Monday, 16 April 2012

Dinosaurs Aren't Aunts, or P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad

A Small Pterodactyl fluttered into the Dinosaurs' Club and squawked disconsolately for a gin and bitters. His nibbled-looking crest and raffishly cocked beak told experienced observers that, although not extinct, he was not precisely tinct, either.
A kindly Stegosaurus/Triceratops cross glanced at the newcomer from his easy chair. "You appear cheesed off with the earthly stint, my son", the elder reptile remarked benevolently.
"Exactly!" exclaimed the Pterodactyl stormily. "No-one appreciates my sense of humour! No-one shares my literary pursuits! I pitched a scenario to a fur-bearing mammal today, and he accused me of being," he hurled a well-picked coelacanth skeleton across the room in rage, "past my sell-by date!"
There was a collective intake of breath in the the Club. Only the Stegosaurus/Triceratops failed to flinch at the distasteful insult.
"I knew a mammal once," began a Lesser Diplodocus.
"I can offer you the cheering example of one of my younger relatives," the elder dinosaur replied smoothly as if no-one had spoken, "who was confounded in life by not one but two old-fashioned interests: he admired Russian literature and the stories of P.G. Wodehouse. Imagine his happiness when, one day, he opened a book called The Clicking of Cuthbert and realized that the two were, as you might say, one. And this is what he told me..."

Whether P.G. Wodehouse was a serious reader of Russian literature, I doubt. It's difficult to imagine Plum reading Dostoevsky in Paris or sitting spellbound through Three Sisters. However, he knew enough about Tolstoy's prose to summarize an entire imaginary novella: "Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty” (from Jill the Reckless). And in The Clicking of Cuthbert, otherwise a rather weak effort from 1922, a young, enthusiastic, and decidely un-bookish golfer (a sort of Pierre Bezukhov to the other's moody Bolkonsky) pits the niblick against the pen in a contest for the heart of a beautiful girl against a moody literary aesthete called Raymond Devine. Cuthbert fights his battle not on the golf course, his natural sphere, but in his opponent's court: the suburban London Literary Society run by Mrs Willoughby Smethurst where Devine is worshipped as a genius. As the narrator remarks,

"I do not know if you have had any experience of suburban literary societies, but the one that flourished under the eye of Mrs. Willoughby Smethurst at Wood Hills was rather more so than the average. With my feeble powers of narrative, I cannot hope to make clear to you all that Cuthbert Banks endured in the next few weeks. And, even if I could, I doubt if I should do so. It is all very well to excite pity and terror, as Aristotle recommends, but there are limits."

Cuthbert's agony of inadequacy is exacerbated by the Society's constant chat about famous Russian novelists, especially Vladimir Brusiloff, currently touring England, who 'specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide'. Despite his stamina as a golfer, Cuthbert might not have stood firm 'had it not been for the daily reports in the papers of the internecine strife which was proceeding so briskly in Russia. Cuthbert was an optimist at heart, and it seemed to him that, at the rate at which the inhabitants of that interesting country were murdering one another, the supply of Russian novelists must eventually give out'. Before it does, however, Brusiloff is inveigled into attending the Smethurst salon, where two astonishing things happen. The first is the fall and utter ruin of Raymond Devine, who is unwise enough to mention that other great novelist, Sovietski, in Brusiloff's presence. Brusiloff, although 'not a man who prattled readily', is moved to pithily denounce his rival: 

'"Sovietski no good!"
He paused for a moment, set the machinery working again, and delivered five more at the pithead.
"I spit me of Sovietski!"
There was a painful sensation. [...] Raymond Parsloe Devine was plainly shaken, but he made an adroit attempt to recover his lost prestige.
"When I say I have been influenced by Sovietski, I mean, of course, that I was once under his spell. A young writer commits many follies. I have long since passed through that phase. The false glamour of Sovietski has ceased to dazzle me. I now belong whole-heartedly to the school of Nastikoff."'
But this transparent act of ingratiation also founders:
'"Nastikoff no good," said Vladimir Brusiloff, coldly. He paused, listening to the machinery.
"Nastikoff worse than Sovietski."
He paused again.
"I spit me of Nastikoff!" he said.[...]
Vladimir Brusiloff proceeded to sum up.
"No novelists any good except me. Sovietski--yah! Nastikoff--bah! I spit me of zem all. No novelists anywhere any good except me. P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. No novelists any good except me."'

The second astonishing event is that Brusiloff reveals himself as a passionate golfer and a personal fan of Cuthbert's; at which point the young lady transfers her affections from the false idol Devine to the suddenly redeemed Cuthbert. Brusiloff barely notices, as he is too busy telling a highly spurious anecdote about Lenin and Trotsky playing golf in Nizhnii Novgorod ('someone in the crowd he tries to assassinate Lenin with a rewolwer--you know that is our great national sport, trying to assassinate Lenin with rewolwers--and the bang puts Trotsky off his stroke and he goes five yards past the hole, and then Lenin, who is rather shaken, you understand, he misses again... ').

