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Ivan Ivanovych by Mykola Khvylovy. A Case for Sherlock Holmes

Drawing by Andrii Klen

'That still won’t make me change my mind –

Why do you want me to think in clichés?’

(Ivan Ivanovych)

Published in 1929, Ivan Ivanovych is a satirical short story by Mykola Khvylovy. Written from the third person perspective by a participant narrator who talks to the reader, it describes Ivan Ivanovych’s daily life in a fable tone that may sound ironic. Ivan is a revolutionary political party member during the full development of the New Economic Policy, he is married, has two children, lives in a comfortable house in a small town and spends time with his friends and party colleagues.

Two themes are embraced by Khvylovy: Ivan’s life in its daily unfolding and the Soviet ideology that regulates his behaviour. The first theme has been parodically addressed, using the device of juxtaposition of the Soviet present side-by-side with the Tsarist past, so as to highlight the analogies. Satire is sustained by a tragic subtext - the real protagonist of this short story, which may be interpreted as a bitter consideration of a shattered dream (‘the revolutionary masses have not won’). With regard to Soviet ideology, the second issue explored, the author underlines the misery and imperfection of life, by means of a narrative form, such as the conte philosophique.

Remarkable is the presence of a dense network of intertextual references to authors and works that, in addition to qualifying the text as an example of high literature, makes the real literary meaning stand out. In terms of literary macro-genres, it can be said that Khvylovy’s ideal reference library is primarily composed of three major satirical works: The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais, Gulliver’s Travels by Swift and Candide: or The Optimist by Voltaire, a sort of spiritual triad that supports intertextuality in Ivan Ivanovych. In addition to these three masters, the humanist Thomas More, with Utopia, and the writer and polemicist Thackeray are also echoed in Khvylovy’s work.

With regard to Thackeray, the author of The Luck of Barry Lyndon, Khvylovy particularly refers to an essay about English humourists of the 18th century and, as will be subsequently explained, he uses this as a spark for an original meta-satirical digression. Other important sources are the French novel, especially Bel Ami by Maupassant and The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal. Russian literature is evident with Gogol and Saltykov-Shchedrin, with regard to the Tsarist era, along with two novels by Ehrenburg, relating to the author’s contemporary Soviet age. A particular reference, also retraceable in other pieces by Khvylovy, is made to some works by the Marquise de Sade.

Such a highly cultured use of intertextuality, as well as the intellectual complexity of the various political and cultural references, make Ivan Ivanovych an undeniable example of high literature. But then, the concept of creating high literature was the mission of Ukrainian Modernism and the road (Quo vadis?) paved by Khvylovy himself during the literary debate in the 1920s, which was realised in full contrast with the tendency towards the masses and utilitarianism that was adopted by the realist school. The modernist path, developed for an urban audience, could have enabled the overturning of a low cultural status that imperial narration had always attributed to Ukrainian literature.

The short story Ivan Ivanovych is to be deservedly considered as a full modernist text. It provides its readers with several prompts for further personal literary research, together with the possibility of pinpointing an intertextual plot, which may be used as a cue to identify the message of the short story – its real literary meaning. To use an investigative metaphor, the short story Ivan Ivanovych turns out to be a ‘case for Sherlock Holmes’.


During the tsar’s time, Ivan Ivanovyč – ‘My hero, a nice fellow’, as Khvylovy refers to him – was a revolutionary: he used to like Rabelais and Gulliver’s Travels and was expelled from the Department of Law due to his Voltairianism. However, Ivan has changed in the meantime; he has become Comrade Jean, and an outstanding member both of the party and of the ‘new communist lifestyle’.

