Josh Billings on Chevengur.

When a reader sent me Josh Billings’ LARB review of the new translation of Andrei Platonov’s novel Chevengur, I initially intended to add it to my earlier post on the translation, but it goes into important issues of style and translation in such useful detail I thought I’d give it its own post. After an introductory passage setting up the “question of tone,” placing the novel in the context of the “great pastoral idylls” of the 19th century as well as more recent “absurdist post-Soviet revisions,” and mentioning “a momentum that feels both ‘wrong’ and irresistible, as if the narrative were a troika that should be falling apart at every bump in the road but which nonetheless keeps rolling indestructibly along,” Billings continues:

With its credulity and willful obliqueness, Platonov’s prose in the opening chapters of Chevengur inherits the gloriously weird intimacy that is so central to the Russian novel, an intimacy the translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler occasionally muffles. In the above passage, for example, their punctuational choices add a breathlessness to the original’s patient plod. No doubt there was a pragmatic dimension to this change (Russian-to-English translators frequently use punctuation to give shape to the long sentences that, in Russian’s inflected grammar, make perfect sense on their own). But the tonal shift is noticeable. The passage loses some humor and, along with it, a certain amount of the original’s subtle irony—the sense that Platonov is encouraging us to maintain a certain critical distance from the childishness of Dvanov’s vision of the world, a vision that will later be developed into the muddled communism that he and other characters inhabit.

This fuzziness of tone is barely noticeable at the beginning of Chevengur, but it accumulates by the book’s middle chapters, in which the beautiful nightmare of the early postrevolutionary years moves to scenes where we see the characters talking and thinking in the language of communism as it is wrestled into being all over the Russian countryside. Platonov’s great revelation about this language is that it is not a break from Russia’s prerevolutionary past but a continuation of it—that is, an extension of exactly the poetic gawp that saw in Dvanov’s village twilight a “children’s birthland.” And yet sometimes it can be difficult for the reader of Chevengur in English to trace this connection:

The modest Great Russian sky shone over the Soviet land with as much habit and monotony as if the Soviets had existed since time immemorial and the sky were in perfect accord with them. Within Dvanov there had already taken shape an immaculate conviction: that before the Revolution, the sky and all other spaces had been different, less dear to people.

Reading this translation side by side with the Russian, it is hard not to feel sympathy for its translators. Platonov’s untranslatability is frequently the main subtext of those few statements made about him in English—Joseph Brodsky’s comment “Woe to the people into whose language Andrei Platonov can be translated,” for example, or Tatyana Tolstaya’s 2000 essay in The New York Review of Books. The general success of the Chandlers’ Chevengur proves that this untranslatability has been exaggerated—and yet, in passages like the one above, it is easy to see how even extremely accomplished efforts can run into trouble with Platonov’s nuances, making it hard for us to understand whether the description we are reading is meant to be satirical or poetic, or some highly original combination of the two.

It’s important to be as precise as possible about how this happens. Typically when we think or speak about a text being untranslatable, what we’re saying is that a certain amount of its aesthetic persuasiveness has been sacrificed or simply lost in the effort to retain a literal argument. But in Platonov, it is exactly the “unbeautiful” aspects of the prose that carry the book’s larger message. Over and over again, his Russian prose comes across as flat, awkward, vague—or rather, it manages to communicate these impressions while itself remaining sculpted and interesting. The effect is something like the deformation of classical painting found in modernists like Pablo Picasso or Henri Rousseau: an extremely sophisticated verbal technique evoking a world in which language is constantly being broken, abused, or just used inaccurately, to establish an unreality whose relationship to reality is not representational at all.

Language for Sasha Dvanov is not scientific; on the contrary, it is pragmatic and mythological—closer to the “bricolage” that Claude Lévi-Strauss identified in the tribal societies of Brazil than the dialectical Hegelianism the communist intellectuals of Chevengur pretend to be practicing. Looking at the sky, Dvanov sees “the modest Great Russian sky”—a phrase straight out of a Soviet propaganda pamphlet. And yet, even at its most cliché-ridden, the language of Chevengur impresses us as being highly artistic and indeed beautiful—not because of the way it allows us to see the world more clearly than we had before but because of how perfectly it depicts language’s ability to colonize and distort reality, turning a sunset into a kind of bloated Blakean sunflower. The challenge for the translator of Chevengur, then, is to retain the layered ambivalence of Platonov’s original as fully as possible, without ever allowing the reader to feel that these complications are a result of the translation itself.

