Kaverin’s Mirror.

Veniamin Kaverin is well known to Russians but largely unfamiliar to the English-speaking world; he started out writing adventure novels but devoted himself more and more to the art of literature (and the art of remaining a decent person — he bravely stood up for Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky when they were being persecuted). I had never read anything by him, and my ignorance might have continued unabated for years; his most famous novel is The Two Captains, but I don’t have much interest in adventure novels these days. However, when I got up to 1971 in my reading project I saw he’d published a novel called Перед зеркалом [Before the mirror] in that year which he himself thought contained his best prose, so I thought I might as well give it a shot. I finished it today, and I’m still trying to come back to my own reality; it’s one of those novels that grips you until you fully inhabit it. It was also quite a wild reading experience.

To tell the truth, I almost gave up on it early. It’s an epistolary novel, consisting mainly of letters from Liza Turaeva to Kostya Karnovsky, and the first few, dating from 1910-13, were not especially gripping — typical teenage-girl letters full of self-deprecation, exalted feelings, and intricate analysis of emotions. I admired the realism but wasn’t confident it was going anywhere interesting. I persevered, however, and got to a passage by an omniscient narrator about Kostya’s life in Kazan (I greatly enjoyed the detailed portrait of Kazan; see my 2013 complaint about the lack of such things in Russian literature) which added useful perspective, and once Liza got involved in painting, the novel took off. It has one of the most convincing portrayals of an artist’s development and way of looking at the world I’ve ever read, and the more she struggled to focus on her art and keep the practicalities of life from interfering with it, the more I rooted for her. It was somewhat reminiscent of Merezhkovsky’s novel about Leonardo (which is quoted at one point), except that we know Leonardo, whatever difficulties he encountered, got lucrative commissions and became a Great Artist, which of course is easier if you’re male, whereas there’s no guessing whether Liza is going to succeed or fail. I was a little dubious about the idea of a passionate, all-consuming love lasting for many years after the lovers have parted — it seemed more like something out of the troubadours, or Alexander Grin’s féerie Алые паруса (Scarlet Sails), than real life — but it worked in the novel, and that’s what mattered.

Two feelings grew in me as I read: admiration for the Tolstoyan feeling of reality — the events seemed to be part of the real lives of real people rather than invented to further a plot — and trepidation as the dates advanced toward 1917: how would Kaverin handle the Revolution and the coming of the Soviet Union? Would the novel be distorted by the need to insist on the superiority of communism and the decadence of the West? I was especially nervous when Liza emigrated, first to Constantinople and then to France, while Kostya stayed in Russia; surely he would be trying to entice her back, and there was a great deal of scope for tendentiousness. But that never happened; instead, about three-quarters of the way through, I made a discovery that upended all my ideas about the novel.

In her hardscrabble life in Paris, longing for female friendship (all the men she befriends, mostly fellow artists, wind up making passes at her, which was one of the realistic elements I appreciated), Liza meets a poet named Larisa Nestroeva, and I very quickly realized from the description of her poems and personality that she was based on Marina Tsvetaeva. So I googled [Лариса Нестроева Цветаева] to see what had been said about it and immediately found this page, which left me bouleversé (as the French say):

Роман Вениамина Каверина «Перед зеркалом», написанный в 1965-1970 годах, – это пронзительная история любви в письмах, о жизни неординарной женщины, которая ищет и находит себя. Прототипами героев Каверина были художница Лидия Никанорова и профессор математики Павел Безсонов (в романе – Лиза Тураева и Константин Карновский). Легко угадываются прототипы других персонажей: это и муж Лидии, художник Георгий Артёмов (в романе он назван Георгием Гордеевым), и Марина Цветаева, которая выведена в романе под именем Ларисы Нестроевой, поэтессы, приходившей в дом главной героини, но не к хозяйке в гости, а к её черешневому саду.

