Simanaitis Says

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ILF AND PETROV’S DRIVE

THERE’S AN excellent argument against having one’s book collection in good order. Let serendipity reign.

I was looking for one thing or another. I never found it, but came upon a book I really enjoyed several years ago, which I recommend to you here.

Ilf

Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers, by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, edited by Erika Wolf, Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. Both www.amazon.com and www.abebooks.com list it.

Ilf and Petrov, Soviet satirical writers, came to America in 1935, a good time for their visit—and for their genre. It was at a time when the Soviets looked upon American industrialization with envy. Amerikanizm, as the Russians called it, even had a favorable cultural dimension.

Tourists will be tourists, the world around. This and other images from

Tourists will be tourists, the world around. This Ohio sign and other images from Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip.

Initially in New York City and Washington, D.C., Ilf and Petrov had plenty of people say to them, “Yes, but this isn’t typical America.” They sensed that to find the real America they should take to the road.

So Ilf and Petrov bought a Ford sedan and invited along two New York friends, a retired Latvian-born engineer and his American wife (who also spoke fluent Russian). As the most polyglot of the four, she drove.

Route

The route of Ilf, Petrov and friends’ trip, October 29, 1935 to January 13, 1936.

They soon celebrated American highways of all sorts, and especially scenic roads, where they could “get the entire required quantity of emotions without ever leaving the automobile.

“In the exact same way, without ever leaving his car, the traveler can get the necessary quantity of gasoline at the stations that line American highways by the thousands.”

Just like younger people today, Ilf and Petrov were amazed by the concept of service station back then. “The tank has been filled….However, the gentleman in the striped cap and leather bow-tie doesn’t let them go. The great American service begins.”

station

These places were aptly called “service” stations. See also the upper image on the book’s cover.

Oil and water were checked; tire pressures too, windshield polished. “By now, softened up by service, the traveler himself doesn’t want to leave.”

With honesty and playfulness, Ilf and Petrov strove to correct Soviet impressions of American towns and “the continuous despairing screams of stockbrokers rushing through skyscrapers with their ever-falling shares.”

Instead, earning their sobriquet of “the Soviet Mark Twain,” they observed that even in New York City, “brokers don’t run down the sidewalks knocking over American citizens; they simmer, invisible to the public, in their stock exchanges, making all kinds of shady deals in those monumental buildings.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….

cacti

This cafe owner’s cacti set his establishment apart from others in town.

This was, after all, in the midst of the Great Depression, and the travelers encountered poverty as well as riches. Their observations of racism during the era were simply and, in retrospect, accurately stated. Concerning Native Americans (of course, the term was “Indians” back then), Ilf and Petrov marveled that “they have preserved their pride and their spiritual purity.”

Concerning blacks, “Negroes are free and enjoy their full rights before the law. But just you let a Negro try and go into a movie theater, tram, or church where white people are sitting.”

Bridge

San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was a work in progress in 1935. [Note: I initially misidentified this as the Golden Gate Bridge (also in progress when Ilf and Petrov visited). Thanks to several readers for correcting my error.]

Chapter headings include “The Road,” “The Small Town,” “Americans,” “At the Birthplace of Mark Twain,” “The Desert,” “Indians,” “California,” “Hollywood,” “Advertising,” “Negroes,” and “New York.”

Chin's

Ilf and Petrov noted that at Chin’s in New York City, “the food has an interesting, unusual taste.” The 85¢ dinner in 1935 would be equivalent to $14.43 today.

Throughout, these observations and photographs are skewed by time and a Soviet view, but they’re fascinating despite this—and because of it. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013

4 comments on “ILF AND PETROV’S DRIVE

  1. Sabresoft
    May 19, 2013

    The bridge under construction looks more like the Bay-Oakland bridge, not the Golden Gate.

  2. sabresoftware
    May 19, 2013

    The bridge under construction looks more like the Bay-Oakland, not the Golden Gate.

    • sabresoftware
      May 19, 2013

      A quick Google of the two bridges confirms my suspicion. The towers are those of the Bay-Oakland, and what set my suspicion in the first place was the view of the city skyline relative to the bridge location.

  3. simanaitissays
    May 19, 2013

    Thanks, sabresoftware, to you and two others who caught this error (which I’ve now corrected). The error was mine, not Ilf and Petrov’s. Curiously, both bridges were in progress when they visited. The Oakland Bay Bridge opened in 1936; the Golden Gate Bridge, in 1937.

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This entry was posted on May 19, 2013 by in I Usta be an Editor Y'Know, Just Trippin' and tagged , , .
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