There are certain writers who feature in a large way in the NYRB Classics series—some, like Simenon and Victor Serge, I’ve written about in the past; others, like Sylvia Townsend Warner, perhaps the most purely original of modern English storytellers, I mean to. Here I want to say a little bit about Andrey Platonov, whose Soul and Other Stories we published last year and whose great and harrowing novel The Foundation Pit we have just put out in a striking new translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson, the first translation of the book in English to be based on the recently established definitive Russian text.
As a plaudit, “recently established definitive Russian text” may sound like a pedantic mouthful, but Platonov is anything but a writer of merely academic interest. He is the twentieth century Russian novelist who, more than any other (more than Pasternak, more than Solzhenitsyn, more even than Bulgakov), Russians will tell you has added to and transformed the great tradition of Russian literature. Russians may also tell you that if you are one of those unfortunates who doesn’t read Russian, just how great Platonov is you’ll never know. I’m one of those unfortunates, I confess, but then I’m confident that, as a rule—a rule to which Platonov is no exception—great literature translates. I first encountered this extraordinary writer’s work in an old and uncertain translation based on a censored text, a book given to me by a friend of my father’s who I later learned was an agent for the CIA. Even so, I knew I was hearing a voice as distinct and powerful as any to emerge in the twentieth century, a writer who not only reflected the unimaginable realities of modern history, but actively shifted reality, staggering us, making us see the world in a strange and disorienting new light. At last, with this new translation, the greatness of Platonov, the difference that he makes, become unmistakable for readers of English.
Platonov was born into a working-class family in 1899 and grew up with the Russian Revolution, which he initially embraced with enthusiasm and never disavowed. For better or for worse, Platonov’s world is the world after the Revolution, with which a new reality begins. Platonov, however, is hardly a conventionally realistic writer, since the nature of the post-Revolutionary world is that history has ended and reality has been upended, replaced by a heady brew of utopian anticipations and nightmarish premonitions. This is the paradoxical regime of progress—appearing no doubt in an extreme form under Communism, but common to all modern societies—under which everything is understood to exist on the condition that it is to be replaced by something better, and so may be judged as already obsolescent; a bipolar world in which exterior and internal realities become weirdly intermixed and people seesaw between irrational exuberance (it wasn’t a Communist who coined that phrase) and boundless melancholy. In The Foundation Pit a character feels himself “hurtling forwards into the distance of history, towards the summit of universal and unprecedented times.” Another remarks dolefully, “Everybody dies of life. In the end there’s just bones.”
Written in the early thirties, The Foundation Pit is Platonov’s most direct reckoning with Revolutionary terror. The novel describes the devastation caused in the late 1920s by Stalin’s twin policies of crash industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture—a Revolution from Above that was no less important and traumatic than the Revolution of 1917. The story begins when Voshchev, a classic Chekhovian luftmensch, is fired from his job for excessive “thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor.” Voshchev wanders out into the country where he happens upon a group of workers engaged in constructing a grand new All-Proletarian Home, a title which is meant entirely literally. Among them is Zhachev, a bitter, irascible, scabrous, mutilated veteran, who hauls himself around on a little cart, a freak, in his own words. Also there is Chiklin, the hardworking single-minded earnest proletarian, determined to get things right, though not entirely sure what that means. Voshchev joins this oddly assorted group which soon adopts an orphan girl in whom they place all their hopes for the future. Nastya is a strange waif:
“Now who might you be, my little girl?” asked Safronov [a Revolutionary zealot]. “What did your dear mama and papa do?”
“I’m nobody,” said the little girl.
“How can you be nobody? Some kind of principle of the female sex must have been pleased to oblige you, if you got yourself born under Soviet power?”
“But I didn’t want to get myself born—I was afraid my mother would be a bourgeois…. When only bourgeoisie lived, I couldn’t be born, because I didn’t want to be born. But now that Stalin’s become, I’ve become too!”
Soon it becomes clear that the task of digging the pit is unending—almost by definition, since it must accommodate the whole (no pun intended) of the future: the pit is a inverted tower of Babel or, as it eventually turns out, an immense grave. Because after the mysterious death of the zealot Safronov, digging the pit takes second place to making sure that construction will not be sabotaged by “counter-revolutionary elements.” The peasantry in particular must be purified. But purification also turns out to be an unending task, and in an extraordinary scene, at once savagely satirical and disconcertingly moving, in the midst of a simultaneous blizzard of snow and flies, pro-revolutionary workers and condemned peasants, doomed to die, gather in the yard of a collective farm as in a church to kiss and forgive each other:
“All right now, comrades?” asked Chiklin.
“Yes,” came the word from the whole of the OrgYard. “Now we feel nothing at all—only dust and ashes remain in us.”
Voshchev was lying a little way apart and he was quite unable to fall asleep without the peace of truth inside his own life—he got up from the snow and entered into the midst of people.
“Greetings!” he said, rejoicing, to the collective farm. Now you’ve become like me. I’m nothing too.”
“Greetings!” The entire collective farm rejoiced at this one man….
All that could be heard was a dog barking in some alien village—just as in olden times, as if it existed in a constant eternity.
I mentioned the Tower of Babel above, and as even these brief excerpts from The Foundation Pit must suggest, there is no discussing the book without considering its strange language, a mixture of political groupspeak, biblical allusion, slapstick, and bereft lyricism, a kind of language of unlikeness. It is a made-up language and a traumatized one—made dead, you could say. It is at once the babble of infancy, the lying cant of corruption, an outcry of desperation, and the voice, against all odds, of hope. Part of the fascination of the work is that the reader is perpetually unsure which register it is pitched in.
Platonov, as much as Beckett and Kafka, is a major writer of the twentieth century and, like them, he is a writer in extremis. Kafka’s statement that “hope is infinite, but not for us” might come from Platonov. These are all writers who in different ways recognize the terror, tedium, and sheer contingency of the modern world. And yet in the later stories collected in Soul, Platonov shows us something else, something more in tune with Chekhov: people trying to rescue from the flux of life and the disaster of history some memorable and sustaining moment of true feeling. In “The Return,” a story beloved by the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald, a man returns from World War II to wife and family and—and almost leaves. The art of the story is to capture in that prolonged moment of hesitation the entirety of life. And in the nightmarish world of The Foundation Pit, too, a similar tenderness, however bare-knuckled, can be discerned. As Zhachev remarks, “It’s best to love something small and living and do yourselves in with labor! Exist, you bastards, for now!”
Edwin Frank, Editor