Kataev, Valentin Petrovich. Born 28 January 1897 (16 January, Old Style) in Odessa. His father was a Russian, and his mother a Ukrainian. He published his first poem, Osen' ("Autumn") in a newspaper in 1910.

Kataev began writing stories in 1916 during World War I, in which he fought as a soldier. After the October Revolution, he served in the Red Army, fighting against Denikin's bands. Then, in 1920 he undertook journalism as a career in Odessa.

In 1922, he moved to Moscow and worked on the staff of the satiric journal Gudok. Also on the staff of the journal at that time were Ilya Ilf, Mikhail Bulgakov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and Kataev's own brother, Evgeny, who, under the pen-name of Petrov was to team up with Ilf to form the most successful comic writing partnership in all of Soviet literature.

Kataev's early works were satiric or comic. The short story Beautiful Trousers (1922) depicts a very hungry philologist who writes a play, hoping to sell it and make some money for food. But, his imagination driven wild by hunger, he creates a play that is too hard to produce, with infants, snakes, and crows in the cast. So, instead, the philologist steals a beautiful pair of trousers and sells them for food.

Another early story was Struggle to the Death (1925). In this work, the struggle against bureaucracy gets bogged down in bureaucracy as the director--acting both as director and as deputized deputy of his deputy who is on vacation--gets involved in intense bureaucratic in-fighting with himself.

Kataev's first novel was Rastratchiki, ("Embezzlers", 1926). It is a comic, picaresque tale of two employees of a Moscow trust who embezzle some money and go on a merry romp in search of "high society".

He then turned to drama with the play Kvadratura Kruga ("Squaring the Circle", 1927). It is a comedy based on the housing shortage in Moscow during the 1920s. Two young couples who share a room try to resolve inter-marital conflicts under the new morality of a new regime.

Kataev's works then took a turn toward the more serious. In 1928 he wrote Otets ("Father"), in which a quiet schoolmaster in a southern Russian town devotes himself to his son, who is arrested as a counterrevolutionary. When the son is released, he scorns his father, gets a cushy job and moves to Moscow, leaving his father to die a lonely death.

In the 1930s, Kataev, along with poet Demyan Bedny, visited the construction site of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Power Station as well as collective farms in the Don and Volga region. Then, when traveling through the Urals, they stopped in the town of Magnitogorsk. Kataev was so impressed with what he saw there, that he jumped off the train and remained for some time. The time he spent there provided the basis for his 1932 novel Vremya, Vpereyod! ("Time, Forward!"), considered one of the best of the Soviet Five-Year-Plan novels. It describes a brigade of workers who rush to break the world record for concrete-pouring while building the metallurgical plant at Magnitogorsk. Critics have noted the influence of John Dos Passos in this work.

Kataev's next novel was Beleyet Parus Odinokii ("A White Sail Gleam", 1936). It is a treatment of the 1905 revolution from the viewpoints of two Odessa schoolboys. It is based in part on Kataev's own memories of being an 8-year-old in Odessa at the time. As Kataev recalled in a short autobiographical sketch:

I clearly remember the battleship Potemkin, a red flag on her mast, sailing along the coast past Odessa. I witnessed the fighting on the barricades, I saw overturned horse-trams, twisted and torn street wires, revolvers, rifles, dead bodies.
In 1937, Kataev completed Ya, Syn Trudovovo Naroda ("I, a Son of the Working People"). Set in 1918, the tale opens with Semyon, a demobilized soldier, returning to his village, hoping to marry Sofya, daughter of the wealthy Tkachenko. The latter hopes to restore the old order and plots with loyalist elements and Germans to undermine the revolution and to thwart Semyon's marital intentions. In the end, Semyon, after Tkachenko's intrigues have cost the lives of two friends, is reunited with Sofya, and Tkachenko is arrested and executed. In 1939, Kataev worked with Prokovieff to turn this story into the opera Semyon Kotko.

During the Great Patriotic War, also known as World War II, Kataev served as a correspondent at the front for the newspapers Pravda and Krasnaya Zvezda.. There, as he later described it:

...for some reason it was the youngsters that made the biggest impression on me--the homeless, destitute boys who marched grimly along the war-torn roads. I saw exhausted, grimy, hungry Russian soldiers pick up the unfortunate children. This was a manifestation of the great humanism of the Soviet man. Those soldiers were fighting against fascism, and therefore they, too, were beacons of the revolution.
These impressions became the basis of his novel Son of the Regiment (Syn Polka, 1945). It tells the tale of a homeless orphan boy named Vanya, who is picked up by a Soviet front-line artillery unit. At first, the commander wants to send the boy to a children's home in the rear. But Vanya refuses to go, so the army relents and lets him stay on to fight with them. He gets his first bath in three years, a real Red Army uniform, and an opportunity to fire a cannon at those nasty Germans. He is sent on a dangerous secret mission behind German lines where he is captured. But, despite an unpleasant interrogation, he does not reveal the location of Soviet troops. Near the end, Vanya takes part in a fierce and bloody battle in which many of his new comrades are killed or wounded. But Vanya survives and his new, many-numbered Soviet family sends him to a military academy where dreams of Stalin urge him on to future success. concerning the adventures of an orphan boy adopted by a front-line regiment. For this work Kataev was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1946.

Za Vlast Sovetov ("For the Power of the Soviets", 1949) is a portayal of the underground activities of partisans in Odessa during World War II. Their headquarters are in the catacombs under the city.

In 1955, Kataev founded and, until 1962, served as the editor of the magazine Yunost, where he oversaw publication of works by Evgeny Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina, among others.

Kataev scored another literary success of his own in 1967 with the publication in Novy Mir of Svyatoi Kolodets ("Holy Well"). It is a lyrical-philosophical account of dreams the author has while under anesthesia for surgery. Scenes of family, friends, lovers, travel, and events of Soviet history are woven into a stream-of-consciousness autobiographical narrative that reflects the influence of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka. Another volume of reminiscences was entitled Grass of Oblivion.

Kataev was proud to be considered a Soviet writer. How it is he came to understand the essence of being a Soviet writer, he explained thusly:

Returning home one day, a long time ago, I found an envelope with foreign stamps on it in my letter-box. Inside there was an invitation from the Pen Club, an international literary association, to attend its next conference, in Vienna. I was a young writer then, and I was greatly flattered. I told everyone I met about the remarkable honour that had been accorded me. When I ran into Vladimir Mayakovsky in one of the editorial offices I showed him the letter from abroad. He calmly produced an elegant envelope exactly like mine from the pocket of his jacket. "Look," he said. "They invited me too, but I'm not boasting about it. Because they did not invite me, of course, as Mayakovsky, but as a representative of Soviet literature. The same applies to you. Understand? Reflect, Kataich (as he called me when he was in a good mood), on what it means to be a writer in the Land of Soviets."

Mayakovsky's words made a lasting impression on me. I realized that I owed my success as a creative writer to the Soviet people, who had reared me. I realized that being a Soviet writer means marching in step with the people, that it means being always on the crest of the revolutionary wave.
Valentin Kataev died in Moscow on 12 April 1986.
References: Odessa Web


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