Andrei Platonov

3 04 2010

Category; Literature

It can feel like Proust has a monopoly on literary memory with his Madeleine moments; he should have stronger competition from the writer Andrey Platonov:

He knew from a childhood memory how strange and sad it is to see a familiar place after a long separation. Your heart is still bound to the place, but the unmoving objects have forgotten you and do not recognise you; it is as if they have been living an active and happy life without you, and you have been alone in your feeling – and now here you are before them, an unknown and pitiful creature.

From Soul, published by New York Review Books

Andrey Platonov is a writer of such depth and beauty that discovering his work for the first time can be a shock. How on earth could such great literature be found by chance, on a pile in the remainder section, rather than on the shelves of the world’s classics?

Platonov was a Soviet writer of the same generation as Vasily Grossman whose own genius has only recently been recognised. Entwined with the Soviet system and victims of it, this generation of writers lack the absoluteness of total suppression, which would allow their work to be discovered intact. They published quite widely in their day but their work was sometimes lauded, sometimes bowdlerised and sometimes suppressed.

Platonov was certainly a victim of the Soviet system, not that victimhood is a mark of literary quality. As a mirror to that truth; servants of evil can also have great eloquence, as admirers of Celine would point out.

In this case A.S. Gurvich, doing the party’s work, wrote beautifully in condemnation. He published a 40-page criticism of Platonov’s work in which, according to Robert Chandler, his chief criticism is of Platonov’s bourgeois expressions of pity. To read Gurvich without the context of time, audience and motivation is to read high praise:

Wherever a lonely, forgotten man might be wandering, Platonov follows him like a relentless shadow, as if afraid that someone’s mute grief might die in obscurity, without giving birth to any answering sorrow. He feels himself to be the mother of every orphan and son of everyone who is dying…

To illustrate Platonov’s ‘crime’ of pity, take this extract from Soul;

She was unable to explain why she sometimes felt ashamed to be alive, sad to feel that she was a woman, a human being who wanted happiness and pleasure; even when she was alone, this consciousness sometimes made her hide her face in her hands and blush beneath her palms.

Platonov cannot write about his own son, taken to the Gulag at 15, and dead from a tuberculosis that Platonov himself would later die of, so he writes about a cow who is inconsolable after her calf is taken to slaughter. You don’t need to know about Platonov’s son to appreciate the story, I wasn’t aware when I read it; it is a universal story of grief:

The cow was not eating anything now; she was breathing slowly and silently, and a heavy, difficult grief languished inside her, one that could have no end because, unlike a human being, she was unable to allay this grief inside her with words, consciousness, a friend or any other distraction…she only needed one thing – her son, the calf – and nothing could replace him: Neither a human being, nor grass, nor the sun.

The translation is extraordinary, a work of great care and skill and proof of the possibilities of translation by committee; Soul was translated by six people.

The antidote to Soviet Realism,this is Soviet Magicalism; profound many-layered and utterly human.

Click here or on the image for more details of the New York Review Books edition of Soul translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and others:

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