KOTLOVAN.

An author might start a novel this way: “On his thirtieth birthday, Voshchev was laid off from his factory job for weakness and woolgathering.” Or he might lay out a whole little scene, with the protagonist thinking about his birthday on his way to work, then being called into the personnel office and told the bad news, with persuasive descriptions of decor and tones of voice. But that’s not how Andrei Platonov does it. Here’s the first paragraph of Kotlovan, in the superb translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson, The Foundation Pit (the Russian is below the cut):

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. His dismissal notice stated that he was being removed from production on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor.

There’s nothing attractive about those sentences. Their wordiness, their labored syntax, their odd and rebarbative jargon, everything about them seems to want to push you away rather than lure you in. And yet you are drawn in; there’s something about the narrative, some funhouse-mirror quality, that makes you want to see where it’s going. You follow Voshchev to “a beer room for workers from the villages and low-paid categories” where he hears “sincere human voices” and remains “until evening, until the noise of a wind of changing weather; he then went over to an open window, to take note of the beginning of night, and he caught sight of the tree on the clay mound—it was swaying from adversity, and its leaves were curling up with secret shame.” The next morning, Voshchev walks further down the road but is soon exhausted, and at this point comes a sudden irruption of intensity, the kind of thing we hope for from a Russian novel:

A dead, fallen leaf lay beside Voshchev’s head; the wind had brought it there from a distant tree, and now this leaf faced humility in the earth. Voshchev picked up the leaf that had withered and hid it away in a secret compartment of his bag, where he took care of all kinds of objects of unhappiness and obscurity. “You did not possess the meaning of life,” supposed Voshchev with the miserliness of compassion. “Stay here—and I’ll find out what you lived and perished for. Since no one needs you and you lie about amidst the whole world, then I shall store and remember you.
“Everything lives and endures in the world, without becoming conscious of anything,” said Voshchev beside the road. And he stood up, in order to go, surrounded by universal enduring existence. “It’s as if some one man, or some handful of men, had extracted from us our convinced feeling and taken it for themselves!”

Here the words “dead,” “earth,” “meaning,” “endure,” and especially “conscious” are signals of where the novel is going. Who is living and who and what is dead, and can we always tell the difference? Who is conscious, and of what? What meaning can we find, enduring on and in the earth? Soon Voshchev joins a crew of men digging the titular pit, intended for the foundation of a building to house proletarians. But there are many discussions of the novel’s political content (Chandler and Meerson’s Afterword does a good job of summarizing the history and politics involved, though I’ve added a short bibliography below for those particularly interested); what I want to focus on here is the amazing language.


And yet you can’t discuss the language without talking about politics, because politics is the soil it grows out of. Platonov has been called a natural Stalinist; what is meant by that is that he shared the Stalinist belief that life could be radically transformed, that nothing was impossible to truly conscious people who had thrown off the shackles of the bourgeois past. (Of course, in Platonov’s case this came as much from Nikolai Fedorov, with his loony insistence that mankind must become immortal and bring everyone who ever lived back to life, as from Marx and Lenin.) Like a good Soviet citizen, filled with optimism and enthusiasm, Platonov gave up his early career as a writer after the famine of 1921 and spent the next years going around Russia supervising the digging of ponds and wells, the draining of swampland, and the building of power stations. Chandler writes:

And then, between 1929 and 1932, he was sent on a number of journeys through central and southern Russia. Other writers who visited collective farms did so as members of Writers’ Brigades—and they, of course, were shown only a few model collective farms. Platonov, however, was sent by the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture, and he saw what was really happening.

That experience complicated his optimism. He seems still to have retained a belief that the shining communist future was a possibility, but having seen the stupidity, inefficiency, corruption, and brutality that were everywhere on the ground, no matter what the Kremlin planners might intend, he had to respond, to tell the truth as he saw it, and that response involved a complex and brilliant manipulation of the very language the Kremlin used to propagate its ideas. Characters are always talking about “directives” and “backwardness” and “tempo,” regurgitating the catchwords that ceaselessly bombard them from Party organizers, “plenipotentiaries,” and other emissaries from officialdom. One of them asks: “Is it really sorrow inside the whole world—and only in ourselves that there’s a five-year plan?” The five-year plan inside us is one of the things the novel is about; some of the characters are trying to fulfill it by constant work, others by denunciations and violence, and the main viewpoint character, Voshchev, by questioning and introspection, irritating pretty much everyone else (as Platonov irritated the Party, despite his professed devotion to its ideals). By the time the novel heads into increasingly surreal-seeming and deadly territory, you’re so accustomed to the strangeness of the telling that you can’t escape its spell.
Fedorov called modern writing “the work of men who have stopped being human and who have become typewriters.” It may be that the style of The Foundation Pit is, in its way, an attempt to revive the “sacred, resurrectional character” of language and thus restore fraternal relations to mankind. There’s never been anything else like it; even Platonov quickly retreated from it (he did, after all, want to be published), and his later works are written in a more “normal” style. But this will always be his masterpiece.
The first paragraph in Russian:

