on 8 August 2011
For those who have already read Platonov and finished a book by him, I imagine the feeling upon completion must be the same as mine: astonishment. How could such a writer not be well known, as well known as Tolstoy and Chekov? How could such a writer have remained dormant when he has essential things to say about Russia and existence in general? Because he says them beautifully, and profoundly. Because I imagine Platonov to be the prose equivalent of Scriabin, both essentially mystics and whose work swings into and out of fashion according to the taste of the times. However, both were exceptionally talented - and if not geniuses, certainly almost - and because of their singlemindedness seem to have slipped from (modern) view.
Whilst not being of the `daily bread' (like Tolstoy or Dostoyevski) ilk of literature, Platonov's prose is like unleavened bread: it is dense, poetic, didactic and precise. More philosophical than political, the words seem to be sourced from a truly sacred place. The syntax is startlingly original and almost makes you read in a completely different frame of mind, savouring all of the idiosyncracies and subtle nuances that the author evokes. Indeed, some of the images contained in this work are brilliant, beautiful, resounding and really compelling. The poetic touches, such as when he describes the snow which does not melt, falling on a mare's head is a touch of the sublime! Even the minute details of the landscape - the frost, the burdock, the congealing coldness of rivers - are laden with such positive descriptive elements as to leap into your mind as live images.
This is certainly the work of a philosopher, if not a mystic. Truth is the reason and the goal for such writing and Platonov makes not bones about hiding such aims and intentions. Passages such as this reinforce this idea: `without ideology Voshchev too had grown so weak in body that he could not raise his ax and he lay down in the snow: like it or not, there was no truth in the world - or maybe there had been once, in some plant or heroic creature, but then a wandering beggar had come by and eaten the plant, or trampled this creature down on the ground in lowliness, and then the beggar had died in autumn gully and the wind had blown his body clean into nothing'. Such powerful descriptions as this really make this an existential novel about angst, but not in a whining sense like Satre, but of a total, unutterable shattering realisation which could only come about in Russia; the acknowledgement of emptiness in all things. Poetic, lamentable and yet despairing but not depressing, this work is an illumination of an entire era previously, at least to me, shrowded in darkness. Platonov's voice is unique: it is as if we are being lulled and charmed by a filial voice but there remains in his tone something uncanny, something slightly off-kilter. Yet, with the sadness of this work, there is always humour to be found, especially in what seemed to me to be slap-stick violence. Further, who else could have invented the character of a bear who plays a blacksmith in a part of the story which is especially poignant and points towards the future destruction of the country?
Chandler (the translator) is a pioneer of Platonov's work and has done a very fine job indeed of reworking this book into English: each word shines as if it has been chosen painstakingly over a thousand others and the result is magnificent: jewels shining in the night. There is a lengthy afterword too which affords the reader the context in which Platonov wrote. Chandler writes: `these works appear at first glance to be highly surreal. This impression, however, is misleading; they contain barely an incident or passage of dialogue that does not directly relate to some real event. Platonov's focus is not on some private dream world but on political and historical reality - a reality so extraordinary as to be barely credible'. Certainly, the greatest Russian author of the 20th century, and one of the greatest of all times, this is not to be missed. A most individual voice with important things to say! Maybe more accessible to those who are familiar with other esoteric Russian writers like Bulgakov etc.
on 1 December 2012
Archetypally Russian. This means, of course, more over-emoting than is found in most operas. Russian literary characters have always reminded me of Elmer Fudd (Elmer Fuddovich?), the seemingly bi-polar nemesis of Bugs Bunny. Fudd's moods, in a five minute Looney Tunes cartoon, run the full gamut, from murderous to vengeful to bashful to melancholy and so on. One moment he loves Bugs, is contrite for trying to kill him, cries even, the next he is intent on extreme violence once again. Much the same is on display here: lots of hand wringing, soulful gazing into the distance, gulping down tears, and angry exchanges.
The plot of The Foundation Pit is, quite frankly, as threadbare as the plot of one of these cartoons, although it is built around a satisfyingly satirical idea. A group of workers are engaged in digging the foundation pit of the title, upon which is to be erected a house that will be inhabited by the whole of the proletariat. Chortle. The primary concern of the novel is the tension between one's desires as an individual and one's responsibility to the whole state. Collectivisation, a kind of pooling of agricultural resources, which involved an order for farmers to give up the best of their possessions, features heavily.
It is worth bearing in mind that Platonov was writing this stuff whilst it was actually happening, not after the event, and he ought to be admired for his bravery. But bravery does not make a masterpiece, otherwise Ivan Denisovich would be one, so what then earns The Foundation Pit those 5 stars? The prose. His style, in this novel in particular, is exhilarating, is so odd and uniquely his own that many criticise the translation, believing an inept translator to be the only reasonable explanation for their own struggles with the text. Platonov's sentences are idiosyncratic, the word order initially confusing but designed to give emphasis to certain important words.
His greatest achievement is to make the reader feel as though he too is trapped in a wildly incomprehensible world. The novel is written, and the characters more often than not communicate, in baffling doublespeak. You are given the impression that everyone, including the author, has been brainwashed, with party-approved phrases abounding:
"You're a fully class generation. You may only be a minor but you have a precise consciousness of every relationship."
"The proletariat, comrade Voshchev, lives for enthusiasm! It's time you received this tendancy!"
"Silence, you benighted pettiness! Your task is to remain whole in this life. Mine is to perish, in order to vacate a place!"
There is evidence enough, I hope, in this review to convey just how very funny The Foundation Pit is, but I would also make a case for it being a very moving book. There is a sense that these characters are "lost souls," that they are striving towards a future and believe in an ideology that is to their detriment. No one is happy in Platonov's world, but there is some hope in the hearts of the characters, and that is the most painful thing of all.