Staff Picks: Andrey Platonov’s Soul

May 27, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 4 2 min read

coverPasternak may be more celebrated, Babel more influential, Grossman more expansive, and Solzhenitsyn more heroic, but for my money, Andrey Platonov might be the finest Russian-language fiction writer of the Soviet era. It’s yet another black mark against Stalinism that “there is probably no twentieth-century writer of [his] stature who is so little known in the English-speaking world,” as Platonov’s translator Robert Chandler has put it. But with this volume, Chandler goes a long way toward rectifying the injustice.  Soul and Other Stories reveals Platonov as an incomparable stylist and an utterly singular sensibility. Indeed, as in only the greatest art, the two form a perfect unity.

The Sufi-inflected novel from which the collection takes its title echoes the plot of several other Platonov works, including The Foundation Pit (one of my favorite books of 2009): An idealistic young man sets out to bring the fruits of the revolution to impoverished hinterlands. It would seem that this story can only end in one of two ways: propaganda (the revolution arrives), or dissent (the revolution is a fraud). The miracle of Platonov’s writing, however, is that the depredations it records somehow make his Utopian yearning burn brighter. As Soul‘s Mosaic protagonist, Nazar Chagataev, leads his ragtag “nation” across the deserts of Uzbekistan, he comes to see the ineffable…well, soul that blazes in every camel and turtle and tumbleweed, and, by extension, in every person. Of a “savage, enfeebled” mongrel, Platonov writes:

The dog lay down obediently; it was trembling from exhaustion – old, bewildered, lacking the strength to cease living the life that tormented it, yet still convinced of the perfect bliss of its existence, because in its very endurance, in its thin trembling body, there was something good.

Soul is as visionary as any of Cormac McCarthy‘s Westerns – which it often resembles – but Platonov is looking in exactly the opposite direction. In Paul Eluard‘s formulation: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” The seven short stories that follow are, if possible, even better, transplanting Soul‘s huge-heartedness into more recognizably domestic settings. The tender irony with which Platonov observes his proletarian characters’ outward movements is balanced against sudden, startling forays into the interior. “Among Animals and Plants,” “Fro,” “The River Potudan,” “The Cow,” and “The Return” are, simply put, some of the best short stories of the 20th Century. (“Fro” is a good place to start, if you want to ease your way in.)

Soul also represents a correction, of sorts, to a previous NYRB Classics edition, The Fierce and Beautiful World, based on earlier Platonov scholarship. Such is the difficulty of bringing to American readers a writer whose work was, at various points, suppressed, bowdlerized, and destroyed. But now that Platonov’s fierce and beautiful humanism has infected me, I have dreams of seeing his other novels and collected stories translated and in print in the next decade. In the meantime, we can be grateful for the present collection, which can stand alongside the works of Svevo and Walser – and indeed, as Edwin Frank has suggested, those of Kafka and Beckett – as a modernist masterwork.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.