Kaverin, Veniamin Aleksandrovich. (Real family name, Zilber.) Born 19 April 1902 (6 April, Old Style) in Pskov, the son of a band conductor. He studied at the Pskov gymnasium and, while there, began to write poetry. At age 16 he moved to Moscow where, in 1919, he entered the history-philology faculty of Moscow University. Along with his studies, he also acted as an instructor for the artistic department of the Moscow Soviet.
In Moscow, Kaverin was a frequent visitor to Stall of Pegasus, a famous bohemian literary cafe, where more than once he saw the likes of Mayakovsky, Esenin, and Briusov. Once, he went to see Bely, who spoke with him seriously about his Notes of a Dreamer.
On the advice of Yuri Tynyanov--who just happened to be Kaverin's brother-in-law and first literary teacher--in 1920 Kaverin transferred to the philosophy faculty of Petrograd University while simultaneously studying Arabic at the Institute of Eastern Languages.
Kaverin's first attempt at prose was the story Odinnadtsataya Aksioma ("The Eleventh Axiom"), which he entered in a contest sponsored by the Petrograd House of Writers. The story had two separate plot lines which eventually intersect. The first plot concerned a monk who loses faith and chops icons to pieces; and the second narrative concerned a student who gambles away all his money. the story won the first prize of 5,000 rubles and the attention of Maksim Gorky himself, whose advice and generosity over the coming years Kaverin was to long cherish.
"The Eleventh Axiom" also came to the attention of Viktor Shklovsky, who brought Kaverin to the House of Arts to meet up with Zamyatin, Zoshchenko, Fedin, and others in the Serapion Brothers.
In 1923 Kaverin graduated from the Institute of Eastern Languages, and in 1924, from Petrograd University. He then undertook graduate studies and in 1929 defended his dissertation on the history of Russian journalism.
His first publication was a collection of stories entitled Mastera I Podmasterya ("Masters and Journeymen", 1923). The six works in this collection were "Carpenters", "Shields (and Candles)", "Engineer Shvartz", "Chronicle for the City of Leipzig for the Year 18...,", "The Purple Palimpset", and "Fifth Wanderer". The stories were fantastic, experimental in style, influenced by the German romantics, especially E.T.A. Hoffmann. As Kaverin himself later described the collection:
It was a collection of fantastic stories; in them, monks, devils, alchemists, students were active, and the author as well, who from time to time called his heroes together in order to find out from them what he should do next. It was, of course, a child's play.Kaverin sent a copy of the collection to Gorky, who criticized it for having poor language, no style, groundless exoticism, aimless play of fantasy, and no concern for disclosing the nature of social relations.
In 1925, Kaverin left the fantastic and made his first attempt at reflecting the real world in the tale Konets Khazy ("End of the Gang"), a depiction of gangsters and robbers of the NEP era. In this work, a gang of robbers plan to break into the safe of a state bank. They need a steel specialist, but kidnap the wrong one. Needing a stenographer, they kidnap one with whom the chief of the gang happens to be in love. The stenographer's former boyfriend, whom she jilted earlier, is a political prisoner. He escapes jail and, learning that she is missing, tracks her down. He enlists the aide of a prostitute to rescue the stenographer. Just as the stenographer is rescued, the prostitute's jealous boyfriend intends to kill the prostitute but, in a case of mistaken identity, kills the stenographer instead. The gang is arrested, and the stenographer's boyfriend is sent back to prison.
To prepare this work, Kaverin read the criminal chronicle, attended trials at court, and spent evening in the numerous dives in Leningrad. He managed to reproduce the language of the theives with such a fullness, that he had to append a dictionary of thieves' jargon to the tale. A certain accompanied the publication of "End of the Game", with one reviewer calling it a "handbook on hooliganism".
Also, in 1925, Kaverin published Devyat Desyatikh Sudby ("Nine-tenths of Fate"). This tale begins in 1915, when an ensign in the tsarist army named Shakhov is court-martialed for his revolutionary activities. To save his life, he betrays a comrade. Guilt-ridden, he exiles himself to Siberia, refusing to answer the letters of his girlfriend, Galya. Finally, he returns to Petrograd just in time for the Bolshevik uprising, in which he participates. During the assault on the Winter Palace he shoots and wounds an anti-Bolshevik officer, who turns out to be Galya. She recovers, but is alienated from him. Shakhov fights honorably during the Civil War, and finally he and Galya are reunited. But then the secret of his pre-Revolutionary disgrace is revealed. He is arrested and about to be given the death sentence when the comrade he betrayed suddenly appears. The comrade had managed to escape execution back in 1915 and now pleads for Shakhov's acquittal. Shakhov is released and, along with Galya, lives happily ever after in a new life of dedication to the Revolution.
Kaverin's first novel, Skandalist ("The Troublemaker"), came out in 1928. It is a damning portrayal of old-fashioned, inflexible attitudes among the older academics in Leningrad. Russian Formalism is parodied as it is shown disintegrating. One character in the work is possibly modeled on Viktor Shklovsky. Kaverin began work on this novel on a dare, after some witty man of letters ridiculed Kaverin, saying the novel was beyond his skills.
