Andrei Platonov’s face, looking out from one of his last photographs, is the face of a tired Russian worker. It has not a trace of affectation, no hint of what is called “artistic temperament,” no monumental profundity, no “oracular brilliance” in the eyes.
People with faces like this do not like eloquence. They prefer the pains-taking study of the intricate mechanics of living, and before believing something, they want to feel it all over with their hands.
It’s the face of a worker who thinks—the face of a master.
The prose Platonov wrote has just this kind of face.
Not long before the second World War, a short story called. “The Third Son” by this Russian writer Platonov, who was almost unknown in the West, fell into the hands of Ernest Hemingway, who was already famous. At a meeting with some Soviet journalists, Hemingway spoke with admiration of the pithiness and the expressiveness of Platonov’s style. (Hemingway did not know that Platonov had written a brilliant article about his novels To Have and Have Not and A Farewell to Arms.) To their shame, by no means all of the journalists taking part in this conversation with Hemingway knew the work of their compatriot. Platonov was not spoiled by fame during his life, either at home or abroad. He belongs among the delayed-action writers, whose talent is like a safety fuse which runs many years in length. This fuse smolders unseen but persistent, staying dry even under the drizzle of time, until finally a blinding explosion destroys bridges that had seemed built for eternity.
Platonov’s talent was noticed by Gorky. Fadeyev and Sholokhov, who had both official critical recognition and wide readership, admired his talent in spite of many differences of their own with the direction in which he was moving. They understood very clearly that somewhere far from the center of the literary stage, which was flooded by limelight, there burned the quiet but steady candle of a remarkable master. And toward this independent, proud candle, away from the limelight, they both moved hat in hand.
Platonov’s destiny did not work out as theirs did, and while these writers were in the center of the public eye, Platonov was, as it were, on its very edges.
But the literature of any people is always a big city. Only the superficial judge the real spirit of a city by its well-known avenues and its public squares, obligingly advertised by the tourist agencies. For old residents and thoughtful visitors, a city reveals itself most often in the outskirts where the tourist buses do not go. There, away from the noise and the congestion inside the city limits, you can feel the city’s enduring quality. The outskirts reveal the true meaning of the center more than the center shows the meaning of the outskirts. The coarse, sorrowing life of the outskirts is always more open, more revealing, than monuments or many-storied piles of glass and steel.
This was Andrei Platonov’s kind of street in the city of Russian literature.
It is like the streets of his childhood.
This is what he wrote about himself:
I was born in 1899 in a settlement called Yamskaya, not far from Voronezh. Even ten years ago there was hardly any difference between Yamskaya and the country. I loved the country, too, enough to cry for it although I have not seen it since I was twelve. There were wattle fences in Yamskaya, and kitchen gardens, and vacant land filled with burdocks, huts instead of houses, chickens, shoemakers, and a great many peasants walking along the Zadonsk highway. The bell in the church was all the music there was in the settlement; in the evenings it was listened to with deep feelings by the old folks, by beggars, and by me. On holidays—even the least important ones—furious battles were arranged with Chizhevka or with Troitskaya—also outlying settlements. Men fought to the death, in a kind of ecstasy of violence, or until someone yelled out: “Give him air!” This meant someone had got hit over his heart or his liver, and he would be shaking all over, white and dying, until the crowd parted around him to let the wind and the cool come in. And then the fight would go on again.
…Then I learned to write in school. After that I started work. I worked in a lot of places, and for a lot of bosses. At one time there were ten in our family, and I was the oldest son—the only worker except for my father. My father was a metalworker, and he couldn’t feed a horde like that. I forgot to say that besides the fields, the countryside, my mother, and the sound of bells ringing, I also loved—and the longer I live the more I love—steam engines, machines, shrill whistles, and sweaty work. I believed then that everything is man-made and nothing comes by itself; for a long time I thought they made children somewhere at the factory instead of by mothers producing them from their stomachs.