In a cultured and amusing manner, Khvylovy opens a window onto the aristocratic and tsarist past, and highlights its displacement in the present time (‘This damned heritage of tsardom!’). The description of ‘Comrade Jean’s family circle, which Khvylovy provides by depicting its language and its behaviour, as well as less significant gestures (‘Comrade Jean wipes his forehead with a snow-white handkerchief’), evokes a 19th century bourgeois novel portrait of a marriage. We find the ‘hostess’, his partner, Halakta-Marfa Halaktionivna, who ‘straightens her bodice and with half-closed eyes that are so wise’ and his common friend, Metodii Kyrylovych, with the most appropriate hand-kiss. Between the two there is a not-so-veiled liaison, implicitly accepted by Ivan, and its intertwining recalls the so-called ménage à trois of Georges Duroy, aka Bel Ami in the novel of the same name by Maupassant. This Maupassant hero is, in fact, a frequent visitor to his lovers’ houses, and a friend of their husbands who, like our Ivan, implicitly put up with the situation, or simply do not care.

Our couple have two children, who also have ‘revolutionary’ names: May, enrolled as an ‘Octobrist’, and Violet, a name of Romantic memory, still a candidate for that title. To complete the picture, there is a governess, French of course, and a female cook who sleeps on a mattress in the hallway.

Ivan’s salary consists of ‘only’ 250 rubles, ‘but one can speak of this amount only when one does not count various small items as overtime pay and the regular honorarium […] for writing articles that are not exactly original’. It is not difficult to understand that Ivan earns a lot of money. He wears horn-rimmed glasses, he does not wear cheap clothes, he spends his holidays at the seaside in Crimea or at the spa in the Caucasus, he lives in an elegantly fitted bourgeois apartment of large dimensions (‘of only - only! - four rooms, not counting the kitchen and the bathroom’), saved from the national inventory of areas that should have affected all Soviet citizens. Even the street where he lives is no longer the same. Once ‘Governor Street’, it is now ‘Thomas More Street’, a reference to the author of Utopia. And in town, ‘taxis race gingerly’, à la Marinetti, and no longer do ‘antediluvian hansom cabs trail slowly and sadly’.

The target of Khvylovy’s satire is also the ‘monumental-realist’ paradigm of the ‘new communist lifestyle’, analysed in detailed features and well described by the author in lively gags. Charity organisations are included in this short story, poured out by Ivan with a proud sense of belonging, as well as NEP (Nepmanky often have a manicure done) and the programme of economising. Such a programme is introduced to an astonished audience by a party official as ‘one of the latest slogans of our proletarian Party’ and is explained by the exhilarating example of the pencil and the holder: ‘the pencil should not have been thrown away. A holder should have been purchased at the price of two kopeks and then it should have been used until the very end’. Furthermore, the text also addresses the housing crisis, which ‘has made itself felt here and […] my hero has faced it courageously’, together with the confiscations. References to electric light and technological inventions are also presented in the text as metaphors of communism (à la Zoshchenko: ‘What is the word of the day, comrades? It is electrification’), and the comments on the difference between socialism and communism are also highlighted (‘Communism is a higher stage’). There are also complex, and, at the time, deeply debated questions, such as party-line self-criticism, Plekhanov’s aesthetics and the theory of Socialism in One Country, in addition to some refined psychological aspects, such as the party officials’ pervasive sense of fear of falling into the scheming trap and then being purged.

Khvylovy’s satire is high and follows one style throughout the entire text. In this respect, Umberto Eco’s words appear to be suitable when he describes high satire as a service rendered to the thing derided or as a moment of civilisation in his famous work Elogio a Franti (In Praise of Franti), or when he goes on to describe its prerequisites as being created by a situation, being accepted completely, almost loved and then mocked infamously. It is definitely true that Khvylovy laughs on the inside, with empathy (his hero’s life is ‘touching’, his inventions are ‘good expedients’, his end is ‘tragic’) and, in his disillusionment, he is able to be confident (‘everything is possible’, ‘his nice youngster is growing rapidly’).

In addition to being high, Khvylovy’s satire is cultured and deeply intertextual; what is striking in the text is the peculiar openness, found in the use of different forms of intertextuality: from simple references and direct quotations, to a refined pastiche that celebrates several literary works, up to concatenated cross-references to a homogenous group of texts. Khvylovy’s intertextuality may fulfil a double purpose: on the one hand, it suggests to readers its literary and spiritual collocation and, on the other, it provides them with a collection of standardised languages appropriate to his satirical aim.

