Pasternak 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.
It was raining last Thursday (because it is always raining in New York) when I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear a panel called “Language in New Forms: The Work of Andrey Platonov.” I’m glad I braved the weather, however. The panel featured four of the most mellifluous voices in Anglo-American letters – Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser, and intellectual historian T.J. Clark. I could listen to Ondaatje read the phone book. Even more remarkable, though, was Platonov himself. Indeed, this Russian writer of the Soviet epoch turned out to be my big discovery of this year’s festival.Edwin Frank, whose NYRB Classics imprint has brought Platonov’s fiction back into print, opened the proceedings. Reminding the audience to turn off cellphones, Frank had a kind of Woody Allenish mien, but he waxed eloquent as soon as he began discussing Platonov’s complicated publishing history. Platonov’s “pressurized, contorted. . . lyrical” style made him “the most inventive writer of the revolutionary era,” Frank suggested – a Slavic peer of Beckett and Kafka, only with a desire “to bind up [the world’s] wounds” in addition to probing them. His admirers and champions included Yevtuschenko and Gorky, and like the latter, Platonov truly believed in the revolution. He had the utopian spirit. And yet, perhaps detecting the negative capability that is always hostile to ideology, Stalin’s functionaries suppressed Platonov’s best writing.After this fulsome introduction, the panelists let Platonov’s work speak for itself. Ondaatje read from an early short story. Then Lesser undertook a mash-up, reading half of “Fro” from the recently retranslated collection Soul and half from the “barbaric” older translation (which NYRB published in 2000 as The Fierce and Beautiful World). Apparently, publishing complications have followed Platonov even into English, and Lesser’s reading made clear why. Platonov is an intensely unusual stylist, blending modernist subjectivity with futurist, revolutionary diction and visionary mysticism. Francine Prose’s reading from “his finest story,” the eponymous “Soul,” revealed an animist sympathy with trees and rocks and buildings. “After reading him for a while,” she said, nodding toward her bottle of Aquafina, “you start to wonder what the water bottle might think of this evening’s proceedings.”The most spirited performer of the night, however, turned out to be T.J. Clark, who read a remarkable excerpt from the newly reissued novel, The Foundation Pit. Clark “did all the voices,” as the third-graders I used to teach would say, and drew the audience into a story remarkable, above all, for its sensibility: passionate, tender, absurd, and tragic. It’s a sensibility I look forward to reading much more of in the coming weeks.