Kaverin’s Unknown Artist.

Once again I’ve finished a novel without having a clue what to say about it — not because it’s beneath description but because it’s doing unusual things in ways I’m not familiar with. You’d think I’d be used to Veniamin Kaverin, having read and enjoyed his Скандалист [The troublemaker] (post) and Перед зеркалом [Before the mirror] (post), but he’s the kind of writer who doesn’t repeat himself, and Художник неизвестен [The artist is unknown, tr. as The Unknown Artist] (see this post) kept me off balance from beginning to end. Fortunately, Michael Falchikov has a useful chapter-by-chapter summary in Neil Cornwell’s indispensable Reference Guide to Russian Literature, which I will further condense to give you an idea of what plot there is.

The novel is divided into eight parts (“Encounters”) with an epilogue. […] The novel opens on a Leningrad street scene, peopled by various examples of low life. Arkhimedov and his neighbour Shpektorov meet and go to Arkhimedov’s run-down studio where he lives with his wife Esfir and baby son Ferdinand (named after the German socialist Lassalle). Shpektorov knows that Arkhimedov has failed to adapt to “real life” […]. A chance meeting at Lassalle’s statue between the narrator and Arkhimedov with Ferdinand leads to a night of conversation, after which the narrator resolves to write a book about Arkhimedov at some future date. […] Meanwhile, Arkhimedov has drifted away from Esfir and now spends his time in a children’s theatre, with two disciples, Zhaba and Vizel’. […] The next Encounter takes the author away from Leningrad to a state farm in the steppes where Shpektorov is working […]. A Dr Veselago now enters the story and tells a touching tale of encountering Arkhimedov in the street, defending a group of homeless people, who are being cleared out of the city as undesirables. Arkhimedov takes up their plea for trust and is himself arrested. The author goes looking for him and finds Esfir working in the theatre as a costumier. However, Shpektorov is already there and the author and Vizel overhear a conversation in which he begs her to give up Arkhimedov and acknowledge Ferdinand as their child. But she refuses and, shockingly, a short while after, throws herself to her death from the fifth floor. [Arkhimedov becomes a half-crazed drunk and disrupts a wedding.] The enigmatic epilogue describes a painting depicting the scene of Esfir’s death, with the final cryptic designation — “Artist Unknown”.

But what does it all mean? It has to do with the politics and literary politics of 1920s Leningrad, for which I turn to Donald Piper’s very helpful 1970 monograph V. A. Kaverin: A Soviet Writer’s Response to the Problem of Commitment: The Relationship of Skandalist and Khudozhnik Neizvesten to the Development of Soviet Literature in the Late Nineteen-twenties:

Thus, closely modelled upon the father of left art and the source of so many of its ideas, Khlebnikov, Arkhimedov may be said to represent the spirit of the movement as surely as Shpektorov represents the spirit of the social command [i.e., the dictates of the Party — LH]. Their clash is as much between two people as it is between two forces. The real and symbolic levels of the book are closely related and each is important.

First, on the “real” level of the book, Arkhimedov is an artist who, after quarrelling with Shpektorov, temporarily abandons his wife and his art in order to combat forces which he believes are destroying Soviet life. He is supported by his disciples, Zhaba and Vizel’, and, to a lesser extent, by his wife who can never persuade herself to abandon him. He himself places his main hope in Ferdinand. As the symbol of Soviet youth, he will ensure Arkhimedov ultimate victory. In the course of the action both he and his ambitions are frustrated. He is defeated both by the forces which Shpektorov embodies and by the man himself. The story is the tragedy of Arkhimedov, the man and moralist. […]

At a time when conformity and optimism were the measure of an artist’s success, Kaverin has written a book about an artist whose life was a rebellious failure. At a period when personal motifs were frowned upon and suicide an unpopular theme, Arkhimedov’s last and finest painting is full of his own suffering, and its theme is the death of his wife. The novel reaffirms the importance of so-called eternal themes. Again, the background of the picture is full of small, insignificant details which Arkhimedov noted in his despairing walks through the Leningrad streets. These materials have nothing in common with socialist construction or the grandiose theme. Further, this picture is painted by a man whose view of art most closely coincides with the views of early left artists. Drawing heavily upon Khlebnikov and the transformationalists, Kaverin has shown that such art, at its deepest level, has a sense of moral and social commitment. At a time when left art was being condemned for being “abstract” or “apolitical,” Kaverin has shown the opposite to be true. Far from being uncommitted, many left artists wished to transform the world according to their own patterns. Their ethical values were inherent in their art.

