As I wrote here, I’m reading Platonov‘s novel Chevengur (written in 1927-28 but not published until 1988 in the USSR; the English translation is long out of print, but apparently Robert Chandler is working on a new one). Having reached the halfway point, with the scene about to shift to the titular city (fictional, but located in Platonov’s homeland, the Voronezh black earth region), I thought I’d give a preliminary report.

The most surprising thing about it, to me, is its humor. At times it reminds me of Ilf and Petrov (especially since I’m concurrently reading The Little Golden Calf to my wife at night): a couple of guys are wandering around the still youthful USSR, having often absurd adventures and conversations accompanied by ironic sociopolitical commentary. But Platonov sets up the picaresque portion of his novel with a harrowing beginning in which he shows how his protagonist, Alexander Dvanov, barely survives a childhood marked by the suicide of his father (who drowns himself to see what it’s like) and being raised as a barely tolerated extra mouth in a poor household during the hard times of the early twentieth century. You don’t get any psychological analysis (and a good thing too), just an accounting of his behavior, sometimes inexplicable but usually motivated by a strong impulse towards what he understands as socialism (and “what is socialism?” is one of the main themes of the novel). As always with Platonov, the language is fresh, varied, always a joy to read (though sometimes requiring a lot of work with dictionaries and Google to figure out).

Here are a couple of passages, fifty pages apart, that illustrate Platonov’s remarkable gift for physicalizing abstract concepts (my translations; the Russian is below):

But in a person there lives a small observer – he takes part in neither actions nor sufferings – he is always cold-blooded and always the same. His employment is to see and to be a witness, but he has no vote [literally ‘voice’] in the life of the person and it is not known why he, lonely, exists. This corner of a person’s consciousness is illuminated day and night, like a doorman’s room in a great house. For days on end this doorman sits awake in the entrance, he knows all the inhabitants of his house, but not a single one of them asks the doorman’s advice about his own affairs. The inhabitants come and go, and the doorman-observer accompanies them with his eyes. Because he is well informed but powerless he sometimes seems sad, but he is always polite, solitary, and has a room in another house. In case of fire the doorman calls the firemen and observes the subsequent events from outside.
. . .
Dvanov lowered his head, his consciousness diminished from the monotonous movement along level territory. And what Dvanov felt now to be his heart was a dam constantly shuddering from the pressure of a rising lake of feelings. The feelings were raised high by the heart and fell on its other side, already converted into a stream of alleviating thought. But above the dam there always burned the fire, always on duty, of that watchman who takes no part in a person, but only dozes within him for little pay. This fire sometimes allowed Dvanov to see both spaces – the swelling warm lake of feelings and the long rapidity of thought behind the dam, cooling because of its speed. Then Dvanov forestalled the work of his heart, which nourished itself but also put the brakes on his consciousness, and he was able to be happy.

Incidentally, if anyone can explain to me the word распоминался in “Кто-то тебя распоминался так?” (you can see it in context most of the way down this page), I will be grateful.

The Russian:

Но в человеке еще живет маленький зритель – он не участвует ни в поступках, ни в страдании – он всегда хладнокровен и одинаков. Его служба – это видеть и быть свидетелем, но он без права голоса в жизни человека и неизвестно, зачем он одиноко существует. Этот угол сознания человека день и ночь освещен, как комната швейцара в большом доме. Круглые сутки сидит этот бодрствующий швейцар в подъезде человека, знает всех жителей своего дома, но ни один житель не советуется со швейцаром о своих делах. Жители входят и выходят, а зритель-швейцар провожает их глазами. От своей бессильной осведомленности он кажется иногда печальным, но всегда вежлив, уединен и имеет квартиру в другом доме. В случае пожара швейцар звонит пожарным и наблюдает снаружи дальнейшие события.
. . .
Дванов опустил голову, его сознание уменьшилось от однообразного движения по ровному месту. И то, что Дванов ощущал сейчас как свое сердце, было постоянно содрогающейся плотиной от напора вздымающегося озера чувств. Чувства высоко поднимались сердцем и падали по другую сторону его, уже превращенные в поток облегчающей мысли. Но над плотиной всегда горел дежурный огонь того сторожа, который не принимает участия в человеке, а лишь подремывает в нем за дешевое жалование. Этот огонь позволял иногда Дванову видеть оба пространства – вспухающее теплое озеро чувств и длинную быстроту мысли за плотиной, охлаждающейся от своей скорости. Тогда Дванов опережал работу сердца, питающегося, но и тормозящего его сознание, и мог быть счастливым.


  1. Кто-то тебя распоминался так? — from поминать, помянуть, to speak or think of someone in their absence. It’s a part of belief in “evil eye” (сглаз) that hiccups or reddening of the ears is caused by others talking about you.

  2. Thanks!

  3. Actually, while I’m at it, how does the idiom “от скуки скулы сводит” work? (Platonov uses the dialectal form скулья: “Тебе от скуки скулья сводит?”) I don’t understand the sense of сводит.

  4. I would read it here as “clench” or “pucker.” The literal sense is “to cause to come together.” It’s typically used when something makes you grimace or make a face. I’m not sure скука is a necessary element of the idiom. The entire phrase is, then, something like “grimacing with [something].”

  5. You yawn so much from being bored that your cheekbones hurt. “Сводит” in this case is безличный глагол, meaning to go into spasm.
    I really like Chevengur, glad that you’re enjoying it.

  6. Thanks to both of you!

  7. I’m reading the Mirra Ginsburg trans. for Foundation Pit. Kind of rough going and preachy. Did you ever read it?

  8. To add to the previous posts: this verb is a nonce word that Platonov made on the model of other verbs which have the “circumfix” рас-…-ся (расплакался, разыкался, разволновался, распрыгался). As you probably know, this “circumfix” indicates an increasing intensity of an action denoted by the verb root, and so распоминался (for the expected рас-ВС-поминал-ся) means something like “started remembering someone, first in a small way, and then in a more and more major way”. That Platonov meant exactly that is supported by the previous sentence which goes “…всё быстрее и быстрее икать от страха” (the increasing intensity of the hiccuping corresponds to the increasing intensity of someone’s remembering the woman).

  9. Thanks, that’s extremely helpful!

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