The Grass of Oblivion by Valentin Kataev
Well, I have Shoshi’s Book Blog to blame for having finally pushed me into reading Valentin Kataev! He’s an author I was aware of, and in fact I have his “Time, Forward!” on the shelves, though I think I picked it up because it was regarded as a classic of Soviet literature, and also because I love Sviridov’s music of the same name:
However, Shoshi’s excellent post here woke me up to him a bit more, and I went off and did a bit of research, and what I found out was fascinating. Wikipedia has a fairly short entry: Valentin Petrovich Kataev (16 January 1897 – 12 April 1986) was a Russian and Soviet novelist and playwright who managed to create penetrating works discussing post-revolutionary social conditions without running afoul of the demands of official Soviet style. Kataev is credited with suggesting the idea for the Twelve Chairs to his brother Yevgeni Petrov and Ilya Ilf. In return, Kataev insisted that the novel be dedicated to him, in all editions and translations. Kataev’s relentless imagination, sensitivity, and originality made him one of the most distinguished Soviet writers.
However, other entries I’ve found are a little more critical, implying that Kataev is a complex figure to deal with; an author who survived the Stalin era, and went on writing into the Thaw; someone who was able to satirise the Soviet regime, but also to write what could be considered the definitive novel of Socialist Realism; and someone who did not obviously stand up against the regime, but was known for assisting other authors. He was seen to criticise some writers, and they him, but the moral complexities of living in the Soviet Union are hard to judge in simple black and white terms, and so it seems best to try to form an opinion him on his writing alone – that’s what we’re interested in, after all.
Despite having “Time, Forward!” on the shelves, I was attracted by the sound of “Grass” which was written in the 1960s. In lyrical prose, Kataev casts his eye back to his youth and his inspirations, through his friendships with authors Ivan Bunin and Mayakovsky. It was the latter that particularly pulled me in, as I’ve had an obsession with Mayakovsky for well over 30 years, and I was fascinated to find out that Kataev knew him. And the two writers discussed here could not be more diametrically opposed: Bunin, supporter of the old regime, despiser of the new, and the man whose memoir of the Bolsheviks coming to power is titled “Cursed Days”; and Mayakovsky, Futurist, revolutionary and ardent Red.
The book begins in Odessa, where Kataev grew up, living with his father and brother Yevgeni Petrovich Kataev (Petrov). Bunin was living locally and the fledgling author, still at school, sought out the great man and somehow a friendship sprang up. As life changes around them and Kataev comes of age, the friendship continues, but Bunin is unhappy about what is happening in Russia and his views differ from the younger man, who is enthused by the coming of the revolution. The second section, at a later stage of Kataev’s life, gives snapshots of Mayakovsky close to the end of his life, and in fact on the eve of his suicide; Kataev records Mayakovsky’s struggles against the increasing bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and the closing down of freedoms to write. Towards the end of the books we encounter Kataev travelling in Paris, as he tries to meet up once more with Bunin but their paths are never destined to cross again; what he does do is leave behind a touching portrait of Bunin’s widow in exile.
For an author often dismissed as a Soviet realist, Kataev’s writing is vivid and evocative; it’s also very beautiful in places and really brings to life whatever he’s writing about. The author describes his style as “mauvism”, which he claims is “the art of writing badly” but he does himself a disservice here; and when he later admits it may be more a case of writing how he wants to, it’s clear he may be a little tongue in cheek… Kataev employs an impressionistic, almost stream-of-consciousness technique, fusing memoir, quotation, fiction and autobiography. It’s a heady mix which really transports you into the world about which he’s writing; there are wonderful pen-portraits of life in pre-War and Revolution Odessa, snapshots of the countryside during the Civil War, and a vivid memoir of Mayakovsky which really brings the great man alive.
The transition between the two parts of his story becomes a transition between two worlds, and Kataev tells this brilliantly by dipping into fiction. Because of the long distance between his current self and that past strange world of Civil War, he creates himself as a fictional character Pcholkin and we witness him suffering from typhus and recovering, travelling the country during the conflict between Red and White to try and educate the country people, and dramatically cheating death.
Of course, this book having been written so long after the events, it’s possibly to question how much of it is accurate, particularly in view of the dramatic events that were taking place at the time. Kataev addresses this himself in several places, stating “It should not be forgotten that I am writing down in these notes only what memory has retained….”. However, even if the conversations are approximations recreated from memory, the book still gives a vital and strong sense of both Bunin and Mayakovsky, and the world all the writers were living through. There is in particular a wonderful vignette of Mayakovsky meeting Bulgakov, and I *so* wanted to read more of this! (In fact, I read later that Kataev was in love with Bulgakov’s sister, which is another odd coincidence).
The book is translated by Robert Daglish, who provides an illuminating foreword and discreet, occasional footnotes. “Grass” is probably not a book to be read if you don’t have some background knowledge of Russian/Soviet history and the context, but for anyone who loves the country and its landscape and writers this is essential reading. I personally came out of the book feeling I’d been through the emotional wringer, witnessing the dramatic changes in Russia, the effect on older writers, the Revolution being embraced by younger writers and the despair of Mayakovsky when he saw the causes he’d believed in so strongly going sour. “The Grass of Oblivion” goes straight onto my list of favourite Russian reads, and I can’t wait to read more of Kataev’s work!