Despite Plum's unorthodox grasp of Russian history and politics (one of his great comic contemporaries, Richmal Crompton, makes her hero Just William [an eternal superfluous schoolboy, or лишный лицеец] founder-member of the Junior Branch of the Society of Reformed Bolshevists, with the credo 'All gotter be equal. All gotter 'ave lots of money. All 'uman beings. That's sense, isn't it?' as expressed in The Weak Spot), his stories enjoy great popularity in Russia, as the success of the Russian Wodehouse society shows; and its foundress, Natalya Trauberg, daughter of director Leonid Trauberg, relates a wonderful story about how her parents met. The young director, who would have just finished making his version of The Overcoat at this time, 'read with great fervour the books of Wodehouse. True, they were hastily translated, abriged and vulgarized, but all those "young men in spats" lived the very life that their unfortunate Soviet counterpoints were dreaming about. To that I can testify, for I was growing up among them. The year of 1927 saw especially large number of those little books, and my mother, pregnant with me, was reading them. About three years before she was renting a room from a rather avant-garde artist, Valentina Khodasevitch. It was then and there that my mother (her christian name is Vera) heard two young men laughing and one of them, Leonid Trauberg, told her that they were waiting for the landlady and reading an excellent author named Wodehouse. It was the first meeting of my parents." You can read more here; additionally, I think Plum would have appreciated her brief site bio, which remarks delightfully 'She lived in Lithuania for many years and was an example of Christian with two lungs.' Perhaps Brusiloff wrote it.

"You see," intoned the Stegosaurus/Triceratops cross impressively, "my nephew's tale shows that there is no need to despair of niche, irrelevant, antiquated hobbies. There will always be someone else to share your interests!"
"That reminds me of a story about an Allosaurus I used to know," began the Diplodocus, unabashed.
But no-one was listening...

The full text of The Clicking of Cuthbert can be found online here.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Kukryniksy, or Let's Defeat and Annihilate The Enemy!

I have a soft spot for Russian caricaturists (I'm a big fan of P.M. Boklevskii, for example, and I wish I'd been less stingy when I once had a chance to buy a pack of Boklevskii postcards), and the Kukryniksy - once I resigned myself to the difficulty of spelling their ludicrous name - are among my favourites. Here they are in respectable middle age: Mikhail Kupriianov (far left), known in youth for his round classes, bushy hair, and Left Bank swagger; diminutive Porfirii Krylov (middle), who always looked like a grocer's apprentice, and the latecomer Nikolai Sokolov (seated right) with the round-eyed, faraway stare of a saint. The trio met in the early 1920s at VKhUTEMAS, the newly founded Moscow art college where Ekster, Popova, and Rodchenko were all then teaching, and by 1924 they had merged their three names into a quadrisyllabic byline that sounds like a barnyard cackle: KU-KRY-NIK(olai)+S(okolov)+ Y for plural: literally, the Kukrynikses. Who didn't they caricature? Hitler, Mussolini, each other, national stereotypes, Gorky, Meyerholdt, Marshak... Who didn't they illustrate? Most famously, Chekhov's collected short stories, Cervantes's Don Quixote, Gorky's Mother and Klim Sangin.

They could render sentimental or stirring scenes, as well as lyrical landscapes, but their unique gift for the darkly and self-mockingly grotesque gleams through the grimy chiaroscuro of their illustrations for collected editions of Gogol and Saltykov-Shchedrin. Then heads would roll...

Their enduring success brought them wealth and trips abroad (working individually, they produced an extraordinary number of delicate and chocolate-boxy views of French and Italian cities) after the war, but they earned this Elysian security by the unimpeachable verve of their propaganda drawings, much used to spur on the Russian war effort. From this sort of thing (a mocking look at Kerensky climbing into his disguise prior to fleeing the Winter Palace in October 1917) to this shortly-to-be-bayoneted Adolf, above right (with the wonderful slogan, Let's Mercilessly Defeat and Annihilate the Enemy).

Some of their work is oddly politically relevant today (like this Iranian oil-goat), and some of it is still deliciously irreverent (like this mockery of Dali).

"Working collectively greatly strengthened our friendship," wrote the Kukryniksy in a (predictably) collectively authored article in the 1975 commemorative volume Kukryniksy: Vtroem [The Kukryniksy: Band of Three]. "Each of the three of us takes care of his own development, but none of us, working alone, could outshine what we create collectively. In our collective, besides Kupriianov, Krylov, and Sokolov, there's a fourth artist, the one we care about most: Kukryniksy. We know that's he's just as essential to us as we are to him. And that's our good fortune."