There is some kind of link, some kinship, among burdocks and beggars, singing in the fields, electricity, a locomotive and its whistle, and earthquakes—there is the same birthmark on all of them and on some other things, too. Just what it is, I don’t know yet, but I do know that if a man who’s nothing but a wretched plowman should sit down tomorrow in a big locomotive and handle its controls, he will master it so well that you won’t recognize him. Growing grass and working steam engines take the same kind of mechanics…
Platonov wrote this in a letter to one of the editors of his first collection of poetry, The Blue Deep, which was published in Krasnodar in 1922 in an edition of 800 copies. It was a remarkably weak collection, and Platonov’s poetic talent was shown with much greater strength in the short prose passages quoted in the foreword than in the poems themselves.
It is obvious that he felt this himself, and he stopped writing prose in poetic rhythms and started to write prose as a kind of poetry without rhythm. Some writers don’t pay enough attention to the word—for them what is most important is to state their subject, no matter how awkward, how untidy, that statement may be. Others nurse every line, licking it over and over again. For a few writers—and Platonov belongs among them—there is an organic confluence of the poetry of words with the psychological development of the narrative.
He was not a believer in words for their own sake, but at the same time he clearly understood that a message is conveyed not only by the manipulation of its subject but also by the manipulation of the words. Just as we can be attracted by an inherent irregularity in the face of someone we love, in the same way we are charmed in Platonov by the amazingly plastic errors he committed against refined language. There is no question that he worked out his own special, Platonov vocabulary, drawn from folklore and from the living talk of simple people.
“She hadn’t been able to stand living for very long” is the way he talks about an old woman dying.
“There’s no point in your wanting a sour cranberry if you can’t pucker your face,” a gypsy says angrily to a man who has turned her down. Or: “The wind pulled at Pukhov like the living arms of some big, strange body, opening its innocence to the wanderer but not surrendering it, and Pukhov shouted with his blood from such happiness.”
But Platonov achieved his most surprising results when he skillfully showed the crazy invasion of political phrases and neo-bureaucratic words into the constructions of peasant speech.
Chepurny read that the Soviet authorities were granting to the bourgeoisie the whole endless sky, equipped with stars and other heavenly bodies needed to organize eternal bliss; as far as the earth was concerned, its fundamental structures and essentials for living, these were to stay down below—in exchange for heaven—entirely in the hands of the proletariat and the laboring peasantry. At the end of the proclamation the date was set for the Second Coming, which would lead the bourgeoisie in an organized and painless way into the world to come.
Platonov was not an inventor of verbal tricks. He simply had an extraordinary ear, and he brought together in his prose the many-colored, the harsh, and the humorless language of his times. And there was something in those days to listen to. From 1923 until 1927 he worked as a specialist in land reclamation in various provinces in the central regions of Russia, and he saw the terrifying devastation and poverty of the time when things had reached a point where people ate each other.
Platonov met the revolution with an open heart, but he saw that the construction of socialism was turning out in practice to be no simple business. Power in some places fell partly into the hands of people who did not know what to do with it. On one side the Scylla of anarchy frightened Platonov, and on the other the Charybdis of bureaucracy.
The future had to be built, but at what price?
It was no accident that this was when Platonov wrote “The Locks of Epiphany,” in which he admired the organizing genius of Peter the Great and was horrified at the same time by his bloody methods. In his novel Chevengur, of which only one part has been published, under the title The Origin of a Master, Platonov described in symbolic form an attempt to organize communism by almost-illiterate poor peasants. The poor peasants drive out all the propertied people, and then wait for the future to come by itself, since they have already organized their classless society. But the future doesn’t show up, and the huts begin to tumble down. “The communism of Chevengur was defenseless in those dark days on the steppes, because people overcame their tiredness from daily living with the power of sleep, and for a while forgot what it was they believed in.”
The idealist Chepurny and his companion Kopenkin, dreaming about the faraway revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg as their Dulcinea del Toboso, are plunged into despair because they don’t know how to live. But the minds of men are strong—they can’t be confined inside the framework of even the most beautiful social illusions, and people turn out to be incapable of enforcing ascetic self-denial on themselves in the name of an idea. People just do not submit easily to leveling. So the question arises—is it perhaps unnecessary to depersonalize people? Does the people’s strength perhaps lie precisely in this, in the fact that they are all different? Of course, if they all stay apart from each other, they will never accomplish anything, but maybe a society could be brought into being in which people would be both unlike each other and at the same time together?
Copyright © 1970 by E. P. Dutton & Co.