The Broken Spine

Andrei Platonov: Collected Works

Ardis, 438 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Chevengur

by Andrei Platonov, translated by Anthony Olcott
Ardis, 333 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Isaac Babel: The Forgotten Prose

translated by Nicholas Stroud
Ardis, 143 pp., $3.95 (paper)

The literature of the Russians polarizes a situation endemic in their society—a situation found in other societies too no doubt, but far more dramatic and clear-cut in Russia, and richly and variously symbolized in one work of art after another. In Russian consciousness the craving for order, certainty, propriety, satisfaction, pravda is perpetually at war with the enormous natural leverage of inertia, indifference, absurdity, incongruity—and hilarity at the spectacle of all these disheveled and joyous things. Nowhere has reality more naturally declared itself as an immense bad joke. Very well then, in the name of God, the people, the tsar, the party, the solidarity of the proletariat—away with reality! If it won’t do, we must have something better: truth must be restructured in correct form. In Gorky’s peculiar A Confession, the confrontation is cast as the need to replace bogoiskatelstvo (the quest after God) with bogostroitelstvo (the building of God).

Since Peter the Great’s day it has been the same. What more Russian enterprise than to erect a gigantic classical city in a featureless swamp? It is the same impulse as that which keeps the inmates of Gulag in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich toiling away on the construction of a Workers’ Palace of Socialism. In the same tradition are Catherine’s Potemkin villages and her liberal “constitution.” The genius of the great nineteenth-century Russian literature feeds on the paradox, grows from it, adapts itself to it. In Pushkin’s greatest poem, The Bronze Horseman, the central symbol is Falconet’s vast statue of the tsar crushing the swamp serpent under the hooves of his horse: meantime the floods rise and drown or ruin the lives of the poor people who actually have to inhabit the place. War and Peace is an artificial construction wonderful in its transparency and cunning, wholly removed from the norms of Russian life while at the same time suggesting a panoramic illusion of it true to the last detail.

By substituting a positive for a negative censorship the revolution destroyed this balance of inspiration entirely. It is difficult to overestimate the impoverishment involved. The writer now has to be wholly on the side of “order”—which has assumed a comprehensively ideological and tyrannic form—or of “disorder,” which has no choice but to appear in the form of a negative or counterideology. The art of being on both sides, practiced to such magical effect, and perhaps consciously, by Pushkin in The Bronze Horseman, is now an impossibility. Tolstoy had this double vision too, for while everything he wrote is haunted by his unending search for a rational and moral justification of life, his art gives us at the same time the life that exists for its own sake. The one has no power without the other: the body needs the head, and the two have been separated by the revolution, with its claim to have ended the search and found the correct solution. All …

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