• Email
  • Print

Introducing Andrei Platonov

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated from the Russian by Joseph Barnes

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?

Man travels forward half asleep, not seeing the stars shining above him out of the dense sky, out of the eternal but already attainable future, out of that quiet order where the stars move like comrades—not far enough apart to forget each other, and not so close together that they merge into each other and lose their differences…

Perhaps this sentence expresses Platonov’s own hopes for the future more than any other. But he was careful not to write out any prescription for it. Platonov believed in movement.

Where are you going?” the madman Shumilin asked.

Who? Us?” an old man answered, who had begun to shrink in stature because of the hopelessness of his life. “We’ll go anywhere, as long as we’re not stopped. Turn us around, and we’ll go backwards.”

Better go forward, then,” Shumilin told them. He remembered having read a scientific book in the office which explained that the force of gravity, the weight of the body and life itself were all growing smaller because of speed. This must be why people who are unhappy try to move more. Russian vagabonds and pilgrims dragged themselves endlessly along just because the weight of the sorrowing spirits of the people diminished as they went.

But Platonov, believing in movement, still did not trust it for its own sake. He was leery of unintelligent reformers for whom the itch to transform humanity is more important than the most valuable thing on earth—an individual human being. Platonov knew that indifference to man in the concrete can hide behind abstract talk about love of humanity. And for Platonov humanity was always concrete.

The person of the sleeping man itself had no special beauty; it was only the heartbeats seen in the veins of his thin neck that made you think of him as a good, impoverished, miserable man.

Frosya…took the child’s hand in her hands and began to feast her eyes on the young musician: in this being, probably, was just that humanity about which Fedor had told her so lovingly.

This was why Platonov appealed against hurrying during a time of social breakup, when it’s possible in too feverish a rush to break not only social barriers but at the same time the heads of innocent people.

As a kind of answer to the challenge from the left which called for an immediate revolution on a world scale, Platonov produced a quotation from an imaginary book by Nikolai Arsanov called Secondary People, to be published a long time in the future:

Arsanov wrote that only secondary people produce slow but real gains for us. The speeding up of life by prominent people exhausts it, and life loses what it had before…. People begin to act very early, without understanding much. One should therefore hold one’s acts to a minimum, as far as possible, in order to liberate the contemplative part of one’s spirit. Contemplation—this means educating yourself by the unfamiliar events around you. Let people study the realities of nature as long as possible, so that they can begin to act late, but without error, solidly, with the tools of ripe experience in their hands. It must be remembered that all the sins of society develop from bright young men interfering with it. If only history could be left alone for fifty years, everybody would effortlessly achieve an entrancing well-being…

Of course, this temporizing, passive conception must not be identified in any way with Platonov’s own line, but still one must remember that he preferred temporizing to senseless sacrifice. He placed no high value on his own person, but he valued every individual man. He believed man to be his own master, by nature and in point of fact, and beautiful because of this.

He knew about machines and the complicated, powerful things they make, and he measured the nobility of man by these, not by the accidental evil he does.” But at the same time Platonov realized that even a man who has conquered the marvels of technology can sometimes find himself powerless in the face of life.

…and now Zakhar Pavlovich felt bored and ashamed by the precise working of watches and of trains…. The warm cloud of his love for machines, in which Zakhar Pavlovich had lived quietly and safely, was now scattered by a clean wind, and in front of Zakhar Pavlovich was laid bare the defenseless, solitary life of people who live in nakedness, with no chance to deceive themselves by belief in help from machines…

The development of technology side by side with the backwardness of our ethics seemed to Platonov depressingly immoral. He cherished man for his mastery, but also man just for himself.

The intricacy of the problems developing around him transformed Platonov from a most subtle lyrical poet, which he was by nature, into the sharpest kind of writer about life. He was never a defender of militant private property, but the brutal spreading of collectivization by force, against which Lenin warned in his time, could not fail to move Platonov to stand up for man as both the creator of the earth and its creation.

