Sunday, March 26, 2006

Ilf and Petrov tour the US, 1935-1936

Exhibition - ILF & PETROV tour the United States, 1935-1936

Il'ia Ilf and Evgeny Petrov were two Soviet era writers and reporters whose two novels – Dvenadtsat Stulyev (Twelve Chairs) and Zolotoy Telyonok (Little Golden Calf) – written in the late 1920s are still among the most popular Russian books ever published. They maintained a creative partnership until Ilf's death in 1937.

Born Ilya Arnoldovich Fainzilberg and Evgeny Petrovich Kataev, they adopted the pseudonyms Ilya I'lf and Evgeny Petrov for their writing. These two intrepid writers started their career as journalists and satirical writers. Petrov initially worked for Krasny Perets (Red Pepper) before moving to Gudok (The Whistle), newspaper of the central rail-workers, where he met Ilya Ilf in 1926. Thus started their writing partnership. After the success of their novels, they began to write for "Pravda" and "Ogonek". As a result, they were occasionally sent abroad to report on other countries and events of interest for these newspapers and the Soviet public.

The most interesting of these trips was their American tour of 1935-1936, as correspondents for "Pravda". This journey eventually led to Odnoetazhnaya Amerika (One-Story America) a clever account of their automobile trip across the US and also to Tonya (1937), a satirical portrayal of the life of Soviet people compelled to live in a capitalist society.

The "Ilf and Petrov tour the United States" website/exhibit was made possible by the University of Michigan's Institute for the Humanities, Slavic Department, International Institute, and Center for Russian and East European Studies. It contains photographs and summary writings from Ilf and Petrovs One-Story America. I recommend reading it for a unique view of the US in the 1930s, through Soviet satirist's eyes.
We went to go have a look at the ship. Third-class passengers don't see the ship on which they travel. They aren't allowed into either the first class or the coach class areas. The coach-class passengers don't see the Normandie either, since either, since they also aren't allowed to cross the border. First-class is the real Normandie. It takes up at least nine-tenths of the entire ship. Everything in first class is huge: the promenade decks, and restaurants, and smoking salons, and card salons, and special ladies' salons, and a greenhouse where plump French sparrows hop on glass branches and hundreds of orchids hang from the ceilings, and a theater that seats four hundred, and a bathing pool with water illuminated with green electric lamps [...]. Even the pipes on the Normandie, which you would think belong to the entire ship, do not - they actually belong to just the first-class passengers.
Right away we had a little problem. We thought we would stroll slowly along, looking around attentively - studying everything, so to speak; observing, taking it all in and so on. But New York isn't a city where people move slowly. People weren't walking past us, they were running. So we also started to run. And we haven't been able to stop since. We lived a whole month in New York and the entire time we were rushing somewhere as fast as we could go.
"This lower part of the city is called the "business center." Stores, offices, and cinemas are all situated here. The sidewalks are deserted. However, the pavement is full of parked automobiles. They take up all the free space next to the curb. The only place they can't park is next to fire hydrants or driveways, a fact attested to by the sign "No parking!"

Sometimes this turns into a torturous exercise, this finding a place where you can park the car, or, as Russians in America say, priparkovat'sia. One evening we were in San Diego, a city on the Pacific coast. We needed to park the car somewhere so we could eat lunch. And we drove around the city for an entire hour, burning with the desire to priparkovat'sia. The city was so full of cars that we couldn't find room for one more car, just one more car.
Credit is the basis of American trade. Everything in an American's house is bought on credit: the stove on which he cooks his meals, the furniture on which he sits, the vacuum-cleaner with which he tidies the room - everything was acquired by down payment. In point of fact neither his house, nor his furniture, nor the wonderful gizmos of mechanized everyday life belong to him.It would seem that in the life of the average American, that is, the American who has work, there would have to come a moment when he pays off all his debts and becomes a real, genuine proprietor. But it's not that easy. His car has gotten old. The company is offering a beautiful new model. The company will take the old car for a hundred dollars, and is giving wonderful discount rates for the remaining five hundred: so many dollars the first month, and then...
We were still on board the Normandie and the tugboats and the tugboats had just pulled the steamer into the New York harbor when two things came to our attention. One was small and greenish: the Statue of Liberty. The second was enormous and insolent: an advertising panel propagandizing "Wrigley's Chewing Gum." From that time on the billboard with the flat little green snout with the enormous megaphone followed us all over America, convincing us, begging us, persuading us, and demanding of us that we chew "Wrigley's," the flavored, incomparable, first-class gum.

The fact of the matter is that the more widespread the advertising, the more meaningless the object for which it is intended. Only the sale of some kind of nonsense can recoup this crazed advertising. Americans' buildings, roads, fields and trees are all disfigured by these annoying billboards. The consumer also pays for these billboards. We were told that a five-cent bottle of "Cola-Cola" costs the manufacturers one cent, while three cents go toward the advertising. We don't need to write about where the fifth cent goes. That's pretty clear.
The more people and things we saw, the less we understood America. We tried to sum things up in generalizations. Dozens of times a day we exclaimed:
  • Americans are as naive as children!
  • Americans are excellent workers!
  • Americans are hypocrites!
  • Americans are a great nation!
  • Americans are cheapskates!
  • Americans are generous to a fault!
  • Americans are radicals!
  • Americans are dull, conservative, and hopeless!
  • There will never be a revolution in America!
  • There will be a revolution in America in a few days!
It was a real muddle, from which we wanted to extricate ourselves as soon as possible. And, slowly, that extrication began. One after another various spheres of American life started to become clear to us ...


Soon to be released

Other books by Ilf and Petrov (Some Hard to Find)

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