Veniamin Kaverin’s novel Before the Mirror, written in 1965-1970, is a penetrating story of love told in letters, about the life of an unordinary woman who seeks and finds herself. The prototypes of Kaverin’s heroes were the artist Lidia Nikanorova and the professor of mathematics Pavel Bezsonov (in the novel Liza Turaeva and Konstantin Karnovsky). It is easy to guess the prototypes of other characters: Lidia’s husband, the artist Georgii Artyomov (in the novel called Georgii Gordeev), and Marina Tsvetaeva, brought into the novel under the name Larisa Nestroeva, a poetess who comes to the main heroine’s house not as her guest but as the guest of her cherry orchard [sic; it’s actually a single cherry tree].

Great heavens! So it was a roman à clef; the reason the events seemed to be part of the real lives of real people was that they were part of the real lives of real people, and there was a passionate, all-consuming love lasting for many years! I had to set the book down and wander around for a while, thinking about the difference this made, and wondering why it should make a difference at all. Surely a novel should be judged on its own merits as a composition, a work of art; what did its roots in reality have to do with it? And yet I was thinking of it very differently now; instead of admiring the verisimilitude, I was admiring the way Kaverin used the materials he found to create an effective portrait (much as an artist does with the people and objects she’s looking at). After all, Merezhkovsky was working from life as well, and yet his novel plods laboriously on, dragging in the people and places it feels forced to include, while Kaverin makes it all feel fresh, as though you’re living in the moment with his heroine. (Kostya, the man she loves, is brought to life only as much as needed to further the novel — it’s never entirely clear why she’s so devoted to him — but we do not, after all, get his side of the correspondence.) I’ve already sent off for a collection (Малое собрание сочинений) of Kaverin; I definitely want to read more of him.

If you read Russian, you can see some of Nikanorova’s letters (which Bezsonov turned over to Kaverin) here; she writes well, but of course doesn’t have Kaverin’s style. (She recommends Pavel Muratov’s Obrazy Italii: Putyevye zametki [Images of Italy: Travel notes], of which Clive James said “one of the most dazzling books of its type ever written. As a book on the Italian Grand Tour it not only stands directly in the tradition of Goethe, Gregorovius, Burckhardt and Arthur Symons, but it is better than any of them.” That’s another one I’ll have to read.) And you can see a fine self-portrait at that page I copied the blockquote from.

I’m going to have to take a break from fiction for a bit while I digest what I’ve been reading for the last week and a half, but eventually I’ll get back to 1971 (Aksyonov and Trifonov).


  1. I should add that the novel has been translated into German, Spanish, Romanian, and other languages; somebody should really get around to producing an English version.

  2. about Merezhkovsky’s Leonardo, I read it with a growing sense of anger that I couldn’t suppress. Where’s he getting all this? How did he get this repeating thing about Leonardo’s shrieking voice? If he was such an unplesant personality, how did he get all those lucrative commissions? Why?

  3. oh, Kaverin was a brilliant stylist, he should be on the reading list of every student of Russian literature and language. And he was a bridging figure, lecturing and writing on language and literature well into the 80s. I don’ have The Mirror in print edition, but I’ve kept his book of memoirs ‘Hello, brother, it’s so hard to write’ / “Здравствуй, брат, писать очень трудно”.
    Thanks for writing up on him!

  4. Kaverin helped Zoschenko during his excommunication years and wrote letters in support of Zabolotsky trying to get him released, at a time when supporting a political prisoner carried considerable risks. But Kaverin knew that well because his big brother Lev (Lev Zilber, the microbiologist) spent much of the late 1930s and the early 1940s in prisons and labor camps. Kaverin – together with Zilber’s ex-wife and fellow microbiologist Zinaida Yermolieva – did all he could to free Lev. They let him out in 1944; the next year, Zilber was elected to the Academy of Medicine and awarded a Stalin prize, in one of those insane reversals of fortune that happened in the years of terror. Kaverin was always grateful to Yermolieva and wrote The Open Book based on her life story.

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