Platonov had already been criticized for his story called “Doubting Makar,” when he wrote another story, “Profit,” continuing this line, which was printed in the magazine Krasnaya Nov in 1931. Stalin was an attentive reader of all magazines and his sharp observing eye did not allow Platonov’s story to pass unpunished. Although Stalin himself spoke often later about “exaggeration” in the work in the villages, nonetheless he wanted jealously to reserve for himself any right to mention these deficiencies. On Platonov’s story, in Stalin’s red pencil, was written “Scum!” with an exclamation mark.

Platonov’s literary life become more difficult. His prose was now seldom published and he lived by writing short critical reviews. He tried to get these published in a collected edition, but he did not succeed. Thanks to regular denunciations of Platonov by the critic Ermilov—the same man about whom Mayakovsky said in the letter written just before his death: “Sorry I didn’t quarrel with Ermilov”—the already completed volume was killed and scrapped.

It is surprising that Platonov was not arrested; perhaps his personal friendship with Fadeyev and Sholokhov helped him. But in 1938 his fifteen-year-old son Platon was accused of taking part in some kind of alleged counterrevolutionary conspiracy. This boy wrote poetry, by the way, and, judging by reports of those who saw it, very ably. He was given ten years, and sent to the far north, to Norilsk. Platonov wore himself out, haunting all the thresholds there were to haunt, but nothing helped. Then he wrote a letter to Stalin. At this moment Sholokhov came to Moscow to intercede for his own arrested relatives. Stalin received him, and according to rumor Sholokhov spoke up for Platonov’s son, too. The boy returned home in 1940, exhausted, ill with tuberculosis, and he soon died. Platonov must be given credit for the fact that during these most difficult years he did not withdraw into himself, nor become embittered, but continued to write and to turn out some of his clearest writings filled with belief in human goodness, like “Fro,” “The Third Son,” and other stories.

And this was the man who had been called Scum!

In his apartment on Tverskoy Boulevard, Platonov lived right next to Herzen’s house, and when the war began he received an instruction from the Writers Union: “Take care of Herzen’s house.” Platonov carried out the order with the conscientiousness characteristic of him, and during the Fascist bombings he put out sixteen fires on the roof of the building. Then he went to Ufa, where in the confusion of evacuation his manuscript Travels in Humanity was irretrievably lost. But he did not relax behind the lines. Platonov began to work as a war correspondent on the paper Red Star, which was the most popular of all at the front, writing sketches and stories, giving all his strength for the victory of his fatherland. For Platonov this was not just a geographical patriotism. He always hated Fascism, and even before the war he had mercilessly held it up to shame in his stories “An Angel Flew in the Midnight Sky” and “The Dusty Wind.”

The war came to an end. It would have seemed that Platonov had showed his love for his country—although he didn’t need to prove it. He expected, of course, that a great deal would now change in his life. At that time a collection of Russian tales had already been published, worked up by him and protected by Sholokhov’s name as editor. From 1929 until 1941 Platonov had had only one thin little book of his own issued, in 1937!

But after the publication of his short story “Homecoming” in 1946, criticism landed on Platonov again, and his name vanished from the pages of magazines and newspapers. When this story is reread now, it is hard to imagine why this most virtuous of stories was so attacked. For its gloominess, it seems, for its savoring of the darker aspects of the rear during the war…

Platonov died in 1951 as a result of wounds he had received in fighting during the liberation of Czechoslovakia. He left behind him two unpublished novels, Chevengur and Kotlovan, nine unproduced plays, nine unproduced motion picture scenarios, and a great many stories, sketches, and articles which had either never seen the light of day or had not been collected in book form.

Little by little justice has begun publicly to rehabilitate his talent. First one and then another magazine has discovered and still goes on discovering Platonov’s unknown writings for its readers. One of his collections was even printed in an edition of 100,000 copies. “Fro” has been made into a film, and an innumerable quantity of enthusiastic articles has been written about Platonov. I can state with certainty that there is not an educated reader in the USSR who does not know Platonov, and not a single professional writer alive in this country who would not pay tribute to his mastery. It is true that he has been unknown abroad until now, because there have been no noisy scandals connected with his name and there are some so-called “specialists on Soviet literature” who have a weakness for just this kind of scandal.