В день тридцатилетия личной жизни Вощеву дали расчет с небольшого механического завода, где он добывал средства для своего существования. В увольнительном документе ему написали, что он устраняется с производства вследствие роста слабосильности в нем и задумчивости среди общего темпа труда.

A few books to help the reader who wants more background:
A Companion to Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, by Thomas Seifrid. The Foundation Pit is such a complex novel, with so much going on below the surface, that it’s well worth reading this guide (not long, but longer than the novel!), of which its publisher, Academic Studies Press, says “In addition to an overview of the work’s key themes, it discusses their place within Platonov’s oeuvre as a whole, his troubled relations with literary officialdom, the work’s ideological and political background, and key critical responses since the work’s first publication in the West in 1973.” (Fortunately, the paperback is only $21; many of this publisher’s books, as you can see on the linked page, are several times that.)
The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization, by Lynne Viola. You have to make allowances for her excessive enthusiasm for her subject, the “25,000ers” recruited from factories and other dens of trustworthy proletarians who fanned out across Russia to help impose collectivization (Mark Von Hagen’s review says she is “sympathetic to their struggle against all the other actors in this tragic story, who appear as villains, including … the backward Russian peasants” who were the victims), but she paints a detailed picture of the nitty-gritty of the process on the ground.
Above all, read Moshe Lewin’s classic The Making of the Soviet System: Essays in the Social History of Interwar Russia. Lewin explains the economic background and effects of Stalinism and collectivization in such a clear way that even I, an economic illiterate, could understand what happened. This will help you understand not only Platonov but the entire subsequent history of the Soviet Union.

Comments

  1. Nikolai Fedorov, with his loony insistence that mankind must become immortal and bring everyone who ever lived back to life
    Hat, I pointed out once before at this blog that there is a different way to approach Fedorov’s work. Just go with the flow, man, loosen up ! You’re much too literal-minded here. Maybe Fedorov was personally looney, and believed in everything he wrote – so what ? Forget about that, let his ideas wash over you like the plot of an epic science-fiction novel. These are Russians we’re dealing with, for pete’s sake ! All that crazy stuff in Fedorov, Tsiolkovky et al. is fabulously thought-provoking.
    You know why Fedorov thought that everyone who ever lived should be brought back to life, right ? It was because he thought it was unjust that material progress should benefit only those who were born later. Think about it. At least take a look at Obshee Delo sometime.

  2. In that comment I cited one of your own blogs from 2007. There you were appreciative of Fedorov, but apparently you have fallen from the faith again:

    I don’t know why, but I have an unreasonable fondness for these unaffiliated crackpots, burrowing away at their obsessive analyses of Life, God, and Meaning, glaring with half-seeing eyes at the world around them and scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. If his project for mass resurrection gets underway, I look forward to having a chat with Nikolai Fedorovich

  3. dearieme says:

    “supervising the digging of ..”: yep, supervising is the lark.

  4. Must be because I’m ni kulturny, but that opening graf would put me off the book completely. It seems to me to be literal, word for word, translation of something that may well work in Russian, but (as always, for me) totally fails in English.

  5. At least take a look at Obshee Delo sometime.
    Oh, I fully intend to.
    There you were appreciative of Fedorov, but apparently you have fallen from the faith again
    I don’t know why you say that. I called him loony then and now, and I still have an unreasonable fondness for such loons. I just don’t take them as seriously as you do.

  6. Sigh. “Seriously” is not the point. You are a figure of authority on Russian authors worth reading. Tender souls may be frightened off Fedorov by what you say – but then where would the next generation of loonies come from ? “Theory”, “deconstruction” etc. are in decline, thank God – so we need new talent.

