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).


  1. j. del col says

    True, he could have used an editor. But when there’s only one publisher and they’re determined to ban your work, that’s a need that isn’t going to be met.

  2. Very true!

  3. Talking of Babel (about whom there’s a large chunk), I do hope you’ve read or are planning to read Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed, Language. She might have written it for you.

  4. Well, if she did, she could have let me know.
    By the way, until I hit Post on this comment the total number of comments on LH is 66666. Just thought I should record that fact.

  5. You mean I made the 66,666th comment? Does that mean I’m the Beast?

  6. Only you can answer that.

  7. It doesn’t feel accidental that the 66666th post suggested reading a book called The Possessed.
    I’m sorry to hear that Chevengur has such an unedited feel. I’m still looking forward to reading it but I do get tired of that wandering feeling.
    I’ll be interested in hearing about Men Without Women, too: I’ve been reading Eliot’s Overdrive: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture on and off and enjoying it.

  8. Well, AJP, since you insist on cavorting with creatures of the cloven hoof….

  9. They cavort, I stumble.

  10. Technically, I believe they caper.

  11. I see a comedy detective series in the making for television: “The Crown Capers”.

  12. Our goats don’t do anything very technical. Caper is one word that is the same in Norwegian, perhaps the Vikings introduced them to Britain on early canapés.

  13. Isn’t it odd that one can sit on canapés as well as eat them ?
    The French word already has both meanings. Do you suppose that people who lounged around on canapés invented small food that is easy to eat when hanging out on canapés, and called it canapés ?
    By the same token, couch potatoes may have invented potato chips.

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