Various are the pastiches on The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, which imitate the chancellery jargon (‘à la Stendhal’). The characters of Stendhal’s novel, set in a fictionalised Parma court after Waterloo, behave like courtesans and speak a bureaucratic and stilted language against the background of surroundings built on intrigue and stamped paper. The chancellery style is dense and spread throughout the pages of the novel, so much so that it gradually clouds and replaces the plot, such that it becomes the real protagonist. The events described in Stendhal’s text are constantly repeated, modulated by a bureaucratic and rigid court paradigm, until they cease to be meaningful and become nothing more than an indefinite and ineffective beating around the bush.

Khvylovy opts for the language of The Charterhouse when he Aesopically speaks of what we could define as the ‘giant Soviet chancellery’, which demands subordination and consistency from its members, by means of theories and key words that will eventually turn out to be a replacement for free thought and spontaneity. Indeed, Khvylovy’s narrator says: ‘[…] the petty bourgeois soul is overcome by anguish […] telling man to rebel against the fact that in our society there is no room for satire’ and he uses a comment about that feeling of sadness produced by the light autumn drizzle as an excuse. Numerous and sophisticated are the pastiches from Maupassant: if Stendhal represents the chancellery jargon of the narration, the author of Bel Ami becomes one with the bourgeois speech of the text which, once in the hands of Khvylovy, is developed into a useful tool that is required to highlight the feebleness of the ‘new communist lifestyle’. The scene when Marfa Halaktionivna and Metodii Kyrylovych are sitting together in the parlour recalls a 19th century depiction of bourgeois interiors, with Metodii Kyrylovych as Bel Ami and Marfa Halaktionivna as the coquette who ‘sits down to read Lenin and Marx, her hand stretches out involuntarily for a volume of de Maupassant. This usually happens when a fresh vernal breeze, so lovely, and yet so unsubordinated to the monumental-realistic theory, steals into the room, even into her bosom’. Moreover, the Ukraine party newspaper, Visti, is described using words similar to those uttered by the Maupassant hero when describing the Parisian daily newspaper Vie Française.

Khvylovy imitated not only the French author’s style – with great results, incidentally – but also one of his titles (deliberately?), in Val’dšnepy (The Woodcocks) a novel written in 1927, following Tales of the Woodcock, a collection of short stories produced by Maupassant in 1883.

If Maupassant reflects the bourgeois spirit of Khvylovy’s speech, Ehrenburg represents the major key language (‘Comrade Halakta manages to keep herself in hand. At such times, she finds escape in novels like Julio Jurenito with a preface by Bukharin or The Love Story of Jeanne Ney’).

Crucial in underlining the real meaning of the short story is a cross-reference to a group of texts with several features in common, which is what Genette refers to as ‘architextuality’. In Ivan Ivanovych, the architextual element is provided by free thought, the cognitive and spiritual trait that belongs to the three great minds, and recalled in this short story with a meaningful mystic intonation: Rabelais, acting as the father; Swift as the son on the right of the father, and Voltaire, as a ‘tendency’, the spirit – or better, the esprit – of such an ideal trinity. The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Gulliver’s Travels and Candide: or The Optimist are at the heart of what we can call Khvylovy’s ‘libertine library’ and they also represent an unmistakable clue to his literary and, above all, his spiritual position. All metaphors spread throughout the text to recall the three authors have, in fact, a spiritual nature, and represent such a literary triad as the Holy Trinity. For Ivan Ivanovych’s author, free thought appears to assume the importance and strength of a faith, in addition to being one of the high literature sources to which to refer. Outlining Ivan’s literary past and his bewilderment (‘he promised, in the event of the victory of the revolutionary masses, to display Gulliver’s Travels as one of his favourite books and to place it on the right hand of Rabelais’), the author has introduced the real topic from the very beginning: the disillusionment towards his communist dream, towards his Ivan. The loss of what Khvylovy calls the ‘Voltairian tendency’, the impossibility of placing Gulliver’s Travels on the right of Rabelais, show us a shattered dream that will result in the normalisation of the Revolution and the end of the strength of free thought. Khvylovy turns to a double, the writer Thackeray, Aesopically adapting a comment about the greatness of Swift’s genius: ‘An immense genius: an awful downfall and ruin. So great a man he seems to me, that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling’. Khvylovy agrees with Thackeray and in his Aesopic version, Swift is replaced by Saltykov-Shchedrin and the Great Empire becomes the Russian Empire.