  7. I don’t know why, but I have an unreasonable fondness for these unaffiliated crackpots, burrowing away
    I think you’ve got him completely wrong, Language. According to the great (in my opinion) John Gray in Straw Dogs, Fedorov was an absolute disaster for the modern world:

    For the 19th c. Russian thinker Nikolai Federov (sic) nature was the enemy because it condemned the human personality to extinction. The only worthwhile human project was a titanic struggle for immortality. But for Federov it was not enough that future generations should have done with death. Only when all the human beings who have ever lived were raised from the dead would the species become truly immortal. The human enterprise was the technological resurrection of the dead.
    It seems unbelievable that these fantasies could ever have had a practical influence. Yet Federov’s thinking was one of the intellectual currents that shaped the Soviet regime. The Bolsheviks believed man to be destined for dominion over nature. More, influenced by Federov, they believed that technology could emancipate mankind from the Earth itself. Federov’s ideas inspired the Russian rocket engineer Konstantin Tsiolovsky (1857 – 1935) and through him the first generation of Soviet space explorers. Federovian ideas animated the Soviet regime from its beginnings to its very end.
    Federov’s view of humanity as a chosen species, destined to conquer the Earth and defeat mortality, is a modern formulation of an ancient faith. Platonism and Christianity have always held that humans do not belong in the natural world.When they imagined that humanity could rid itself from the limits that surround all other animal species, the thinkers of the Enlightenment merely renewed this ancient error.
    Federov was undoubtedly extreme, but he was only the most intrepid exponent of a view of things that animated much of the Enlightenment. Henri de Saint Simon and August Comte looked to a future in which technology would be used to secure dominion over the Earth. This fusion of technological Gnosticism with Enlightenment humanism inspired Karl Marx, who transmitted it to his followers in Russia.
    The practical effects of the Marxian-Federovian cult of technology were ruinous. Inspired by a materialist philosophy, the Soviet Union inflicted more far-reaching and lasting damage on the material environment than any regime in history. Green earth became desert, and pollution rose to life-threatening levels. No advantage to mankind was gained by the Soviet destruction of nature. Soviet citizens lived no longer than people in other countries–many of them a good deal less.
    Resistance to Federovian policies was one of the forces that triggered the Soviet collapse. The explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl galvanised protest all over the country. Much of the opposition to Gorbachev focused on his scheme for redirecting some of Russia’s rivers, which would have flooded large parts of Siberia and–as a consequence–altered the world’s climate. Mercifully Gorbachev was toppled, and this grandiose folly never came to pass. Even so, the Soviet legacy to post-communist Russia was a devastated environment–a legacy that its semi-criminal, slash-and-burn capitalism has only made yet more catastrophic.

  8. Thanx, Crown. I did say his ideas were fabulously thought-provoking, didn’t I ?
    Calling Fedorov a loony is one extreme, but attempting to demonize him is also an extreme. “The Marxian-Federovian cult of technology” is a ludicrous notion. My understanding is that Fedorov was essentially unknown in the Soviet Union after WW 2.
    The Russians had no monopoly on destruction of the environment and obsession with technological solutions. Look at the GDR, look at America, look at Vietnam and China – the non-Russian examples are endless.

  9. That’s true–lots of dictators have tried to mess about with their environment and not only dictators, either–but look at a former-communist country like Romania, its environment was ruined. Or look at China with its huge dam projects and its attitude towards global warming. Of course you can say the same about the USA: the environment is less important than the economy. I’d better shut up.

  10. In any case, what I find interesting in Fedorov is how his ideas fit into a larger context of (what I guess I must call) moral philosophy.

  11. According to the Wikipedia article you linked, “Gray sees volition, and hence morality, as an illusion, and portrays humanity as a ravenous species engaged in wiping out other forms of life.” Doesn’t sound like my kind of thinker. And portraying Fedorov as the dark genius of the twentieth century is even loonier than his own ideas.

  12. Thanks for this, LH. I’ve been wondering whether or not to read Platonov for a while, and now my mind’s made up. Curious as to your thoughts on NYRB in general (the whole alternate-canon thing is vaguely maddening, and very illustrative of the last ten years of publishing), and on Grossman’s Life and Fate in particular. Though maybe you’ve already posted about it, and I’ve missed it.

