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).
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us slowly through the transition from idealism to a stark image of the crippled city — which is why the book remained unpublished until 1991.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.