But I repeat—Platonov is a delayed-action talent, and it may be that his safety fuse has burned only halfway to the explosion. Why was he held back, throughout his whole life, to a lower rank?

Because in the whole line of his creativity, which continued the great tradition of Russian literature, the tradition of “defense of the so-called little man,” the tradition of “guilt for all,” he was fundamentally contradicting the fashionable Stalinist theory of man as “a screw in the machine of government,” and the proverb which justifies everything: “If you chop wood, chips fly.” He loved locomotives, and he knew how to treat each screw gently so the locomotive would run well. He was concerned with screws and he humanized them; but to treat people as screws would have been intolerable to him. He loved trees, and he understood that every little chip by a merciless axe is a part of the murmuring green greatness. He realized that the theory of the inevitability of sacrificing chips can end up by destroying a whole forest. And although Platonov was disposed, like all men of good character, to forgive the times for blows against himself, he could not forgive them for blows against other people, against the humanity he loved so much, for whose sake he lived and wrote.

It’s sad, of course, that he died so soon. Had he lived, he would have seen that much has changed for the better nonetheless in the life of our people, although even now we are far from perfection. He would have rejoiced at the return to our people of many names which had been undeservedly slandered.

He would have rejoiced over the flight of a Russian into space, although he probably would have reminded us that not everything has yet been put in order here on our sinful earth; after all, he was originally an organizer of the good exploitation of the land.

He would have rejoiced over the success of the novel The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, and he would have rejoiced over the appearance of such new names in our literature as Aksyonov, Kazakov, Solzhenitsyn, Akhmadulina, Voznesensky, Okudzhava, Chukhontsev, Brodsky, and many others, just as he once was glad about V. Nekrassov’s first novel, In the Stalingrad Trenches. Some things, too, would have distressed him, and he would have said so openly in what he wrote, just as he did before he died.

But he is no longer here, and it is up to a new generation of Russian writers to say what he has left unsaid.

His declaration, made when he was young, can serve as a final answer to all his critics:

You talk about a great virtuous Beauty and her pure sons who know her, see her, and exalt her. You place me in the gang of her detractors and defamers, people unfit and powerless to look at her, as if I should leave the house of beautiful art, and not muss Beauty’s white clothing. There’s no place there for someone dirty, like me. All right. I’ve walked this earth for twenty years and I haven’t met the person you’re talking about—Beauty. This may be because she lives outside the earth, and only a few better people have seen her, not I. But I think this is not so: the reason why I haven’t met Beauty is that she doesn’t exist as someone separate, by herself. She is the property of all of us, and mine, too. Beauty is all the days and things there are, and not something elevated, unattainable, and proud. The reason why I’ve met but never thought about Beauty is that I’m used to her, as to my mother, whom I will remember very well when she dies, but whom I forget now because she’s always in my heart. I live and don’t think, while you, reasoning all the time, are not living, and you don’t see a thing, not even beauty, which is as inseparable from man, and as true to him as his bride. You love very little, and see little. I am a man. I was born on this wonderful living earth. What are you asking me about? About what Beauty? Only the dead can ask about her—for the living there is no ugliness. I know that I am one of the most insignificant of people. You have no doubt noticed this, but I also know another thing: the more insignificant a creature is, the more glad it is for life, because it is least deserving of it. The very smallest mosquito is the happiest spirit. You would not be capable of noticing this. You are legal and worthy people, while I only want to live as a man. For you being a man is just a habit—for me it is joy, a holiday…

I am convinced that proletarian art when it comes will be outrageous. We grow out of the earth, out of all its dirt, and everything there is on this earth is in us. But don’t be afraid—we’ll clean ourselves; we hate our own squalor and we move stubbornly out of the mud. This is our main idea. Out of our ugliness will grow the world’s heart…

One of Platonov’s heroes says: “Without me, the country’s not complete.”

Andrei Platonov had the right to say this about himself.

(Translated from the Russian by Joseph Barnes)

  • Email
  • Print