Archive for August 14th, 2018

One of the top six writers of the 20th century? Stalin didn’t think so.

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018
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The Soviet FD locomotive, featured in “Immortality” (Photo: LHOO/Peter van den Bossche)

Who was the greatest writer of the 20th century? Not many would put Andrey Platonov in the top half-dozen. But Nobel prizewinning poet Joseph Brodsky did.

“I squint back on our century and I see six writers I think it will be remembered for.  They are Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, William Faulkner, Andrey Platonov and Samuel Beckett…. They are summits in the literary landscape of our century … What’s more, they don’t lose an inch of their status when compared to the giants of fiction from the previous century,” he said. Gorky, Bulgakov, and Pasternak might have seconded the vote for Platonov. Unfortunately, Stalin called him scum.

He ended his days sweeping streets.

According to The Irish Times literary critic Eileen Battersby writing eight years ago: “The poet Joseph Brodsky divided the world into those who had read Platonov, and so merited the title of readers, and those who had not, and thus were dismissed outright as lesser mortals. For Brodsky, Platonov ‘simply had a tendency to see his words to their logical – that is absurd, that is totally paralysing – end. In other words, like no other Russian writer before or after him, Platonov was able to reveal a self-destructive, eschatological element within the language itself.’”

At the time I first heard about him, however, I don’t think The Foundation Pit had been published in English yet. But now you can read Platonov’s short story “Immortality,” which Platonov published in 1936, breaking years of silence and official censure. (This short story was published an editorial saying the author had overcome his “grave, creative errors.”) The story is an experiment in social realism, but perhaps the best of that misguided genre had to offer – and, as the son of a railway worker, it perhaps borrows a bit of his own history.

It begins:

After midnight, on the approach to Red Peregon station, the FD locomotive began to shout and weep.1 It sang in the winter darkness with the deep strength of its hot belly and then began to change to a gentle, weeping human breathing, addressing someone who was not replying. After falling briefly silent, the FD again complained into the air: human words could already be discerned in this signal, and whoever now heard them must have felt pressure on his own conscience because of the engine’s torment—helpless, heavy rolling stock hung on the maternal hook of her tender and the station’s approach signal was signaling red. The driver closed the last steam cutoff—the signal was still an obstinate red—and gave the three toots of a complete stop. He took out a red handkerchief and wiped his face, which the winter night’s wind was covering all the time with tears out of his eyes. The man’s vision had begun to weaken and his heart had become sensitive: the driver had lived some time in the world and travelled some distance over the earth. He did not curse into the darkness at the fools in the station, though he was going to have to take two thousand tons, from a standstill, up the incline, and the friction of the locomotive’s metal wheel rims would draw fire from the frozen rails.

The selfless hero of the story is the station chief Emmanuil Semyonovich Levin. His housekeeper approaches his room to wake him up:

The telephone above her boss’s bed was silent; her boss also slept and his body, accustomed to brief rest, was gathering strength, quickly, hurriedly—his heart had stilled in the depth of his chest, his breathing had shortened, supporting only a small watchful flame of life, each muscle and each tendon was secretly tugging, struggling against monstrosity and the creases of daytime tension. But in the darkness of a mind abundantly irrigated with blood, one quivering spot still gleamed, shining through the half-dark of eyes half-shuttered by lids: it was as if a lamp was burning on a distant post, by the entry switch of the main track coming out from real life, and this meek light could be transformed at any moment into a vast radiance of all consciousness and so set the heart to run at full speed.

The translators are Lisa Hayden and the matchless Robert Chandler. (And read Chandler’s fascinating discussion of Platonov in The Guardian here.) Read Platonov’s “Immortality” in its entirety over at E-flux here.