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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.

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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.

–o–?—C–?–µ–? –i. –u. 1934

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!

It’s a Dog’s Life!

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Five Russian Dog Stories
Translated by Anthony Briggs

When I visited the lovely Kew Gardens last summer, I dropped into the Kew Bookshop on my way and picked up this little volume of canine tales (or tails – ha!) from a selection of Russian authors. Published by Hesperus and translated by Anthony Briggs, it seemed ideal to turn to during my book hangover following “Dead Souls”!

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The book does indeed contain five dog stories: “Mumu” by Turgenev; “Good old Trezor” by Saltykov; “Chestnut Girl” by Chekhov; “Arthur, the White Poodle” by Kuprin; and “Ich Bin from Head to Foot” by Ilf and Petrov. The stories are interspersed with little verses and rounded off by a postscript by Turgenev. First off, I should give a TRIGGER WARNING – these dogs don’t in the main have happy lives and as my Middle and Youngest Child used to cryptically say to each other, “End well it will not”.

“Mumu” and “Good Old Trezor” tell tales of long-suffering dogs and it’s immediately clear that you should read these as allegories, with the sufferings of the dog standing in for the suffering of the peasants – and in fact the peasants in the stories don’t have a particularly nice life either. “Chestnut Girl” is less bleak, with the title dog running away from home and meeting up with a circus performer and becoming part of his act. But the call of home, however much worse it is than the new life, is always there….

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“Arthur…” also features a performing dog, but here the range of the story is a little wider as the canine and his owners travel the Russian coast performing and trying to make a living. Their encounter with a rich family and an unbelievably spoiled brat makes for a very entertaining tale. And the final piece by Ilf and Petrov is a wonderful satirical story of a poor dog attempting to fit into the restricting requirements of Soviet realism and failing miserably…

ilf_PetrovThis volume was a lovely collection, very enjoyable to read and despite the sadness, very thought-provoking. It’s quite clear that you wouldn’t want to be either a peasant or a dog in either Tsarist or Soviet Russia! The translations read well in the main, although I did have some quibbles with the Chekhov… As I read, I realised I’d already encountered this story, in the “Moscow Tales” book I read a while back. There, it was titled “Kashtanka” (the animal’s actual name); the dog was described as “rust-coloured” which I rather felt captured the dog’s nature and circumstances better than “chestnut”; and the other circus animal all had their original names (proper Russian forename and patronymic) which again conveyed the quirkiness of the whole situation better. The way the names had been Anglicised somehow smoothed the story out, made it less Russian and less comic and for me, I prefer the version in “Moscow Tales” by a long chalk.

However, that caveat aside, I liked my peep into the world of Russian dogs – the only question is now, what to read next!

Russian Reading Month: Final Day and Update!

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Well, it’s the last day of November and so Russian Reading Month draws to a close!  I have enjoyed taking part in this and I certainly won’t be stopping reading the Russians just because it will soon be December – especially as I still have to complete “In The First Circle”, which will run on well into the next month!

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But I’m very pleased with the books I have read for this challenge which have been:

The Conquered City by Victor Serge

Nicolai Gogol by Nabokov

Faust by Turgenev

Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky

and over half of In The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn!

The month has also been fascinating because it’s made me think much more about the volumes I’ve read in the past, the translators and their translations and what it is I really enjoy about Russian books.  I’m also keen to re-read many of my old favourites like Ilf and Petrov. So thanks to Tuesday in Silhouette for setting this up – it’s been great fun!

As for the chunkster – it’s turning out to be a great joy. Everything I read by Solzhenitsyn raises his status as a writer in my eyes, and “In The First Circle” is no exception.  It’s a complex, well constructed and many layered work, but surprisingly easy to read and I shall look forward to reviewing it soon!

 

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