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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Twelve Chairs

Ilf and Petrov

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To purchase The Twelve Chairs

Title: The Twelve Chairs
Authors: Ilf and Petrov
Genre: Novel
Written: 1928 (Eng. 1961)
Length: 401 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Twelve Chairs - US
The Twelve Chairs - UK
The Twelve Chairs - Canada
Les douze chaises - France
Zwölf Stühle - Deutschland
  • Russian title: Двенадцать стульев
  • Translated by John H. C. Richardson
  • With an Introduction by Maurice Friedberg
  • Previously translated by Elizabeth Hill and Doris Mudie as Diamonds to Sit On (1930)
  • Many film versions of The Twelve Chairs have been made, including Mel Brooks' 1970 version (with Frank Langella and Dom DeLuise), Nicolas Gessner and Luciano Lucignani's 1969 version, titled 12 + 1 (starring Sharon Tate, Vittorio Gassman, Orson Welles, and Vittorio De Sica), and Richard Wallace's 1945 version, It's in the Bag ! (with Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Don Ameche)

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Our Assessment:

A- : enjoyable comic treasure-hunt

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 12/6/2001 Peter Demetz
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 4/11/2000 Ulrich M. Schmid
New Statesman . 7/6/1930 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/9/1930 Alexander Nazaroff
TLS . 13/6/1930 R.D.Charques
Die Zeit . 5/10/2000 Olga Martynova

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ilf und Petrow verstehen es, das Poetische und das Groteske unauflöslich zu verschränken (.....) Das heißt aber nicht, daß die Erzähler überall die glücklichste Hand beweisen, besonders nicht am Ende" - Peter Demetz, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(A) 'comedy of errors,' a light and merry bouffonade of adventure -- a type of literature very rare in the gloomy land of soviets -- and a rather good one." - Alexander Nazaroff, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is a genuinely amusing story, spiced with a pretty turn of satire and more than a trace of malice; the humour, in fact, innocent on the surface, if often of an extraordinarily biting kind, and the grotesque situations frequently verge on tragi-comedy." - R.D.Charques, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Twelve Chairs is set in 1927, in the still pre-Stalinist Soviet Union. Communism had won the day by the then, but its success in establishing itself still showed huge gaps and it is through these that Ilf and Petrov gleefully leap in this broad comedy.
       The premise is a simple one: on her deathbed Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov's mother-in-law reveals to him that she managed to hide her jewels in a set of chairs before the Revolution came. Worth a fortune -- perhaps 150,000 roubles by now -- Ippolit Matveyevich sees in this hidden treasure an enormous opportunity. He could forget about his lowly clerk-job, and again live in the noble (well, more or less, given the times) manner he was accustomed to before the Revolution.
       It's not quite that simple, of course: the chairs fell victim to the Revolution, too, and he has to find them. And he's not quite alone in this. For one, his mother-in-law also revealed the existence of the treasure to the local priest, Father Fyodor Vostrikov, and he's also willing to drop everything to get his hands on the fortune. Father Fyodor may be Ippolit Matveyevich's competition, but it's his ally, con-man Ostap Bender, that might prove to be more of a problem.
       Off they go, in search of the chairs. Father Fyodor is rather less successful, amusingly sent off soon enough on a very wild goose chase. Ippolit Matveyevich and Ostap Bender make a decent team (though it's the clever and quick-witted Bender that is the one that get's them close to almost all the chairs), but also stumble repeatedly (and very amusingly) along the way.
       The hunt and adventures make for a nice comedy of errors -- especially when almost all the chairs are conveniently up for auction and the two have the winning bid ... and yet still manage to mess things up. Quick on his feet, and willing to do almost everything, Bender even marries -- if that's what it takes to get at one of the chairs, that's what it takes. Cash is also raised in creative ways, including setting up a political conspiracy, as well as promising a town it could become the chess centre of the world. Needless to say, many of the tricks come back to haunt them.
       Ilf and Petrov also allow themselves a few entertaining asides about Soviet life in those times -- an amusing mix of almost Wild West and bureaucracy, with surprisingly little of the police state in view (though Bender constantly reminds Ippolit Matveyevich not to get on the wrong side of the law). The conditions -- living, sleeping, and travelling -- are, in part, horrific, and yet everyone takes them in stride. Ippolit Matveyevich and Bender, of course, have their fortune to look forward to (though Ippolit Matveyevich's share is shrinking ever more ...), and so even as things go from bad to worse remain fairly cheerful; indeed, the whole book is extraordinarily good-natured, with no hint of bitterness. Even as satire, it's remarkably soft in its touch (but no less sharp or amusing).
       The ending is perhaps the only point where the authors appear to defer to Soviet expectations, a too-happy and politically correct resolution that isn't quite in keeping with the rest of the book. Still, it's a very enjoyable broad comedy: certainly recommended.

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The Twelve Chairs: Reviews: The Twelve Chairs - film versions: Ilf and Petrov: Other books by Ilf and Petrov under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Ilya Ilf (actually: Ilya Arnoldovich Fainzilberg (1897-1937)) and Evgeny Petrov (actually: Evgeny Petrovich Kataev (1903-1942)) were a highly successful Soviet writing-duo, specialising in comic works.

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