#1936club – a favourite pair of authors write a very unusual book… #ilfandpetrov


One of the interesting parts of previous reading weeks has been the opportunity to revisit books from the particular year we’ve chosen to focus upon. 1936, however, is proving to be a bumper year in many respects, and as far as I can tell an awful lot of my reading from that year is a long time pre-blog. This means, alas, that my memories are going to be little fuzzy about what I read and when! So instead I wanted to focus today on a pair of authors I’ve been reading since my early teens and a work they released in 1936.

My Ilf and Petrov collection

The authors are Ilf and Petrov, and they’ve only made fleeting, oblique appearances on the Ramblings. Best known for their Soviet satires “The Twelve Chairs” (1928) and “The Golden Calf” (1931) (as they’re titled in my 1960s editions, both translated by John Richardson), their real names were Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrovich Kataev. The latter was, in fact, the brother of Valentin Kataev who’s featured on the blog a lot, and Yevgeni changed his name to Petrov to avoid confusion with his brother.

As well as producing their two satirical novels, Ilf and Petrov wrote theatrical plays and screenplays, humorous short stories and satirical articles for magazines. However, I wanted to focus here on one of their activities from the middle of the 1930s… You see, in 1935 Ilf and Petrov were able to visit the USA, taking a road trip across the Depression-hit country, and they published a book on their trip, translated as “Little Golden America” – and here is my edition:

I have to say I’m very fond and proud of my copy, although I can’t actually be sure when I found it; but I suspect it was in 2006 or 2007, for reasons which will become clear! It wasn’t easy to track down, and mine is a 1946 edition of a book which Wikipedia says was released in 1937; although interestingly the copyright page indicates differently:

And as you can see, according to the front of my “Little Golden America”, the text was first published in 1936 as “One Story America”; and further research reveals that sections of the book were published in Ogoniok/Ogonek magazine in 1936 as a photo-essay. That piece was reproduced as a book in 2006, which I also happen to have:

And the book itself gives further information about the history and publication of the record of Ilf and Petrov’s American trip:

The book itself is a beautiful edition and absolutely fascinating; the photos and the text are wonderfully evocative, really bringing to life the America of the time. The thirties were such a strange time in many ways, with extreme poverty for some, the rise of right-wing ideologies and a sense of change and uncertainty. The fact that Ilf and Petrov were allowed to travel abroad during what was a repressive time in Russia still astonishes me, but the result was this fascinating snapshot of the past.

My editions of the Ostap Bender satirical novels!

I loved Ilf and Petrov when I first read them in my teens; and when I rediscovered them in the 2000s I was just as affected by their wonderful writing. Both men died sadly too young: Ilf of TB just after their return from American, and Petrov in a plane crash when he was acting as a front-line correspondent in the Second World War. However, they left behind them a body of work which ensures they’re not forgotten, particularly the two satirical Ostap Bender novels. I’m glad the #1936club has nudged me back to reconnecting with their work, and alhough I don’t think I’ll actually read any of their books this week, I shall most definitely try to keep them in my line of sight! 😀

Exploring More Kataev/Katayev!


Let’s face it, my memory is rubbish (I put it down to increasing age…) I have a lovely collection called “The Fatal Eggs and Other Soviet Satire), which I read pre-blog, and it contains four stories by Valentin Kataev. So I’ve read his work and I should remember it – but I suppose with the amount of books I get through, it’s inevitable that things get blurry… However, having enjoyed “The Grass of Oblivion” so much, I thought I would dig out the book and revisit them.

soviet satire

Actually, dig out was an apt phrase as it took a while to find the book. The Russian shelves have spread a bit, and I expected it to be with or near the Bulgakovs; it was, but hidden on a shelf below, though at least it eventually came to light.

The four stories featured all date from the 1920s, and the titles are “The Beautiful Trousers”, “The Suicide”, “A Goat in the Orchard” and “The Struggle Unto Death”. The satire is broad in all the stories, and in many ways they reminded me of Ilf and Petrov, and also Bulgakov – but as all of the writers were friends and relations, and were all in effect drawing from the same well of experience, I guess that’s inevitable. The first story deals with the food shortage; the second with the uselessness of products produced under the Soviet regime; the third, a short piece, cleverly shows how human nature stays the same whoever’s in charge; and in the fourth, bureaucracy and red tape goes mad.


The tales are all funny, too – “Struggle” in particular had me giggling – but there’s an underlying point to be made, of course, as these stories *are* satirical. In particular, the spectre of starvation and despair stalks the first two works and reminds the reader just how difficult it was in the early years of Soviet rule.

So Kataev is most definitely a worthy purveyor of Soviet satire; I just wish there was more of his work available. I do have his 1920s novel “The Embezzler” winging its way to me, and also a collection entitled “The New Soviet Fiction” which promises to have a late work by the author, but English translations are not that easy to find. It’s at times like this that I wish I was a Russian speaker…

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