Chandler’s Chevengur.

Back in 2010 I read Andrei Platonov’s novel Чевенгур (and wrote about it here and here); now the translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler has finally been published as Chevengur, and NYRB Classics has been kind enough to send me a copy. I have not had time to read the translation itself, but the Chandlers can be trusted to do a good job on Platonov (see my post on Котлован, which they translated as The Foundation Pit), and I can state that the introduction and notes are excellent. I can also link to the Washington Post review by Michael Barron, which is highly favorable:

Though a Russian edition of “Chevengur” wasn’t officially published until 1988, versions of it had previously appeared elsewhere: first in 1971 in a French translation from a samizdat copy, and then in English a few years later. Chandler regards that early translation as “marred by serious errors,” and his diagnosis is an authoritative one. Platonov’s lyrical prose, peppered with symbolistic winks and allusions, has been the subject of deep text scholarship, including Chandler’s, in the decades since its release. This new edition of “Chevengur,” translated by him and his wife, Elizabeth Chandler, incorporates alterations by Platonov that never made it into the first published copy, along with more than 100 pages of supplemental material that help decode the novel and exonerate its author. It is efforts of this kind that have restored Platonov’s reputation as one of the greatest writers of 20th century.

With the conclusion of the retranslation of his novels, NYRB has affirmed Platonov’s place in the Soviet-censored canon — where he joins the likes of Mikhail Bulgakov, the poet Osip Mandelstam and the chronicler Vasily Grossman (Platonov’s good friend). Platonov is not just a voice of his generation but a sage to our own, warning us that the flaws of human idealism are condemned to overshadow its realized visions.

(Eric and Stu sent links to the review; gracias, amigos!)


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I am confused as to what supposed crime Platonov is being “exonerate[d]” from. Is it that the samizdat copy that made its way west way back when did not accurately reflect the author’s intended text (although if so, one wonders why the copyists’ errors didn’t make it “better,” at least in a boring-conventional-expectations way?), or is it that the prior translators (according to the new translators!) botched the job of explicating the Russian text they had available to them.

  2. A reader sent me a link to Patrick Kurp’s WSJ review of the novel (archived); here’s the conclusion:

    While it’s a commonplace to say a writer has a style all his own, no one quite resembles Platonov. He’s simultaneously a documentarian sharing a slideshow of the Soviet Union’s bloody history and a fabulist forging a prescient Russian version of magical realism. His touch is light. Without a conventional plot or character development, he leaves readers with vivid memories.

    On their way to Chevengur, Stepan and Sasha visit the home of a forester who lives in a “grove of concentrated, sad trees.” The forester is reading books left to him by his father, “a library of cheap books by the least read, least important, and most forgotten of authors.” The father used to say that “life’s decisive truths exist secretly in abandoned books.”

    Robert and Elizabeth Chandler would seem to agree. More than translators, the Chandlers are in the business of literary reclamation. They previously translated Platonov’s “The Foundation Pit” (1930), “Soul” (1934) and “Happy Moscow” (1936), all of which have their roots in “Chevengur.” Without the Chandlers, English-speakers would probably know Vasily Grossman as a mere footnote to Russian literature, rather than the author of “Life and Fate” (1959), one of the previous century’s supreme novels. Without the Chandlers, Platonov, too, might have remained an obscurity among Anglophone readers. Now we have Platonov and his finest novel, “Chevengur,” thanks to the Chandlers.

    Thanks, Dave!

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Funny quote found in wikipedia, attr. Joseph Brodsky: “Woe to the people into whose language Andrei Platonov can be translated.”

  4. That’s great.

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