Andrei Platonov: Russia's greatest 20th-century prose stylist?

Andrei Platonov  1899 –1951

An anti-Stalinist author who died in obscurity in 1951 may be the greatest Russian writer of the last century, his English translator Robert Chandler explains to Daniel Kalder


Stalin called him scum. Sholokhov, Gorky, Pasternak, and Bulgakov all thought he was the bee's knees. But when Andrei Platonov died in poverty, misery and obscurity in 1951, no one would have predicted that within half a century he would be a contender for the title as Russia's greatest 20th-century prose stylist. Indeed, his English translator Robert Chandler thinks Platonov's novel The Foundation Pit is so astonishingly good he translated it twice. Set against a backdrop of industrialisation and collectivisation, The Foundation Pit is fantastical yet realistic, funny yet tragic, profoundly moving and yet disturbing. Daniel Kalder caught up with Chandler to talk about why more people should be reading Platonov.

Why did you translate Platonov's Foundation Pit twice?

No other work of literature means so much to me. I translated it together with Geoffrey Smith in 1994 for the Harvill Press, and again in 2009, together with my wife Elizabeth and the American scholar Olga Meerson, for NYRB Classics. There were two reasons for retranslating it. First, the original text was never published in Platonov's lifetime, and the first posthumous publications – on which our Harvill translation was based – were severely bowdlerised. One crucial three-page passage, for example, is entirely missing.

Second, Platonov is hard to translate: in the early 1990s we were working in the dark. During the last 15 years, however, I have regularly attended Platonov seminars and conferences in Moscow and Petersburg. One indication of how deeply many Russian writers and critics admire him is the extent of their generosity to his translators; I now have a long list of people I can turn to for help. Above all, I have the good fortune to have my wife, who shares my love of Platonov, and the brilliant American scholar, Olga Meerson, as my closest collaborators. Olga was brought up in the Soviet Union; she has a fine ear, knows a great deal about Russian Orthodoxy, and has written an excellent book on Platonov. She has deepened my understanding of almost every sentence.

You've argued that Russians will eventually come to recognise Platonov as their greatest prose writer. Given that he's up against titans such as Gogol, Tolstoy and Chekhov this is quite a claim.

Well, it probably sounds less startling to Russians than it does to English and Americans. I've met a huge number of Russian writers and critics who look on Platonov as their greatest prose writer of the last century. In my personal judgment, it was confirmed for me during the last stages of my work on Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, an anthology of short stories I compiled for Penguin Classics. I worked on this for several years, did most of the translations myself and revised them many times. I read through the proofs with enjoyment – I was still happy with the choices I had made – but there were only two writers whom I was still able to read with real wonder: Pushkin and Platonov. Even at this late stage I was still able to find new and surprising perceptions in Pushkin's The Queen of Spades and Platonov's The Return. This didn't happen with any other writers.

Readers who encounter Platonov for the first time are often struck by his surreality: in the Foundation Pit, for example, a bear staggers through a village denouncing kulaks [supposedly wealthy peasants]. But you've said that almost everything he writes is drawn from reality.

Platonov's stories work on many levels. When I first read his account of the kulaks being sent off down the river on a raft, I thought of it simply as weird. Then I realised that it's one of many examples of Platonov's way of literally realising a metaphor or political cliché; the official directive is to "liquidate" the peasants – and this unfamiliar word is interpreted as meaning that they must be got rid of by means of water. ...

guardian.co.uk

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