Therefore, the resulting metasatirical digression refers to the positioning of satire in Russian history. The author of the masterpiece The Golovlyov Family (1880) – as Khvylovy states between the lines - was able to express his thought during the Russian tsardom and was even appointed Vice-Governor, while in the Soviet Republic, where free thought should have been a Bible, he had to write a ‘short story pitched in a major key’ so as to have it ‘read by all the citizens of our republic’. From such a perspective, the dense intertextual plot helps reveal the nature of Khvylovy’s short story, that is authentically in a minor key and is, therefore, elitist.

The Swiftian and Voltairian approach is evoked by Khvylovy with a parody of the technological spirit of the ‘new communist lifestyle’ (electrification, amazing inventions), which involves Ivan’s soul and body in the creation of a fly-killer - an electric one, of course. The extract about the fly-killer is a brilliant caricature, and it leads us into the unbridled empiricism of the Age of Enlightenment, by reviewing the scientific laboratory experiments (electric wind, Leyden jar, Franklin’s wheel and Galvani frog test) that Ivan can conduct at home, since he owns an entire scientific library, confiscated from some landowner. Ivan engages in the study of several subjects, and his excessive commitment compared to the results, together with his spirit of service (‘he studied hard with self-denial all winter long’), recall the 18th century myth of experimental physics mocked by Swift and Voltaire. With his ‘research work conducted for the purpose of scientific invention’, Ivan recalls the instrument manufacturers who used to operate in the 18th century Dutch workshops, as well as the ‘officers’ and the ‘Mateotechny’ (idle science) of the Kingdom of Quintessence of Rabelais. Engaged in activities of this idle science, the officers waste their labours: ‘for four livelong days […] they had been disputing on high, more than metaphysical preposition […] of goat's hair, whether it were wool or no’ or ‘Others out of nothing made great things, and made great things return to nothing’.

The scene featuring Ivan ‘the inventor’ leads us to think of an ideal ‘Soviet Academy for the Inventions’, echoing not only the Grand Academy of Lagado from Gulliver’s Travels, a parody of the Royal Society, but also the Academy of Science at Bordeaux, parodied in Candide. The so-called ‘universal artist’ of the Swiftian Academy, a building of five hundred rooms, each one occupied by one or more Projectors, informs Gulliver that ‘he had been thirty years employing his thoughts for the improvement of human life’. With such a goal in mind, some of his fifty assistants were ‘softening marbles for pillows and pin-cushions’ while others were ‘petrifying the hoofs of a living horse to preserve them from foundering’. Let us also mention Voltaire’s hero arriving in Bordeaux and parting ‘with his sheep, which he left at the Academy of Science’, which - the narrator goes on in an ironic tone – ‘proposed as the theme of that year’s prize contest, the discovery of why the wool of the sheep was red’. The form of Khvylovy’s narration is Voltairian, too, recalling the conte philosophique. His pastiche is positive, as meant by Marmontel, Voltaire’s friend, the Enlightenment thinker, that is, a pastiche admiratif on authors who, being considered prominent, consequently inspire other authors as guides.

