Valentin Kataev

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Valentin Petrovich Katayev
Born (1897-01-28)28 January 1897
Odessa, Russian Empire
Died 12 April 1986(1986-04-12) (aged 89)
Moscow, USSR
Occupation NovelistDramatist
Nationality Russian
Relatives Yevgeni Petrov (brother)

Valentin Petrovich Kataev (Russian: Валентин Петрович Катаев; also spelled Katayev or Kataiev; 28 January [O.S. 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.[1] Kataev's relentless imagination, sensitivity, and originality made him one of the most distinguished Soviet writers.

Life and works

Kataev was born in Odessa (then Russian Empire, now Ukraine) into the family of a teacher and began writing while he was still in gimnaziya (high school). He did not finish the gimnaziya but volunteered for the army in 1915, serving in the artillery. After the October Revolution he was mobilized into the Red Army, where he fought against General Denikin and served in the Russian Telegraph Agency. In 1920, he became a journalist in Odessa; two years later he moved to Moscow, where he worked on the staff of The Whistle (Gudok), where he wrote humorous pieces under various pseudonyms.

His first novel, The Embezzlers (Rastratchiki, 1926), was printed in the journal "Krasnaya Nov". In the satire of the new Soviet bureaucracy in the tradition of Gogol, the protagonists are two bureaucrats "who more or less by instinct or by accident conspire to defraud the Soviet state".[2] The novel was well received, and the seminal modernist theater practitioner Constantin Stanislavski asked Kataev to adapt it for the stage. It was produced at the world-famous Moscow Art Theater, opening on 20 April 1928.[3] A cinematic adaptation was filmed in 1931.

His comedy Quadrature of the circle (Kvadratura kruga, 1928) satirizes the effect of the housing shortage on two married couples who share a room.

His novel Time, Forward! (Vremya, vperyod!, 1932) describes workers' attempts to build the huge steel plant at Magnitogorsk in record time. "The title...was taken from a poem by Mayakovsky, and its theme is the speeding up of time in the Soviet Union where the historical development of a century must be completed in ten years."[4] The heroes are described as "being unable to trust such a valuable thing as time, to clocks, mere mechanical devices." Kataev adapted it as a screenplay, which was filmed in 1965.

A White Sail Gleams (Beleyet parus odinoky, 1936) treats the 1905 revolution and the Potemkin uprising from the viewpoint of two Odessa schoolboys. In 1937, Vladimir Legoshin directed a film version, which became a classic children's adventure. Kataev wrote its screenplay and took an active part in the filming process, finding locations and acting as an historical advisor. Many of his contemporaries considered the novel to be a prose poem.

During the 1950s and 1960s Kataev edited the magazine Yunost (Youth), publishing some of the most promising literary talent of the young generation, including Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina.

Kataev himself developed a style he called "lyrical diary," mixing autobiography and fiction. In 1966 the literary magazine Novy Mir printed his The Grass of Oblivion (Trava zabveniya), which was published under the title The Holy Well (Svyatoy kolodets: Trava zabveniya) two years later. In it, Kataev weaves scenes from the lives of his family, friends, and lovers, events of Soviet history, and memories of his travels in America into a kind of stream-of-consciousness autobiography, considered by some critics to be the summary work of his career. Dodona Kiziria describes this work as "a tribute to the Russian writers who were forced to choose their path during the revolution and the civil war", adding that "in all of Soviet literature it would be difficult to find tragic images comparable to the two poets in this narrative (Bunin and Mayakovsky) who are compelled, finally and irrevocably, either to accept or reject the role offered to them by the new social order".[5]

Kataev was proud of being a Soviet writer, and related the following account.

Dodona Kiziria describes Kataev as "one of the most brilliant writers of modern Russia. Of the authors writing in Russian, only Nabokov could be considered a worthy rival in his ability to convey with almost cinematic precision the images of visually perceived reality."[6]

English translations

  • The Embezzlers (novel), Dial Press, 1929.
  • Squaring the Circle (play), S. French, 1936.
  • Peace is Where the Tempests Blow (novel), Farrar & Rinehart, 1937.
  • The Blue Handkerchief (play), University of California Press, 1944.
  • The Small Farm in the Steppe (novel), Lawrence & Wishart, 1958.
  • A White Sail Gleams (novel), Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1954.
  • Our Father Who Art in Heaven (story), from Great Soviet Short Stories, Dell, 1962.
  • The Beautiful Trousers, The Suicide, A Goat in the Orchard and The Struggle Unto Death (stories), from The Fatal Eggs and Other Soviet Satire, Macmillan, NY, 1965.
  • The Grass of Oblivion (memoirs), McGraw-Hill, 1970.
  • Mosaic of Life (memoirs), The Book Service Ltd, 1976.
  • The Sleeper (story), from The New Soviet Fiction, Abbeville Press, 1989.
  • Time, Forward! (novel), Northwestern University Press, 1995.

See also


  1. As related in Kataev's volume of memoirs My Emerald Crown.
  2. Brown (1982, 101).
  3. Benedetti (1999, 388).
  4. Brown (1982, 102).
  5. Kiziria (1985, 647).
  6. Kiziria (1985, 648).


  • Benedetti, Jean. 1999. Stanislavski: His Life and Art. Revised edition. Original edition published in 1988. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-52520-1.
  • Brown, Edward J. 1982. Russian Literature Since the Revolution. Revised edition. 101-2, 341-2.
  • Kiziria, Dodona. 1985. "Four Demons of Valentin Kataev." Slavic Review 44.4 (Winter): 647-662.
  • Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (1995), p. 623
  • Seymour-Smith, Martin. 1973. Funk & Wagnalls Guide to Modern World Literature. 951.

External links