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Andrey Platonov: Happy Moscow

Andrey Platonov has been called the greatest Russian prose stylist of the twentieth century (see here). I had never read anything by him, though I’ve looked longingly at the NYRB Classics editions of Soul, a collection of various works (one of which Penelope Fitzgerald called one of the “three great works of Russian literature of the millennium”) and The Foundation Pit, a novel often considered to be his masterpiece. I have been so enamored with Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, another Soviet writer who suffered from censorship during his life (both died in relative obscurity, in 1950 and 1951), that I am thrilled to get to know another contender for the crown. My first foray into Platonov is Happy Moscow (written between 1933 and 1936, published posthumously in 1991; tr. from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, 2012).

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Evidently, Happy Moscow is unfinished, though it didn’t feel that way to me. This short novel (117 pages in this edition) is a remarkable allegory of Moscow during the early years of the Soviet Union, when idealism was still clinging on. Platonov, though supportive of Communism, was not supportive of Stalin. This book takes us slowly through the transition from idealism to a stark image of the crippled city — which is why the book remained unpublished until 1991.

Because this is an allegory and political, I was a bit wary. I hoped such features wouldn’t stamp the life out of the characters and that the emotions would stay true. After the first paragraph, I knew I was in good hands:

A dark man with a burning torch was running down the street into a boring night of late autumn. The little girl saw him through the window of her home as she woke from a boring dream. Then she heard the powerful shot of a rifle and a poor, sad cry — the man running with the torch had probably been killed. Soon after this came many distant shots and a din of people in the neighboring prison . . . The little girl went to sleep and forgot everything she saw later in other days: she was too small, and the memory and mind of early childhood were overgrown in her body forever by subsequent life. But until her late years a nameless man would unexpectedly and sadly rise up in her and run — in the pale light of memory — and perish once again in the dark of the past, in the heard of a grown-up child.

This child (who grows up to become that “grown-up child”) is our central character, Moscow Ivanovna Chestnova. That “boring” night was the start of the October Revolution in 1917. Her birth name was not actually Moscow. Quickly orphaned, she wanders for several years, “[r]emembering neither people nor space, her soul gone to sleep.” Eventually, she is taken into a children’s home and school, and there given a name in honor of the city. But she is destined to wander and doesn’t last many years at the school. She marries, but she abandons her husband to wander more (all this in just the first couple of pages).

She is found by Bozhko, a thirty-year-old idealist who has devoted his life to “universal joy.” He loves Moscow deeply and lusts for her body, but love is not the way to universal joy. Instead he supports her, paying for her food and eventually for her parachutist training. She’s a success story, and he’s proud of what he did, even if “[a]fter her visits Bozhko usually lay facedown on the bed and yearned from sorrow, even though universal joy alone was the reason of his life.”

As I said above, the book starts out idealistic, with everyone excited about the promise of the new system, but this doesn’t stick. Tragedy begins when Moscow Chestnova streaks across the sky on fire, losing her fame and settling with the masses, breaking the heart of one man after another. Each loves Moscow Chestnova, but she cannot stay in one place: “And anyway Chestnova would not be faithful to him; never could she exchange all the noise of life for the whisper of a single human being.”

These men — doctors, engineers, students — are important to the narrative as Moscow’s body is more and more clearly representative of Moscow the city. Indeed, more and more of the narrative is focused on them and how they deal with their lust and her absence in a city that is getting increasingly alienating as technology overtakes Moscow.

It isn’t a spoiler to share the final paragraph in the novel. Here, one of the men who has loved Moscow has married and sits at night:

At night, after his wife and son had gone to sleep, Semyon Ivanovich would stand there, above Matryona Filippovna’s face, and observe how entirely helplessly she was, how pathetically her face had clenched in miserable exhaustion, while her eyes were closed like kind eyes, as if, while she lay unconscious, some ancient angel were resting in her. If all of humanity were lying still and sleeping, it would be impossible to judge its real character from its face and one could be deceived.

The extensive notes included in this edition say that this is where the novel ends, yet in the coming years Platonov continued to make notes about the characters and further scenes. Some of those characters do reappear in the handful of additional works included in this edition of Happy Moscow. While it was nice to see these pieces and they show just how much work NYRB Classics does to give us readers everything we could ask for, I was happiest with the self-contained world of Happy Moscow, an overt political allegory, to be sure, but one filled with emotion and beautiful prose, a good start for me as I get to know Platonov.

10 thoughts on “Andrey Platonov: Happy Moscow

  1. So, whaddaya think? Will Platonov eventually be seen as the greatest Russian prose writer, as his translator says?

    Platonov does sound darn good, but I am not sure the audacity of that claim does Platonov any favors.

  2. Trevor says:

    It’s a strong claim, for sure. I feel unqualified to make it since I have read only this title from Platonov and only a few other pieces by 20-century Russian writers. I definitely like what I read here, though, and need to dig into Soul and The Foundation Pit.

    I see your point about such an audacious claim, though. So far, I prefer the Krzhizhanovsky (and maybe even the Serge, though he wrote in French, so nevermind) I’ve read to the Platonov, but this really was a remarkable little book, and nicely written as I think the first and last paragraphs show.

  3. Robert Chandler says:

    Many thanks for this review. I will just add that there is nothing especially audacious about making such a high claim for Platonov. A great many Russian writers, critics and scholars would agree. Others would say Nabokov; others Sholokhov, whom we have rather forgotten about in the last few decades. A smaller number would say Bulgakov. Few would say either Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn – the two writers who became best known in the West in the second half of the last century.

  4. Robert Chandler, thanks for the reply. But I see you have retreated to the 20th century! That claim is much less audacious.

  5. Since I have not read Platonov, in order to keep up some pretense of intellectual honesty, and because I have been meaning to read it, and because it sounds so good, Chandler’s version of The Foundation Pit is on its way to me now.

  6. Trevor says:

    Thanks for visiting, Robert, and thanks to you and your wife for your translating work. I am excited to get to know Platonov better. I should not I also need to read your translations of Vasily Grossman! I’m looking forward to it all.

  7. Trevor says:

    Tom, it seems to me the strongest claim in the article is that Platonov is the greatest in the twentieth century and maybe — maybe — ever, if we go by Chandler’s anecdote about finding only him and Pushkin fresh after years of work. I’m sadly not that knowledgable about Russian literature. I’m enjoying what I’m learning, though.

  8. This will be pedantic, sorry.

    In fairness, these are the interviewer’s words, not Chandler’s, but this is the strongest claim in the interview:

    “You’ve argued that Russians will eventually come to recognise Platonov as their greatest prose writer.”

    Not “stylist” but “writer,” not “20th century” but overall, and not that Platonov is a better writer than Tolstoy, etc., which is merely well-informed expert opinion, but that the expert consensus will be that he is greater than Tolstoy, etc. which is a prediction about literary history, not a judgment about literature. A strong prediction!

    In this earlier interview, Chandler says “Most contemporary Russian writers look on Andrey Platonov as the equal of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Chekhov.” Given this, Chandler is right about the eventual change in Platonov’s reputation, because that is exactly how literary reputations change – the best new writers rearrange which old writers matter most.

    I guess that last point is not so pedantic (and also a complete surrender on my part).

  9. Trevor says:

    Your brand of pedantry is always welcome, Tom :).

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