Happy Moscow by Andrey Platanov (trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler). NYRB Classics. 280pp., $14.95.
At the time of the 1917 revolutions, Andrey Platonov was sixteen and had already worked as an office clerk, a pipe smelter, an assistant machinist, a factory worker, a warehouseman, and a railroad technician. During the next four years, he wrote extensively and conspicuously, publishing poems, stories, and hundreds of essays on every imaginable subject. But when drought and famine struck in 1922, Platonov abandoned his literary pursuits (which he deemed idle and ineffectual) to travel all over the country, working as an electrical engineer and administrator. It was only later, when he again took up writing—now with the belief that literature, like manual labor, could help build socialism—that he began to perceive the vocation as that of a “creative engineer,” tasked with “refashioning the inner soul.” Virtually all of this material remained unpublished for decades; the unfinished novel Happy Moscow would not appear in Russian until 1991, the year that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Happy Moscow is an experimental novel. It has no calculated plot and develops rather like a dream wherein ideas, as characters, are repurposed and their functions regenerated as they are made to relate to other figurative elements. Three quarters of the way through the book, its heroine Moscow Chestnova disappears completely, and Sartorius the engineer, her one-time lover, emerges as a central character. Inexplicably, he then changes his identity, becoming “Grunyakin,” and goes to work in the kitchen of a small factory in Sokolniki.
Whole passages from Happy Moscow appear word-for-word in “The Moscow Violin,” a story included in this volume. The character of penitent mistress Katya Bissonet resurfaces in the screenplay “Mother/Father.” And the suicide of the boy longing for his absented father at the end of Happy Moscow is described in the short essay “On the First Socialist Tragedy.” It is this aesthetic dynamism that distinguishes Platonov’s writing: every expression of great beauty is basically functional. Experiment in language is experiment in thought and vice versa, as it is in language that thought suffers—and resists—its own structures.
Joseph Brodsky describes the particularity of Platonov’s experimental language as follows:
He will lead the sentence into some kind of logical dead-end. Always. Consequently, in order to comprehend what he is saying, you have to sort of “back” from the dead-end and then to realize what brought you to that dead-end. And you realize that this is the grammar, the very grammar, of the Russian language itself. And if you sort of estrange yourself and look at the page of what he has written it looks like kind of a big supermarket with all of the items turned inside out. … That kind of variety was the result of philosophical madness, not of aesthetic madness, and that’s a big distinction.
It is perhaps owing to the philosophical nature of Platonov’s ‘madness’ that translation proves possible. As Brodsky suggests, Platonov seeks to demonstrate the natural limits of his own language. But, these limits are not in themselves interesting. Rather, syntactical and grammatical structures serve to determine thought—or any conscious appraisal of material reality.
Marx imagined an abiding source of self-consciousness in material reality, a means of ‘generalizing’ or externalizing the individual soul through productive activity. He insisted that philosophy “must turn outwards to the world.”
The work of translating Platonov must demand an almost inhuman attention to the particular structures of the Russian language and to how the subversion of these structures might serve to transform thought. Moreover, translation should also require superior imagination, a sense of how to remake Platonov’s “supermarket” in English, to reconstitute the same “variety” that Brodsky observes in the original. In this regard, Robert and Elizabeth Chandlers’ latest translation of Happy Moscow can be counted a success—for its beauty and the sheer scope of its weirdness.
Marx’s assertion—that in acting upon nature and changing it, a human being simultaneously changes its own nature—was the premise that Platonov sought to test in fiction. How might a human being change its soul in thought when that soul was the very means of consciousness, of all life and suffering?
In “The Moscow Violin,” an engineer named Grubov explains that the supernatural sound of Wiseman’s violin is only the exclamation of its own substance, laboratory waste “worked over by electricity”:
High frequency electric current and ultrasonic oscillation quickly return molecules to their ancient places; molecules come to life, they begin to give out harmonic resonance. And this sound turned out to be comprehensible to humanity—as a human heart, when it bears the tension of art, sings in almost the same way, only less precisely and more unclearly.
Platonov writes: “only what was similar to consciousness, only something resembling thought itself, could ever find a way into consciousness.” In Happy Moscow, this “something” is art, insofar as it resembles thought while existing outside of it, and so might break the seal on the heart to conjure the “mystery of mutual existence”. More poignantly, art can express the heart’s despair regarding its own extinction within a world of pure material; at least this is what Moscow Chestnova imagines, upon hearing Beethoven performed on a fiddle.
Some time after, the same Moscow Chestnova—who had once rejoiced in the indeterminacy of her own life, desiring to “be a participant everywhere”—loses her right leg in an industrial accident and goes away to live by the sea with the doctor Sambikin. As a younger woman, she had seemed to embody the new Soviet enthusiasm—strength, health and the hope for future life; even the silk of her dress was said to ripple with the pulsation of her arteries. But years later, she sits quietly and stares out to sea, at water’s movement in space, and considers that a human being is “irrevocable,” which is to say: unchangeable.
This irrevocability portends the failure of socialism and also, for Platonov, of art. In “Love for the Motherland”, a fiddler weeps for love of a dead sparrow, setting his own inadequate instrument aside because music cannot, finally, transform his suffering heart. And so it is as the doctor Sambikin supposes: the seal on the heart, on “that reserve of clenched life”, can be broken only in death.
From its first image, Happy Moscow reads like an allegory, the meaning of which remains, as in a dream, uncertain, changeable. Except that an allegory has the vocation of representing abstraction, of pointing to something other than itself. This is the novel’s elemental contradiction: the soul seeks its own abstraction, the resolution of all its multifarious symbols, in language. And Platonov’s is precisely a language that resembles thought, but exists outside of it—the voice of space and “wild surrounding substance.” As if worked over by electricity, it also suffers and resists.
Christiane Craig is an American student of literature living in Paris. She has worked as a proofreader and assistant on several of The Cahier Series’ projects.
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