And yet, Arkhimedov makes no impression on reality, which instead becomes more powerful, neglecting his work, disrupting his home life, destroying the confidence of his followers and finally humiliating him. One way of life defeats another. The constructivist spirit, the morale of the conquistadors, engulfs social life, penetrates art and defeats Arkhimedov. This does not imply that time deliberately destroys the artist. Kaverin writes his novel as a document: the forces of hypocrisy, dishonesty and tedium gradually and inevitably destroy the opposition. Arkhimedov is fighting against insurmountable odds. His battle with the Zeitgeist of the era is preordained to fail and his end is inevitable. […]

By the mid-twenties Khlebnikov’s “new vision” which Tynyanov claims might have changed the course of Soviet-Russian literature had been forgotten, a possible revolution in the arts halting before a revival of nineteenth-century realism and the emergence of propagandist journalism. In Skandalist and in Prolog Kaverin has shown that he appreciates socialist construction and the priority given to it. Much less acceptable, however, has been the fate of art and of the artist at a time when the goal and methods of the revolution were becoming more clearly defined. The artist, if he is to be true to his vocation, cannot compromise his conscience or hawk his work. An art which complies with the social command is a dead art. […]

But it is the catastrophe only of one historical period. The epilogue describing the painting in fact reaffirms the value of Arkhimedov’s art. Even if in the future the painter is anonymous, the painting lives on. The epilogue reaffirms the novelty of the technique, the aptness of the materials, the courage and truth of the theme — it affirms the genius of a new vision. Art, for whose sake Arkhimedov lived and for whose sake, ironically, he was forgotten by his times, will ultimately be indebted to him. In the last analysis he was right to have been out of step. […]

Kaverin violently disagrees with Lef’s attitude to art. Art, great art, cannot be hired or ordered, for it demands service only to itself. The failure of Arkhimedov’s attempts to “invade” life, the rejection of his vision as an artist, the death of his view of art, the loss of Esfir’ and the child, all this is important only in so far as it contributed to the painting of the picture, for the painting alone survives. The artist is anonymous. His fate, the reasons why he painted the picture, these are unknown. The vision which is rejected today survives to be proclaimed in the future, leading its “own, special life,” an ideal life, the life of art.

I don’t ordinarily care much for explanations that depend on the sociopolitical background of an artwork, but in this case it’s essential knowledge, and I hope I get the chance to reread the novel now that I have some grasp of how it works. (A printed edition would help, but I haven’t been able to find one — the novel has, unfairly but understandably, been largely forgotten, since it was severely criticized on its first appearance: the Soviet critic V. Bakinsky wrote “Художник неизвестен В. Каверина относится к числу произведений, свидетельствующих о попытках активизации буржуазной литературы, попытках буржуазного реставраторства в искусстве [is one of those works that bear witness to attempts to revitalize bourgeois literature, attempts at bourgeois restoration in art].”) I’ll finish with a couple of linguistic tidbits. Here’s the section that introduces Zhaba, first in Russian:

Каждый, кто в начале двадцатых годов учился в Ленинградском университете, знает Жабу.

Толстый и шумный, он целыми днями шатался по коридору и спорил. Я любил слушать его. Врожденный лингвист, смотрящий на все глазами своей науки, он спорил только о словах. Подобно детям, для которых называние мира подчас является объяснением его, он не мирился с тем, что общий разум уже назвал предметы и назначил им известное место в общей системе понятий. Утверждая, что имена вещей были продиктованы не разумом, но живым впечатлением, он переименовывал мир с такой же легкостью, как женщины переставляют мебель. Имена жили в его представлении отдельно от вещей — и не менее действительной жизнью.

Он был легкий, ленивый, любивший петь или бормотать. Я помню, как, зайдя к нему однажды, я нашел его лежащим на полу, на спине, на полуизодранной «Правде».

Печь топилась, он грел толстые ступни.

Огромный мешок с сахаром стоял подле него по левую руку, а по правую — чайник с водой, и он ел сахар, с хрустом, как сухари. А вокруг там и сям сидели серые крылышки газетной бумаги. Он отрывал от газеты по кусочку, прочитывал и бросал прочь. Когда я вошел, он с кряхтеньем доставал фельетон, застрявший где-то под поясницей.

— Я лежу здесь со вчерашнего дня, — сказал он мне, — и ем сахар; это очень полезно, и врачи утверждают даже, что он вполне может заменить все другие продукты питания. И я прочитал все, кроме этого проклятого фельетона, который застрял у меня под задом. Помоги мне достать его, милый, а я в благодарность расскажу тебе об одном замечательном открытии, о котором ты можешь, при желании, написать отличную книгу с предисловием академика Марра.