Khvylovy’s libertine library also includes de Sade, albeit in a less explicit manner. A reference to the author of La Nouvelle Justine can be found in the scene where Halakta and Metodii Kyrylovych are discussing sexual education. This discussion occurs on the sofa, a piece of furniture that reminds us of an 18th-century boudoir, where Halakta and the family friend (the Bel Ami character) ‘sit down and begin to discuss the problem of sex’. After reluctantly approaching each other, they eventually transform words into actions. The linguistic expressions introducing such a passage evoke those used by Maupassant, who usually goes above and beyond, while Khvylovy creates fade-out, as in films: ‘At this point the author walks with decision to the door’.

Such an exit from the scene is also a pretext for a very effective polemic game that sheds light on the issue of Soviet censorship. Evoking de Sade is a fine artifice to stress the expression ‘sexual education’. By means of an allusive that is entirely of premises and consequences, of details and meaningful juxtapositions, ‘sexual education’ (a topic for conversations) becomes sexual ‘education’ (training). The tone and the spirit appear to be those of Philosophie dans le boudoir ou Les instituteurs immoraux - but ours is a mere hypothesis - a 1795 work by de Sade, the subheading of which is Dialogues destinés à l’éducation des jeunes demoiselles, a series of dialogues that address the education of young girls. ‘But then, you know, there are those exceptional individuals to whom sex remains a riddle’, says Marfa Halaktionivna to Metodii Kyrylovych. And she adds: ‘I tell you frankly and without any petty bourgeois prejudices. You cannot image what a great desire I have at times to caress strange men’. This scene also echoes Voltaire’s Candide, when, after seeing Doctor Pangloss, who ‘was giving a lesson in experimental physics to her mother’s maid’, Cunégonde, who ‘had a natural bent for the sciences […] yearning for knowledge’, found herself together with Candide in a secluded space (a sort of boudoir), behind a screen, where ‘their lips met, their eyes lit up, their knees trembled, their hands wandered’.

Therefore, we don’t think it is accidental that Philosophie dans le boudoir emerges as a powerful presence in the novel The Woodcocks, where the reflection on ‘ethics as a permanent crime’ evokes the pamphlet Français, encore un effort pour être républicains (Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans) at the end of the Philosophie dans le boudoir. A Sadian subtext may also be observed in the tale Myself (Romantica), 1923, a tragic consideration of the effects of revolutionary violence on the psyche of the individual. Sadian – or allusively Sadian – is the idea of going beyond the limit, which may even reach the final act of matricide, or that of serial shootings practised as ‘Bacchanals’. The presence of a Sadian-Voltairian subtext highlights the literary and spiritual collocation of the author within an ideal libertine current, in the way paved by the French and English esprit forts and by the last Russian Saltykov-Shchedrin. The bridge created by the polemicist free thinkers – to whom Thomas More will also be added, quoted in the form of a new name for a street – provides Ivan Ivanovych with a new meaning, that is, indeed, that of a libertine satirical work.

It is interesting to read the text by placing it on the shelf of Khvylovy’s enlarged library, which he builds up in the short story by naming, or indirectly suggesting, authors and books. We may analyse such a library as a map, according to space-time coordinates, which lead us into three countries and three ages. Khvylovy draws from Humanism and the Enlightenment in France and England and from 19th century satire in France and Russia. Of all the European literary sources, Germany appears to be missing, and not because of lack of consideration – we know from his polemicist pamphlets how relevant Goethe’s Faust was for Khvylovy – but rather because it was not relevant to his aim of giving his work a satirical meaning. The same can also be said of those authors who, according to Khvylovy, make European culture so decadent (Byron, Darwin, Marx and Newton). Let us not forget that Ivan’s wife, Marfa Halaktionivna, ‘sits down to read Lenin and Marx, her hand stretches out involuntarily for a volume of de Maupassant’. Also missing is the Russian literature between Gogol and Saltykov-Shchedrin, whose peculiarity, according to Khvylovy, is a passive pessimism that produced the literary types of the ‘superfluous man’, the ‘grey little man’, the ‘whimperer’ and the ‘dreamer’ who, as written on the pages of the polemicist essay Ukraine or Little Russia?, are opposed to Khvylovy’s cultural-historical type of the ‘courageous conquistador’.

