As you may remember, I was not very generous towards Gorky’s Soviet Realism when I read him back in September. I have to admit, I haven’t gone back for more since, but I have decided it’s only fair to try out another popular Soviet writer, the acclaimed Kataev (brother of Evgeny Petrov who co-wrote the best-selling ‘12 Chairs‘).
One exciting thing about Kataev is that he is my forth Odessan author, showing this new town gaining literary significance to rival Moscow and Petersburg. Odessa (in modern Ukraine) was founded in 1794 and went on to become the forth largest city in Czarist Russia. More important than its size was its role as a free port and so home to a genuinely diverse, cosmopolitan population. Pushkin wrote of the city: ‘the air is filled with all Europe, French is spoken and there are European papers and magazines to read’ (quotation from Wikipedia). It’s not a coincidence that the two Jewish writers mentioned in this project so far (Babel and Ilf) were both from Odessa.
The port setting is especially important in my first Kataev novel. ‘A White Sail Gleams’ begins with a ‘Great Expectations’ inflected set-piece in which the young hero’s journey home from holiday is interrupted by a sailor and mutineer from the ‘Potemkin’ stowing away in the family coach. Petya is enthralled by the adventure and romance of the situation, though he is also busy coming of age, experimenting with love and starting school. In contrast, his friend (the Huckleberry Finn-like Gavrik) will deal practically with his own subsequent encounter with the freedom-fighter. The spoilt middle class boy and his fisherman bosom companion will take their own paths through the troubled years ahead, then into the sequel novel, ‘The Cottage in the Steppe’. In both books, they will travel through the rambling, violent streets of Odessa as they mature into a new world order.
Kataev is not an exciting author in the manner of the experimental revolutionary writers. As the above paragraph shows, he appears to be trying to marry the novelistic tradition to a new political world-view. Taking this ideology into the plot, Petya’s father will lose his job due to an ill-advised eulogy for his favourite writer; even when warned, the intellectual blindly insists ‘Tolstoi is not politics.’ It is tempting to ascribe such idealism to Kataev himself. These two novels are perfectly orthodox views of the period they depict, however they do seem to hark back to Tzarist, rather than socialist, literary forms. There are a whole host of capitalist literary allusions as well, from Rousseau to Mark Twain, not counting references to Turgenev, Lermontov and pretty much any other great Russian author you could name.
I don’t think Kataev is quite as great as his favourite writers. Certainly, his description of the 1905 Odessa pogrom (in which most Russians are Jew-loving humanitarians and the violence is the fault of a minority group of Cossacks) strains credulity for all that it celebrates the milk of human kindness. On the other hand, I vastly prefer his characterisation and interest in setting to Gorky’s serviceable story-telling. Overall, I’m really pleased to have given this, literally ‘politically correct’, Soviet writing a second chance. It’s nearly December, and most of my upcoming authors are not going to be quite to be quite so accommodating to the new regime. As I rush to the end of my year of Russian reading it’s been pleasant to stop off in the world of mainstream literature before diving back into the strangeness of the surreal and mythic with Bulgakov, Plastov and Krzhizhanovsky.