Andrei Platonov: Russia's greatest 20th-century prose stylist?

An anti-Stalinist author who died in obscurity in 1951 may be the
greatest Russian writer of the last century, his English translator
Robert Chandler explains to
Daniel Kalder

Stalin called him scum. Sholokhov, Gorky, Pasternak, and Bulgakov all
thought he was the bee's knees. But when Andrei Platonov died in
poverty, misery and obscurity in 1951, no one would have predicted that
within half a century he would be a contender for the title as Russia's
greatest 20th-century prose stylist. Indeed, his English translator Robert
Chandler thinks Platonov's novel THE FOUNDATION PITis so
astonishingly good he translated it twice. Set against a backdrop of
industrialisation and collectivisation, THE FOUNDATION PIT is fantastical
yet realistic, funny yet tragic, profoundly moving and yet disturbing.
Daniel Kalder caught up with Chandler to talk about why more people
should be reading Platonov

Why did you translate Platonov’s THE FOUNDATION PIT twice?

I translated this book together with Geoffrey Smith in 1994 for The Harvill
Press, and in 2009, together with my wife Elizabeth and the American
scholar Olga Meerson, for NYRB Classics. There were two reasons for
retranslating it. First, the original text was never published in Platonov's
lifetime, and the first posthumous publications - on which our Harvill
translation was based - are now known to have been severely
bowdlerized.  One crucial passage of 3 pages, for example,  is entirely
missing.  Second, Platonov is hard to translate. In the early 1990s we
were working in the dark. During the last 15 years, however, I have been
regularly attending Platonov seminars and conferences in Moscow and
Petersburg. One indication of how deeply many Russian writers and
critics admire Platonov is the extent of their generosity to his translators;
I now have a large list of people I can turn to for help. Above all, I have
the good fortune to have as my closest collaborators my wife, who
shares my love of Platonov, and the brilliant American scholar, Olga
Meerson. Olga was brought up in the Soviet Union, she has a fine ear,
she knows a great deal about Russian Orthodoxy, and she has written
an excellent book about Platonov. She has deepened my understanding
of almost every sentence of SOUL and THE FOUNDATION PIT.  No
other work of literature, by the way, means so much to me that I have
wanted to translate it twice.

You have argued that in time Russians will come to recognize
Platonov as their greatest writer of prose. Considering that he is
up against titans such as Gogol, Tolstoy and Chekhov this is
quite a claim. Why do you think he is the
vozhd of Russian prose?

Well, this claim probably sounds less startling to Russians than it does to
English and Americans.  I have certainly met a huge number of Russian
writers and critics who look on Platonov at least as their greatest prose-
writer of the last century.  As for my personal judgment, it was confirmed
for me during the last stages of my work on RUSSIAN SHORT STORIES
FROM PUSHKIN TO BUIDA, an anthology of short stories I compiled for
Penguin Classics.  I worked on this for several years, I did most of the
translations myself and I revised them many times.  I read through the
proofs with enjoyment – I was still happy with the choices I had made –
but there were only two writers whom I was still able to read with real
wonder: Pushkin and Platonov.  Even at this late stage I was still
discovering new surprising perceptions in both Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of
Spades’ and Platonov’s ‘The Return’.  This did not happen with any
other writer.

And where does he stand in the current Russian perspective?    

There is a passionate interest in Platonov among writers, scholars and
critics.  There are conferences and seminars about Platonov in Moscow
and Petersburg almost every year.  But Platonov does not yet excite the
same widespread popular interest as, for example, Bulgakov.  It may be
that many Russians are not yet able to appreciate Platonov’s
universality – that they see him merely as someone who wrote about a
Soviet past that is no longer of any real interest to them.

Readers who encounter Platonov’s work often feel that it is
extremely bizarre, surreal even. In the FP for example, a bear
staggers through a village denouncing kulaks. But you write that
almost everything he writes is drawn from reality….