The Chandlers’ translation does this remarkably well, for the most part, but there are several places where their small adjustments to the text add up to large effects—often paradoxically. For example, directly before the passage quoted above, they introduce one of the chapter breaks that are clearly meant to break the flow of Chevengur’s Russian original into more comprehensible chunks, but which instead disorient the reader, making it momentarily difficult for us to recognize whose “modest Great Russian sky” this is. The narrator’s? Dvanov’s? The break is dramatic and noticeable, turning what should be a ravishing use of free indirect discourse into something sloshy and bifurcated. Again, the thing that breaks is exactly what is most important to the book as a whole—that is, the richly self-contradictory tone that makes Platonov’s satire feel loving and his poetry refreshingly, almost unbearably haunted. We need to hear that voice, but in places like this, the translation feels frustratingly imprecise.

Nevertheless, by the time we reach the final third of Chevengur, the Chandlers have provided us with enough examples of its unique combination of parody and poetry that we start to feel both edges of the sword. […]

Is Platonov being sincere? Or is he baiting us—inviting us to adopt an ironic relationship to his language, the way that, say, an Aldous Huxley or George Orwell would? The prose itself does not tip its hand, or rather, it tips it over and over again, making it impossible for us to establish a comfortable critical distance. The possibility it opens for the reader is that the feeling Platonov’s awkward, clichéd language describes the others experiencing here is, in fact, a real one. Communism in Chevengur really may be “happening,” in the only way that it can—that is, not because of the whimsical decrees of its implementers but in spite of them, as an occasional communion. […]

Moments like this—which arrive with greater and greater poignancy as the book draws to its apocalyptic close—are what make Chevengur stand out as a compelling reading experience, even for readers who might be fairly familiar with the idea that large-scale utopian social projects end in shambles. It shows us communism’s dream of changing the world from the inside, bringing us so close to its roots in alienation and ordinary human loneliness and fellow feeling that we occasionally sense our own convictions starting to shake. In this way, it runs counter to the current of practically all anti-totalitarian literature of the 20th century, transforming the closed question of “why did this happen?” into something open and alive—often disturbingly so. For in the blasted, starved, utterly unrooted vacuum of Platonov’s postrevolutionary Russia, we can feel, almost viscerally, why human beings would use the most powerful tool at their disposal—language itself—to replace the rational, religious, or political structures that history had destroyed. Barbarism in these circumstances is not a rejection of meaning at all; it is a creation of it, an invention as necessary and predictable as a pup tent or a wheelbarrow. […]

If there is a consolation in Chevengur, it is this: that, try as we might, humankind can’t escape the complicated, disappointing, ultimately partial condition of our own existence, and that, therefore, all our misguided attempts to transcend ourselves will eventually fail—no matter how formidable they appear in the moment.

One measure of Platonov’s brilliance is the thought-provoking writing he inspires in his interpreters. Thanks, Peter!


  1. I’m afraid that it is impossible for me to understand what this review is talking about without some knowledge of the Russian language and of how it was “recreated” by the Communists. This is possibly a case where lack of familiarity with a language and its history on the part of the reader would make even the most gifted translator stumble.

  2. Could you perhaps imagine a Chinese novel using Maoist cliches in a parallel fashion, creating an innovative form of the language hoisting the officialese with its own petard?

  3. David Eddyshaw says
  4. I read Chevengur a while ago, my impression can be skewed more than usual because of that. That said, Billings got most of the points correctly. The only thing that is surprising is why he thinks it is a “combination of parody and poetry” and that Platonov tries to string the reader along with this ambiguity. He knows the answer! Platonov examines what happens to an idea (communism) which was an abstract concept of philosophers and then is plunged into the real life. Some people, like Dvanov, will make it their own transforming it beyond any recognition. Dvanov is like a protagonist from Leskov who was taken from the (relatively) stable world of 19th century and plunged into the confusion of the 20c.

    The language is not a parody either. Zoschenko insisted that it was not possible to use the old (literary) language to describe the new reality. He (Zoschenko) has done it in his own way, extremely interestingly, but not with such virtuosity and depth as Platonov.

    Surprisingly or not, it was not the beginning of a new linguistic reality, but a phase. Somehow everything got back to normal and the later Soviet-Russian literature was doing pretty well with standard literary language, playing with it on the edges more than trying to reinvent it.

