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 PIT is 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 writing…

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 enemy.

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.

From The Guardian 18 Feb 2010

This will close in 0 seconds