Platonov’s stories work on many levels.  When I first read the account of
the kulaks (the supposedly wealthy peasants) being sent off down the
river on a raft, I thought of it simply as weird.  Then I realized that it is
one of many examples of Platonov’s way of literally realizing a metaphor
or political cliché; the official directive is to liquidate the peasants – and
this unfamiliar word is interpreted as meaning that they must be got rid
of by means of water.

Many years later I realized that this scene is also entirely realistic.  Viktor
Astafiev, who is from Siberia, has written in a memoir: ‘In spring 1932 all
the dispossessed “kulaks” were collected together, placed on rafts and
floated off to Krasnoyarsk, and from there to Igarka.  When they started
loading the rafts, the whole village gathered together. Everyone wept; it
was their own kith and kin who were leaving.  One person was carrying
mittens, another a bread roll, another a lump of sugar.’  Any educated
Russian reading these lines today would at once imagine that they were
written by Platonov...  As for the bear, he is drawn from many sources.  
He is the generally helpful but somewhat dangerous bear of Russian folk
tales.  He is a representative of the proletariat – strong but inarticulate.  
As a hammer in a forge, he is linked both to Stalin, whose name means
‘Man of Steel’ and to Molotov, whose name means ‘Hammerer’.  He is the
tame bear often employed by a village sorcerer.  Platonov’s bear
‘denounces’ kulaks by stopping outside a hut and roaring; in the late
1920s an ethnographer working in the province of Kaluga recorded the
belief that ‘a clean home, outside which a bear stops of his own accord,
not going in but refusing to budge – that home is an unhappy home.’  
And one of Platonov’s brothers has written that there really was a tame
bear who worked in a local blacksmiths.

The opening of the Foundation Pit reads:   On the day of the
thirtieth anniversary of his private life, Voshchev was made
redundant from the small machine factory where he obtained the
means for his own existence.   It is at once profoundly alienated
and alienating and yet also deeply intimate and empathic.
Voshchev appears to be inside and yet outside his own
experience. I often think this is a defining quality of Platonov’s

Very interesting.  I think that what you are noticing may be linked to
Platonov’s unusual ability to move from one perspective to another – to
enter into the feelings of a particular character and then to stand outside
them or even to enter into the feelings of this character’s most bitter

One of the reasons I love Platonov is that he is extremely
difficult to pinpoint politically. He started off as a believing
communist, but was appalled by collectivization and the
excesses of Stalinism. And yet unlike others who were moved to
an oppositional stance, or mumbled quietly to themselves and
wrote critiques for the desk drawer, he tried to negotiate a
space within soviet culture where he could write honestly about
what was going on. By and large he failed, although the books
and stories were great. Certainly it must have been an
immensely difficult task.  And yet in trying to do this, I feel, he is
unique, and uniquely ambiguous...   

I don’t think it is right to say that Platonov failed.  Some of the stories he
managed to publish – e.g. ‘The River Potudan’, ‘The Third Son’ and
‘The Return’  are as great, in their more compact and classical way, as
the novels he was unable to publish.  ‘The Return’ was viciously
criticized, but it was published in a journal with a huge circulation and
may well have been read by hundreds of thousands of people.  And
there is no knowing how important Platonov’s example was to younger
writers.  Vasily Grossman, for example, was a close friend.  They met
frequently during Platonov’s last years and read their work out loud to
each other.  Grossman gave the main speech at Platonov’s funeral.  His
last stories are very Platonov-like.  And Platonov’s very last work of all –
the moving, witty versions of Russian folk tales he composed after the
War – was included, without acknowledgment, in millions (literally!) of
copies of school text books.  Platonov was not widely known – but he
was widely read.  Here again he is in a similar position to Vasily
Grossman. Grossman’s words are carved in granite, in huge letters, in
the Stalingrad war memorial.  One sentence is even tooled in gold.  But
there is no acknowledgment of Grossman’s authorship.

Platonov’s language is often extremely intimate and yet strange
and jarring. You usually work with multiple co-translators.
Therefore I have two questions- 1) Is he exceptionally difficult to
translate?  And 2) considering that word order is more flexible in
Russian and that it is easier to play around with the particles that
build up individual words- does he sound more normal in the
original than in translation, or is he equally startling?          