We have already mentioned the importance of references to Maupassant, and these aimed to decode the profound meaning of the text. A large part of this small library is composed of texts belonging to the Age of Enlightenment, in particular, works by Voltaire, ‘responsible’ for the expulsion of Ivan from the Department of Law due to his Voltairianism and for that ‘Voltairian tendency’.

What then has Voltaire to do with Khvylovy? In our opinion, with the conservation of optimism in the practice of clear-headed thought, with vitality, the courage of competition and with the faith in the aesthetic – more than utilitarian - value of culture. In addition, as with Khvylovy and Gogol, when reading the contes philosophiques by Voltaire, we get the impression that the author must have enjoyed writing them. Despite everything, a sober optimism shines through Khvylovy’s short stories as part of his concept of the world (daring, fighting, being brave and loving life), as well as of literature. One need only consider the vitality of the Khvylovyan literary type of the ‘courageous conquistador’, in which we can recognise the Myth of the Frontier, or the definition of Romantic Life-ism, as Khvylovy labelled his style.

‘A hundred times I wanted to kill myself, but always I loved life more’, Voltaire writes in Candide. ‘Today is a wonderful sunny day. I love life, you can’t imagine how much’, Khvylovy writes in his notes before committing suicide on 13th May, 1933.

The fight, that of the polemicist, is part of Khvylovy’s life, as it is for Voltaire, two great ‘fighters’, who could not help practising the critical thinking of intellectually independent minds. In Candide, Voltaire has one of his characters, Senator Pococurante, say the following words: ‘For the matter of that I say what I think, and I care very little whether others think as I do.’ ‘That still won’t make me change my mind, and ‘Why do you want me to think in clichés?’ says Ivan Ivanovych, ‘unwaveringly’.

Even high literature, with universal, classical and humanist sources, belongs to both polemicists, together with the concept of a literature that is valiant because it is aesthetical. An interesting comparison can be made between Khvylovy’s library and that of the Voltairian Senator Pococurante. The Senator loves Ariosto and Tasso, Horace and Seneca, plus some English books ‘written with a spirit of freedom’ (this might be a reference to More’s Utopia and to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels); he does not like Homer, Virgil and Cicero, and he certainly does not appreciate Milton’s Paradise Lost, or the ‘four-score volumes of the Academy of Sciences’, defined as ‘rakers of rubbish’ and full of ‘chimerical systems, and not a single useful thing’. In both libraries, we can find Swift’s satire; Horace and Seneca would be a choice for the neoclassical Mykola Zerov (1893–1937), and Khvylovy likes them because they blend satire with stoicism. Those idle scientific volumes must be removed from the shelves of both libraries. Gogol, Maupassant, Saltykov-Shchedrin, would Voltaire have liked them?

If these are the classics for Khvylovy, the Ukrainian author himself is a classic for Yurii Andrukhovych, who, in his Bad Company, calls him dearly ‘Fitil’ov: a Russian’. After listing the ‘crazy’ protagonists of Ukrainian literature, he concludes by saying: ‘Literature could not be different […] a dark and silent cellar […] Good night, classics, we’ll meet tomorrow’. When Khvylovy’s polemicist pamphlets were published, some critics reviewed them as ‘a sudden breath of fresh air in a room whose windows had been closed for ages’, because of their ironic, lively and brilliant style (actual literary texts). Ironic, lively and brilliant is also the style of Khvylovy’s ‘major key short story’, which we consider a great journey through culture, riding a carousel, the same one that the author selected to illustrate the cover of the first issue of his Literaturny Yarmarok (Literary Fair), a cheerful magazine – and Gogolian – right from its title. It brings joy to think that, despite it all, Mykola Khvylovy made it.

Translated from Italian by Susanna Plazzi

Maria Cristina Colombo holds a Masters Degree in Psychology. She is currently enrolled as an undergraduate student of Slavic Literatures at Milan University.

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