Kaverin’s Troublemaker.

I’ve finished Veniamin Kaverin’s Скандалист [The troublemaker] (see this post), and I’m very glad I read it, even though it’s by no stretch of the imagination a great novel. It was, after all, an apprentice effort (he’d written a few shorter attempts at fiction), and the circumstances of its writing were not exactly Tostoyan (this is Kaverin’s own account in Richard Sheldon’s translation, from “Šklovskij, Gor’kij, and the Serapion Brothers” [Slavic and East European Journal 12.1 (Spring, 1968), pp. 1-13]; you can see the Russian here — scroll down to “Зимой 1928 года я встретился”):

During the winter of 1928, at Jurij Tynjanov’s place, I often met with a lively and clever writer then at the zenith of his powers and deeply convinced that he knew all the mysteries of the literature business. We spoke about the novel genre, and the writer observed that even Čexov could not cope with this genre, that it was not surprising that it was not succeeding in contemporary literature. I objected, and he, with the irony at which he was always unusually good, expressed doubts about my abilities in this complicated business. Infuriated, I said that I would launch a novel and that it would be a book about him — about a trouble-maker who conducted his whole life with an awareness of his literary role. He derided me — but to no avail. On the very next day, I began to write the novel The Troublemaker, or Evenings on Vasil’ev Island. Obviously, only youth is capable of such decisions, and only in youth could you so openly follow at the heels of your future character with a notebook. He laughed at me: “the utilitarian factory by the name of Kaverin.” I jotted even this down. He spouted jokes, made brilliant witticisms, sometimes unusually well directed and remembered for a lifetime — I blushed, but jotted them down. Probably, he was fully convinced that nothing would come of the novel; otherwise, he would have been more cautious in this unusual duel.

This “lively and clever writer” was Viktor Shklovsky, a fascinating figure whose writings, a blend of memoir and literary analysis, I’ve enjoyed for years; it was tremendously interesting to see him portrayed (very believably) as a character in a literary work. (He was known among the Serapion Brothers as Брат Скандалист [Brother Troublemaker].) He is shown as funny and argumentative, given to causing trouble for its own sake and then having to apologize later; his culminating deed is plucking the young Vera Barabanova away from Leningrad, where she was poised to marry an unsuitable man she didn’t love, and sweeping her off to Moscow with him on the train. (I’m guessing that her surname, ‘Drum,’ was suggested by the first futurist collection, the 1915 pamphlet Взял: Барабан футуристов [Took: Drum of the futurists].) Shklovsky, understandably, wasn’t pleased by the book (few people like seeing themselves from the outside), but it’s an affectionate as well as acerbic portrait (Kaverin was his student and friend), and on the whole he comes off well.

But beyond the overstuffed plot (two aged brothers reconnect after a quarter of a century, there are various academic intrigues, young Nogin — a stand-in for the author — can’t study because he’s desperately in love with Vera, etc. etc.), the novel is of interest as an example of the “documentary” writing so popular between the wars, not only in the Soviet Union (see this post on Mariengof’s Cynics) but elsewhere (Joyce, Dos Passos, Gide, Döblin, Reznikoff): writers felt the need to incorporate chunks of found reality into their work. Kaverin not only quotes and alludes to Shklovsky’s work repeatedly (mostly Zoo and Third Factory), he quotes chunks of a medieval Old Russian text Professor Lozhkin is trying to study between the various distractions of the plot — I actually found a version online, and I will insert the quoted passage as an image here:

Lozhkin decides that the Малкатушка or Малкатошва in the texts he’s comparing (Малкодушка in the one I found) must reflect a Hebrew Malkat-švo ‘Queen of Sheba,’ and he keeps wondering about the mysterious word кражма (here крыжма). Also, there’s a long and funny account of a lecture where the lecturer (Dragomanov) doesn’t show up but sends a flunky to read what turns out to be a deliberately foolish and insulting proposal that arouses indignation in the audience, which doesn’t enjoy being spoofed; this is scavenged from an event in the 1850s, in which Osip Senkovsky (who in the novel is studied by Nogin) pulls the same trick on a distinguished assembly (you can read an account here, beginning “С первых же страниц было видно, что положения”). And there are many bits that made me laugh, like “Сердце у него стучало, как метроном, как сердце” [His heart beat like a metronome, like a heart] and “Он вернулся домой мокрый и с таким лицом, что старуха, которая отворила ему дверь, растерявшись, заговорила с ним по-татарски” [He returned home wet and with such a face that the old lady who opened the door for him lost her head and started talking to him in Tatar].