  5. hoisting the officialese with its own petard

    There are perhaps attempts to do this, but really, hoisting officialese with its own petard can be dangerous stuff in China; it’s all still alive, not a relic of the past. Anything to do with the Cultural Revolution, for instance, is highly sensitive in China, as I found out when I tried to post a Mongolian-language children’s book inside China. (Even though the book had pictures and had Chinese-language publishing details in the back, the post-office official refused to accept it without approval from the appropriate local culture office. She was concerned it might contain material about the Cultural Revolution!) Even joking use of official language in an inappropriate way can have dire consequences in China. Chinese comedian arrested after joke about army.

  6. Sure, I wasn’t suggesting it was possible (these days anyway), just suggesting a thought experiment that might give you an idea of what Platonov was up to.

  7. Point taken. As a rank outsider, I failed to appreciate expressions like “the modest Great Russian sky”. What could it be talking about? For me, “Great Russian” and “modest” don’t go together in any sense except perhaps irony. Did the Bolshevik ideological machine really talk like this? Or was this the author’s spin? Billings’ explanation was a little too subtle and intricate for me to follow, given my total ignorance of the subject matter. It’s certainly an interesting topic; it’s just that my ignorance doesn’t equip me to understand what he’s alluding to. (And I’m glad I was the first to comment on this post — it seems to have primed the pump a little.)

  8. “Great Russian” essentially means “Russian”; it’s in opposition to “Little Russian” (i.e., Ukrainian), “White Russian” (Belorussian), and the like. “Modest” is one of those self-congratulatory epithets official Soviet writing was so fond of; the combination is both plausible and inherently ironic. And yes, the Bolshevik ideological machine really talked like that — Platonov just dials it up a notch. It’s not even that he’s trying to sabotage it (he really seems to have believed in the ideals), he just can’t help registering the internal contradictions and malign effects when put into practice.

  9. I happen to disagree with Mr. Hat on the larger picture, but “Great Russian” indeed means “Russian”. One of the ways that Platonov deforms standard literary language is a choice of “inappropriate” registers and synonyms. In this case, there is nothing going on with the sky, it’s just its usual (modest) self and than comes Great Russian which makes it unexpectedly pompous (to which I might add that even Russian here would be unnecessary elevation, there is nothing especially different about Russian sky unless you want to make some ethnic point). I do not think Platonov parodied anything, he tried to make a reader somewhat uncomfortable with the process of reading, like putting them in a hard chair instead of a plushy one. He did use materials from Soviet propaganda and other clichés, because that what was in his protagonist mind.

  10. I don’t think there’s any real disagreement, just different emphasis.

    even Russian here would be unnecessary elevation, there is nothing especially different about Russian sky unless you want to make some ethnic point

    It may not strike a Russian reader who’s used to it, but from a foreign perspective it’s very noticeable how much Russianness is emphasized in Russian literature. There’s a lot of “we Russians” and “our Russian [sky/forest/whatever]” where you would rarely see a national adjective in another literature. Not making a value judgment, just an observation.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Was “Great Russian” still used in Soviet times?

    making it hard for us to understand whether the description we are reading is meant to be satirical or poetic, or some highly original combination of the two.

    That passage? The third. I find it obvious.

    That’s also how communism seems to have felt, judging from disparate other sources.

    where you would rarely see a national adjective in another literature

    I think you’d find it in German literature from you-know-when. Fortunately, there wasn’t much literature produced then.

  12. Was “Great Russian” still used in Soviet times?

    As far as I remember writing of that time, it was clearly dated.

    By the by, in that sentence (The modest Great Russian sky shone over the Soviet land with as much habit and monotony as if the Soviets had existed since time immemorial and the sky were in perfect accord with them.) “Great Russian sky” can be viewed not as an out of place epithet, but as a contrast between the land, already definitely Soviet and the sky which remained an old-timey Great Russian or maybe which doesn’t even care what happens down there and whether it is a “Great Russian” sky or a “Soviet” one. I don’t know whether Platonov consciously made this juxtaposition or it can be expected if someone drags too many cliched phrases from different times. I would be much more inclined to say that it was a deliberate contrast if not for “modest” which is then becomes out of place for a ponderous philosophizing statement. As I said, Platonov’s writing is subtle, you think you pinned it down and put it in a bin, but it turns round and escapes.

  13. Very true.

  14. When I saw “Josh Billings,” I wondered if this fellow had been resurrected:

  15. Yes, I thought of him too. “It iz better tew know nothing than tew know what ain’t so.”

  16. If we take Great Russian to be a geographical expression (like Italy), then it sounds to me quite analogous to the U.S. term big sky, which refers to the parts of the U.S. West that don’t have forests or cities, and which therefore let you see something close to 180 degrees of the sky hemisphere.

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