in the first part of the novel until for some reason he settles on this one as suitable for a longer story.  I have seen reviewers online complain about this choice – they wish Krudy had picked one of the headstrong beauties of earlier chapters, not this old goat, but come on, look at this guy:

That night, with its besotted, harried ghosts and bulgy-eyed goblins, dragged on interminably, like a midnight train wreck, the morning after which the survivor takes stock of his remaining limbs.

The whiplash’s sting sent Mr Pistoli to seek refuge in one of his favourite activities: composing his will, perhaps for the twentieth time.  He apportioned his extant and nonexistent belongings among women he had known or would have liked to know.  (159)

The novel is a parody of Romanticism and the yearning for it.

Edwin Frank, editor of NYRB Classics, compares Sunflower to the work of Bruno Schulz and P. G. Wodehouse, and in both cases I think: almost.  Krúdy, like Schulz, piles on the metaphors – see those goblins above, that train crash – and they are great fun, but where Schulz uses them to create something new, Krúdy is merely rearranging the tropes, as they say.

And instead of Wodehouse, substitute the odder, more baroque Ronald Firbank.  I should write something about Firbank sometime.  He is an extreme case.

One fine day  Mr. Álmos-Dreamer up and died.

He did this every year after spending some time in Miss Eveline’s company, at times when love, the torments of lone wolves and the howling winds assailed him.  At times like these,  he started to play the violin in the house on this island frequented by the wind and storm-tossed birds.  At such times his servant, with his brass buttons, shabby white gloves and antique spats, would retreat into a cubbyhole. (36)

Like Firbank – not like Schulz! – Krúdy is a writer who needs just a few sentences to sort his readers from everyone else.  Those wolves, those spats – more of this?  There is more.


  1. I love Ilf and Petrov and I really don't think you need context - they're just so funny and it translates. Time for a re-read, perhaps... ;)


  2. I have seen so many bloggers whine about satire. They can't understand Gulliver's Travels or whatever because of all the "satire." It is as if they were told somewhere that the point is to line up the fictional characters with real politicians, about whom they of course know nothing.

    Yes, Ilf and Petrov effortlessly give the reader of a hundred years in the future and one hemisphere over everything he could possibly want.

    1. Satire, like irony, goes over many readers' heads. The evil sibling, sarcasm, seems lately to be easier and more popular. You remind me that I ought to revisit Gulliver. Well, best wishes from the old goat on the Gulf coast who has resurrected himself from the ash heap of blogging with a new blog and address. I look forward to reading about your future reading adventures.

    2. I suppose Flannery O'Connor's works have a similar problem. Readers think "Is this supposed to be funny? Am I allowed to laugh?"

      Good luck with the resurrection!

    3. Yes! Readers, in my classroom experiences, were often unsure of themselves as readers when they encountered O'Connor. She hits them between the eyes with a comic vision of the inevitable irony for Christians: "A funny thing happens on the road to Damascus ... and Calvary ... and beyond ..."

  3. These novels remind me of some of Bulgakov's satires, like Heart of a Dog or A Dead Man's Memoir. Those books work even for a reader who is unfamiliar with the Soviet Union in the 1920s, because human shortsightedness and idiocy really are timeless.

  4. If anything, my problem is knowing too much about the later Soviet Union and shifting it into the 1920s. So I am learning something from Ilf and Petrov and Zoshchenko and so on, besides enjoying them. But a reader could come to these books with nothing, or almost nothing, and be fine.

    I've never read Bulgakov, for some reason.

    1. Bulgakov evolved from writing like Turgenev (Country Doctor's Notebook) to writing like Tolstoy (White Guard) to writing like the Dostoyevsky who wrote "The Crocodile" and at some point wrote the magical-realism social satire The Master and Margarita. I quite like White Guard, but MaM has an oversized cat with a loaded pistol and pokes a good deal of fun at Soviet writers' collectives.

  5. That is quite a stylistic career. Master and Margarita is quite high on my imaginary list of the Most Important Books I Have Not Read.

  6. If you don't mind me mentioning this...anyone interested in Krúdy can visit Hungarian Literature Online ( ) and do a search on his name. They have several excerpts by him and articles about/regarding him.

    And yes, please post more on Firbank when you can!
    - Dwight

  7. Thanks for the link.

    Firbank is great fun, if you can stand the flavor.

  8. Rodger Cunningham:

    My immediate association to this is that the irrigation of Uzbekistan (which sounds like a good idea at least--I'll drink to that!) led eventually to the disappearance of the Aral Sea and the covering of Central Asia with windblown pesticide residue.*Sigh*

  9. Ilf and Petrov are such good comedians that they even get the sour future jokes right.