He is certainly difficult to translate.  On the other hand, I have sometimes
been surprised how much of him evidently survives even in a poor
translation. I have met people who have been deeply moved after first
encountering him in a very poor translation indeed.  As for your second
question, you need to ask someone who is entirely bilingual and not
involved in the work.  All I can say myself is that all languages have
norms that can be infringed, and that we do our best to infringe English
norms just as Platonov infringes Russian norms.  It is for you and other
readers to judge how much we have succeeded!

What was it that first drew you to translate Platonov, a task to
which you have now dedicated many years of your life?             

I first read Platonov during the year I spent as a student, in the early
1970s, in the city of Voronezh, where Platonov was born.  As soon as I
got back to England, I read the two main works that were still censored in
the Soviet Union: THE FOUNDATION PIT and CHEVENGUR.  They took
my breath away.  Within a year or two I started sending sample extracts
to publishers.  I’m not sure what motivated me.  Perhaps the hope of
entering more deeply into the work and getting to understand it better.

Sometimes I think you have a secret plan to reshape perceptions
of 20th century Russian literature, to try to steer readers away
from the familiar Chekhov towards more angular/difficult work
such as Platonov and Krzhizhanovsky…             

Well, I would put it at least a little differently!  I love Chekhov’s stories as
much as anyone does.  I would especially love to translate ‘The Steppe’
and ‘A Boring Story’.  But then Chekhov is not so very easy or smooth
either, though many of his complexities and contradictions are often
smoothed over in translation...  What is certainly true is that I think we
have a distorted view of Soviet literature.  For many decades it was
impossible for a Soviet writer to achieve fame in the West except through
a major international scandal.  This is what happened with both
Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn.  Both are important writers, but they are not
greater writers than Grossman, Platonov and Shalamov (the Russian
Primo Levi).  Things are changing, however.  Grossman is far better
known in the West now than he was ten years ago.  Platonov is at least
beginning to be noticed - Penelope Fitzgerald and John Berger are two
of the English writers who have been quickest to realize his genius.  And
there is a chance that the Yale University Press will soon be
commissioning a complete translation of Shalamov’s KOLYMA TALES.  
As for Krzhizhanovsky, he has only recently been rediscovered in
Russia, and the translations by Joanne Turnbull.  One more point: we
have found it easier in the West to learn to appreciate the twentieth-
century writers who wrote from outside the Soviet experience.  Bulgakov
reached adulthood long before the Revolution.  He was never taken in
by the Revolution; he looks down on everything Soviet.  Grossman,
Platonov and Shalamov, however, belong to a generation ten to twenty
years younger.  All of them, at least for a while and to some degree,
shared the hopes of the Revolution.  They write from inside the Soviet
experience.  This perhaps gives their work a greater depth and
complexity; their work contains no ready-made answers.

So far you have translated THE FOUNDATION PIT, SOUL, HAPPY
MOSCOW and numerous of Platonov’s short stories. But his long
novel CHEVENGUR lurks in the darkness, while copies of the no
doubt unreliable 1970s translation cost a fortune. Years ago I
read fragments of your translation in Glas magazine and since
then- nothing. Will we ever see it? And are there other Platonov
books in the works?

We are still only 1/3 of the way through CHEVENGUR.  I regret that other
projects – including the new NYRB editions of Platonov - have got in the
way.  On the other hand, Russian scholars are still working on the
preparation of a more reliable edition with an extensive commentary.  
The delay to our translation may yet prove a blessing...  Our next
publication will be another volume for NYRB Classics: HAPPY MOSCOW
AND OTHER STORIES.  This will contain previously unpublished
translations, as well as work already published by Harvill.  Platonov, by
the way, is still only gradually becoming fully available even in Russian.  
The most recent publication – a hundred pages of letters written to his
wife during the late 1920s and during the War – came out only a few
months ago.

The Guardian 18 Feb 2010