I gave my impressions of the first half of Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur here, and I’m glad I did, because the novel takes a sharp turn when it settles into the titular village at that point, and my feelings about it changed accordingly. Now that I’ve finished it, I’ll give a brief account of them (brief because I’m trying to make a Friday deadline on the book I’m editing).
First off, Platonov, like Proust and Tolstoy, could have used an editor. Until the various characters converge on Chevengur, the book is tight and compelling; at that point, it’s as if Platonov relaxed and started tossing in every bit of ironic observation on village life and popular misunderstandings of communism he’d been saving up for years. I will probably read it again at some point, and perhaps then I’ll see more of a point to some of the vignettes and repetitions, but this time around I got a little impatient. And then, as if he’d suddenly realized he had to end the damn thing somehow, we get Cossacks ex machina to bring it to a close. The scene of Dvanov and his fellow orphan, the horse Proletarskaya Sila (“Proletarian Power”), returning to his native town is touching, but would have been more so if the preceding two hundred pages had been ruthlessly tightened up. It makes me appreciate even more the ferocious concision of Kotlovan (The Foundation Pit), which says and does more in 150 pages than the earlier novel in three times as many.
One thing that bothered me (as it did in Proust) was the attitude toward women, who are treated as irrelevant distractions to the important thoughts and activities of men. Platonov himself was married (and wrote his wife about one of his stories “You won’t like it, but that’s how it has to be”) and presumably appreciated the women he knew in what we think of as real life, but intellectually he took part in the masculinist strain that dominated Soviet culture in the 1920s. There’s a whole book on this topic, Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917–1929, which I’ve ordered and will doubtless be reporting on in due time (along with Platonov it discusses Babel and Olesha, both of whom I expect to be reading soon).