Он был пьян.

Открытие касалось театрального языка…

— Почему фарс? — восторженно спросил Жаба. — А почему не скукобой? И не спектакль, а созерцины. Смотри, насколько лучше: «Я был на созерцинах!»

Университета он так, кажется, и не кончил. На последнем курсе он вдруг открыл в себе непреодолимую склонность к живописи и бросил лингвистику несмотря на то, что профессора предсказывали ему блестящую научную карьеру. Мне не случалось видеть его картин, но я слыхал стороной, что они были из рук вон плохи.

And now in Ross’s translation:

Every student who attended the Leningrad University in the twenties knows Zhaba.

He was a stout, noisy man who would spend whole days pacing the corridor, arguing. I loved listening to him. A born linguist, he would subject everything to the discipline of his science and would argue about nothing but words. Like children who see in the word “world” an explanation thereof, he would never become reconciled to the fact that reason had already given names to every object and assigned to each its place in the general scheme of things. Asserting that the names of objects were dictated not by reason but by some vivid impression, he began altering the world as heedlessly as a woman rearranging the furniture. In his mind names lived apart from their objects—and their lives were no less real.

He was a nonchalant, lazy man who loved to sing or to mumble. I remember one day when I went to see him, I found him lying on the floor on a torn copy of Pravda.

The stove was alight and he was warming his massive feet by it.

А huge bag of sugar lay beside him on his left, on his right a teapot with some water, and he was eating sugar, crunching it like а rusk. And all around him there were grey scraps of newspaper. He was tearing bits of the paper, reading them and then throwing them away. When I entered he was groping for an article which had fallen somewhere behind him.

“I’ve been sitting here since yesterday”, he said to me, “eating sugar; it’s very good for you and the doctors say that it can be used to the exclusion of every other form of nourishment. And now I’ve read everything except that damned article which has fallen down under my seat. Help me find it, my friend, and as a mark of gratitude I’ll tell you about a remarkable discovery around which you might, if you so desire, write a first-rate book with a preface by the academician Marr.”

There must have been something in the teapot which was certainly not water, nor tea, for he was drunk.

His discovery was concerned with theatrical language . .

“Why farce?” Zhaba asked delightedly. “Why not boredom-killer? Why spectator? Eye-strainer!” And not show but contemplatory. How much better this is: “I’ve been to a contemplatory!”

I don’t think he finished his studies at the university. In his last year he discovered he had an irresistible urge to paint and abandoned linguistics, although his professors had foretold a distinguished career in the science. I have never chanced to see any of his paintings, but | have heard it said that they are inexpressibly bad.

I read another novel or story recently where someone was living exclusively on sugar, but I can’t for the life of me remember what. And here’s a bit of Persian:

«Руйат гом карди» — ты потерял лицо. Это значит — потерпеть поражение, покрыть себя и весь свой род позором. Так говорят полководцу, проигравшему бой, послу, не выполнившему поручение шаха.

Rujat gum Kurdi-—you’ve lost your face. It means—to suffer defeat, to cover oneself and one’s family with shame. That is what they say of a general who has lost a battle or of an ambassador who fails to accomplish the Shah’s mission.

Note that Ross renders Руйат in the Teutonic manner as Rujat rather than Ruyat (which would actually be intelligible to the English-speaking reader: it’s the 2 sg. possessive form of روی ruy ‘face, surface’) and карди (i.e., کردی kárdi, 2 sg. past of کردن kardan ‘to do’) as “Kurdi” for reasons best known to him- or herself.

I realize this excessively long post will be of use to almost no one, but it will help me immensely if I ever get around to rereading the book, and who knows — maybe someone else will need a reading aid someday.


  1. “A printed edition would help, but I haven’t been able to find one …”

    By the way… Has ordering books from Russia become impossible because of the war?

    It is not terribly rare: it is included in numerous collections.

  2. Actually when I read the excerpt about the novel-ram I decided that I’ll read it only when in the mood for something exceptionally silly, boring and horribly written.

    The excerpt about Zhaba (“Toad”) in turn is great.

  3. David Marjanović says

    for reasons best known to him- or herself.

    It looks like autocorrupt.

  4. I forgot to mention this bit of idiocy in the translation (the context is a play about the French Revolution):

    My nieces took hold of my arms and shook them, I raised my eyes—the Jacobites to be from the district of Sainte Antoine were already standing on the stage.

    I mean, you don’t have to know Russian to realize “Jacobites” should be Jacobins and “Sainte” should be Saint. For that matter, you should realize you need hyphens in J’s-to-be in order for the sentence to make any sense.

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