But what really impressed me was that, even if it’s not a great novel, it’s a real one, with people who feel real struggling with what feels like life, however exaggerated. Shklovsky wrote no novels, and Tynyanov’s were lifeless attempts to exemplify his literary theories (see my review of Смерть Вазир-Мухтара [The death of the ambassador plenipotentiary]), but Kaverin is discovering that he is a real writer of fiction. And the plot element that felt most real to me and most moved me was Vera’s desperate attempts to paint despite the poverty and chaos of her life (she decided to marry the rich jerk in hopes that she might win the freedom to create art); it seemed a foreshadowing of his great 1971 novel Перед зеркалом [Before the mirror], which I wrote about last year. I look forward to reading more Kaverin.


  1. If anyone wonders, kryzhma according to footnote 3 is χρισμα probably in it’s menaing of ointment.

    Addendum: And yes, they had sex and “Malkodushka” gave birth to the future Nebuchadnezzar.

  2. Greek χρισμα goes back to Proto-Indo-European *gʰer- ‘rub’ (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/g%CA%B0er- ), whence quite a number of other reflexes in PIE languages, including English chrism (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/chrism) and hoplochrism (ibidem).

    See too https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%87%CF%81%CE%AF%CF%89#Ancient_Greek for more reflexes.

  3. David Marjanović says

    Grime in particular.

    (It’s on the list of doublets posted yesterday.)

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    Is the b in grob normal as a reflex of PIE *[gh]er-wos? In Old Irish, this is the normal reflex, i.e., Proto-Celtic *garwos > OI garb (maybe this was [Beta], the modern word is garbh). If there was *[gh]er-gwos, this could have led to the b already in Proto-Celtic.

  5. David Marjanović says

    I don’t know if that’s where grob comes from. (The DWDS waffles a lot and doesn’t draw a conclusion.) -rw- > -rb- is a thing in German, but here you’d need to assume a metathesis for no further reason.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    what about *gerb > *GEr[schwa]b > *geR[SCHWA]B > *geROB > grob? The ge could have been interpreted as a prefix and unstressed, so e.g., *herb > *HEr[schwa]b, but does not change stress to the second syllable and redevelops to herb.

  7. David Marjanović says

    rw > rb happened after OHG; in OHG, the prefix was consistently written with i, AFAIK, so apparently not interpreted as containing a schwa (…even though the etymological vowel was a, and there’s no regular way to get i from that).

    I don’t know of any other cases where a schwa was reinterpreted as a root vowel. OHG was full of epenthetic schwas (each spelled with four or five different letters at different occasions), but they all disappeared between OHG and MHG, and so did the non-epenthetic ones starting in early MHG.

    Don’t overlook the Low German and Dutch forms in -f listed in the DWDS.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks. For the Low German forms, I thought this was a regular correspondence, e.g., Ger Erbnis, Du. erfenis (with epenthetic e and maybe another unwritten one between the r and f, at least in some accents ????). Note Dutch grof/grove and English gruff are *grV, where V is a short vowel.

  9. David Marjanović says

    It is regular when it’s from word-final *β; rw > rb is a strictly High German phenomenon as far as I know.

    And I don’t know any Erbnis, only Erbe “heritage, inheritance”.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    Sorry about inventing Erbnis. My memory is playing tricks on me. So you think the gruff/grof/grob is from some sort of *grV[Beta] (or this with schwa at the end) and not e.g., *gVrw (or this with schwa at the end) with metathesis.

  11. PlasticPaddy, you could very well have found this form dredged up in some handbook somewhere.

    In Sanders (“selten”):


    Bernese statute, 1361:


    The peculiar Quirinus Kuhlmann (of Silesian birth but widely travelled):



  12. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks, but it is more likely i just “Germanised” a Dutch form; the DWDS corpus has Erbe but no Erbnis as far back as 1500. I was going to ask David M, what the outcome of *[gh]er[gh]er-wos would be in Germanic, but that protoform is just silly.

  13. As this is the most active thread, I just want to say that John Cowan’s “Commented-on posts” page seens to be down again – at least I can’t access it.

  14. Yup, down. I have notified JC.

  15. David L. Gold says

    Here is German erbnis meaning ‘Erbschaft’ in a document dated 1361, quoted s. v. Erbnis in the Deutsches Rechtswörterbuch https://drw-www.adw.uni-heidelberg.de/drw-cgi/zeige?index=lemmata&term=erbnis#Erbnis

  16. “Commented-on posts” is back up.

  17. Great, thanks!

  18. David Marjanović says

    So you think the gruff/grof/grob is from some sort of *grV[Beta] (or this with schwa at the end) and not e.g., *gVrw (or this with schwa at the end) with metathesis.


  19. I didn’t find the original Russian for the English “He laughed at me: ‘the utilitarian factory by the name of Kaverin.’ I jotted even this down” in the linked source. So I googled what was the likely original (“завод имени Каверина”) and found a link to the original 1954 publication of Kaverin’s “Poiski i resheniya” in Novy Mir: https://imwerden.de/pdf/novy_mir_1954_11__ocr.pdf

Speak Your Mind