  13. I think NYRB Books is great; not sure what you mean about the “alternate-canon thing” and the last ten years of publishing. Haven’t read Life and Fate, but I wrote this about Everything Flows:

    This is a powerful work and as good a summary of the dark side of Russian history as I’ve read; in 200 pages it provides unforgettable vignettes of the various kinds of suffering imposed by the rulers of the Soviet Union, as well as sometimes lengthy historical analyses. If I encounter anyone who (after all this time and all the information that’s come out) still doubts the horror of what Lenin and Stalin created, I will give them this book and hope they are open to what it has to say. The account of the Ukrainian famine of the early ’30s, to take just one example, is crushing and convincing.

    However, it presents itself as a novel, and it’s really not. It starts out as one, with a 50-year-old protagonist, Ivan Grigorevich, returning to Moscow from the east Siberian Gulag and meeting his well-off cousin, but it quickly becomes a series of musings by Ivan about the course of history, and for long stretches Ivan himself is forgotten and Grossman pours out his rage at what was done (tempered by his understanding of the human beings who did it) and reaffirms his belief in the ultimate value of freedom. This is not meant as a criticism, simply as a warning to anyone who might go into it expecting a traditional novel with a plot. This is not that, but it’s something valuable in its own right.

  14. @ Paul, as Hat says, “There’s nothing attractive about those sentences. Their wordiness, their labored syntax, their odd and rebarbative jargon, everything about them seems to want to push you away rather than lure you in.” It is a very creative translation (not word for word) of the Russian, which sounds just the same way. But whether it draws you in or not — as they say, “one doesn’t argue about taste.”

  15. the whole alternate-canon thing is … very illustrative of the last ten years of publishing
    I dunno. What about Knopf’s Blue Jade Library in the ’20s, based on Carl Van Vechten’s suggestions?

  16. Thanks Mab. Nice to feel there are two approaches to this.

  17. Actually, Paul, I sympathize. I read the Foundation Pit in college and hated it. HATED IT. Yuck. Puke. Couldn’t stand it. But then Robert Chandler had questions about the Russian as he was doing a new translation, and I passed them on to a Russian translator friend who knew Platonov very well, and WHAMO PRESTO BAM a new world opened for me. It doesn’t surprise me that Hat, who is the Reader From Heaven, (that is, the reader every writer dreams of) got it. I think we mortals have to read 50 pages or so with a suspension of disbelief (and a bottle of Maalox). But if you stick it out, you might be surprised. Or not. But I think Platonov is worth the effort.

  18. Oh, I’m sure I would have hated it in college too. I’ve come to many things late in life, beets, Cecil Taylor, and Platonov among them.

  19. I suppose if I could be brought to listen to, and be interested in, if not like, Schnittke, I might get into Platonov if only via the companion book…

  20. Schnittke ! No effort involved in appreciating his music, I would have thought. But not a “companion book” <*shudder*> on his music.
    However, I wouldn’t go straight from Mozart to Schnittke – you might have a nervous breakdown.

  21. I meant to say that I love the way you wrote this post, Language. One of your best.

  22. Wow, thank you. I spent several days trying to compose it, then released it into the wild with a sense that I hadn’t managed to say anything like what I wanted to say.

  23. Besides finding the discussion of Platonov very interesting, I especially liked the way the abrupt beginning worked. Just saying.

  24. j. del col says:

    I read Platonov a long time ago on the recommendation of Joseph Brodsky. I thought then, and still do, that The Foundation Pit is one of the most powerful books of the 20th C. Maybe my reading of Russian history, especially about the Soviet state and its strange Marxist-Leninist jargon prepared me for it, but Platonov’s use of that jargon seemed absolutely appropriate and brilliant from the get-go.

  25. I agree with Mr Crown. It’s a great post. Perhaps I’m looking at it from the angle of a translator, but what I liked is that you pointed out the other ways an author might have approached the beginning. But Platonov didn’t do X or Y or Z. He did something else. Why? Why does it sound so strange? There was a reason for that; what is it?

  26. Well, I am not as old as Hat even now (and never will be). I still can’t stand beets (every so often, my beet-loving wife induces me to try ‘em, but nope, they still taste like beets to me), and I can’t stomach this sort of prose even for a paragraph, never mind a whole book. Perhaps because I have to read, decipher, and act upon far too much of this kind of thing.
    <rant>Just the other day I received a rejection notice from a government department for a multi-page form that I had mailed them, telling me that I had failed to complete the form. I thought, “Oh well,” and unfolded the enclosure to see which entries were blank. They all were. Instead of returning my form with some indication of what I had done wrong, they sent me an entirely virgin form!</rant>

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