In 1930, like many other writers, Kaverin took a trip to the state grain farm "Gigant". Kaverin noted that for him, an indoor man immersed in books, this trip was a double discovery--a discovery of new people, under new, unprecedented circumstances, and a discovery of his own opportunity to write about these new people. The result was Prolog ("Prologue"), a book of realistic travel stories, the theme of which Kaverin saw as an attack upon the stagnant world of rural life and a struggle for the consciousness of the peasant, wonder-struck at what the people of "Gigant" had accomplished.
His second novel Khudozhnik Neizvesten ("Artist Unknown", 1931), addresses problems of culture in the Soviet Union of the late 1920s. It revolves around a philosophical discussion between and engineer and a painter.
Ispolneniye Zhelanii ("Wish Fulfillment"), 1934, offers a type of comparative study of two different students at Leningrad State University. The first student, Trubachevsky, a student of literature, begins his career brillilantly, deciphering a previously undecipherable Pushkin manuscript. Giddy with success, Trubachevsky is manipulated and seduced by evil-doers who manage to steal some valuable Pushkin manuscripts and make Trubachevsky the patsy. The second student, Kartashikhin, a medical student, is more slow in his progress, but shows more strength in character, avoiding many of the traps into which Trubashevsky fell. In the end, he helps rehabilitate the shamed Trubachevsky.
This novel marked a stylistic change in Kaverin's work. As Kaverin himself described it:
Until then, I had been writing in a stylistically complex way, not only not striving for the simplicity and distinctness of language, but, I must confess, being shy about this simplicity if it unwittingly showed through. Now I started writing in the most ordinary, conversational language, in the only possible manner that had been dictated by the transition to a depiction of reality which was quite new to me.Perhaps Kaverin's most popular work is Dva Kapitana ("Two Captains"). The hero begins as a young boy with a difficult childhood--worthy of a Dickens novel. He grows up fascinated with the fate of a pre-Revolutionary explorer who disappears under mysterious circumstances in the Arctic before the first world war. As fate would have it, the boy grows up to be an arctic explorer himself with intimate ties to the old captain's family. The machinations of the family's duplicitous cousin, who has eyes on the old captain's widow, hinder our hero's development, as do the Spanish Civil War and World War II. But, in the end, the young captain returns to the Arctic, marries the old captain's daughter, and locates the remains of that long-lost expedition.
The first volume of "Two Captains" was published in 1939. Kaverin's work on the second volume was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Kaverin worked as a war correspondent for Izvestiya and, not having abandoned his plans to continue "Two Captains", he requested that he be sent to the Northern Front. There, he later confessed, among the Arctic fliers and sumbariners, he got a clearer understanding of his characters and the direction the rest of the novel should take.
For his reporting, Kaverin won the Order of the Red Star. And through it all, he managed to publish a few collections of stories, including My Stali Drugimi ("We Became Different"), Orlinii Zalet ("Eagle's Flight"), Russkii Malchik ("Russian Boy") and others.
The final installment of "Two Captains" appeared on 1944, and the book was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1946.
In 1949, Kaverin published the first installment of his trilogy Otkrytaya Kniga ("Open Book"), the last installment of which appeared in 1956. It is the story, spanning 35 years, of a woman microbiologist who proposes a bold new theory. The theory is opposed by the entrenched obscurantists, but the biologist presses on, at great personal expense. During the time he was working on this novel, Kaverin had to fight off critics who complained that he focused too much on love and who pressured him to part with his "not fully valuable" heroes and start occupying himself with ones absolutely positive in all respects.
In 1956, Kaverin served as an editor of the two-volume anthology Literaturnaya Moskva.
In 1957, Kaverin fell gravely ill. He was forbidden to read, write, and speak. He only gradually recovered. During his enforced idleness, he began recalling events from his past life and, drawing on this material, mentally creating the pages of his next work, Neizvestnii Drug ("Unknown Friend") which was published in 1959.
In the post-Stalin period, Kaverin continued to explore the issues of the intelligentsia and science (Kusok Stekla "Piece of Glass", 1960). He also addressed the abuses of the Stalin era. For example, in Sem Par Mechistykh ("Seven Pairs of Dirty Ones", 1962), the discrepancy between legality and morality of the Stalin time is revealed in a tragic episode during the transportation of convicts in the White Sea.
Pered Zerkalom ("Before the Mirror", 1971) again spoke to issues of culture and art. In this work, the hero discovers the civilizing mission of art.
A volume of memoirs, Osveshcheniye Okna ("Lighted Windows", 1978), provides a useful and interesting account of the events and literary atmosphere of the early 1920s.
In addition to his own writing, Kaverin worked to help rehabilitate other writers whose reputations had been besmirched, such as Bulgakov. In 1966, Kaverin was among the 62 writers who signed a letter to the Presidium of the 23th Party Congress, requesting the release of Sinyavsky and Daniel, who had been sentenced to hard labor. Two years later, in January 1968, Kaverin wrote to Konstantin Fedin in defense of the renegade Solzhenitsyn. And in 1969 he fired off a protest telegram when attempts were made to commit Zhores Medvedev to a psychiatric institution.
Veniamin Kaverin died in Moscow on 2 May 1989.