23 January 2017

Robert Chandler on Platonov’s Plays

Posted by Robert Chandler

Robert Chandler is at the Bookshop on Tuesday 31 January to discuss his new co-translation (with Susan Larsen and Jesse Irwin) of three of Platonov’s plays, published by Columbia as Fourteen Little Red Huts. Below, an excerpt from his introduction lays out the qualities and contradictions that led Joseph Brodsky to hail him as one of the twentieth century's great writers.

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.
- Joseph Brodsky

Andrey Platonov (1899-1951) wrote novels, short stories, plays and film scripts. He wrote mainly between the late 1920s and the mid-1940s, but he was subject to vicious criticism throughout his career and much of his work was first published only several decades after his death. He has been acclaimed by many Russian writers and critics as the greatest Russian prose-writer of the last century, but he has yet to enjoy the international reputation that is his due – in part, perhaps, because his idiosyncratic style makes him difficult to translate. He is also unusually difficult to categorise. His language is stunningly innovative, yet he had little in common with most modernists. He was almost certainly an atheist, yet his work is dense with religious symbolism and imbued with deep religious feeling. He was a passionate supporter of the 1917 Revolution and remained sympathetic to the dream that gave birth to it, yet few people have written more searingly of its disastrous consequences. And he worked in a great many different genres. His early Chevengur is a long, picaresque, sometimes surreal novel that deserves comparison with Don Quixote and Dead Souls. His late “The Return,” a short story chosen in 1999 by Penelope Fitzgerald as one of her “three great Russian works of the last millennium,” is a wise, tender and entirely realistic evocation of family life, firmly embedded in a particular historical moment. His versions of traditional Russian magic tales – his last major publication – were republished in countless Soviet school textbooks, often without acknowledgment of his authorship. And there are still aspects of his work that have hardly been explored at all. His six film scripts are almost unknown; his eight finished and two unfinished plays are still seldom staged, even in Russia. At least two of these plays, however, are masterpieces. The Hurdy-Gurdy (1930) and Fourteen Little Red Huts (1933) anticipate the work of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. They are as bold in their political satire as Bertolt Brecht at his most biting. And they are also important as documents of historical witness. Along with the short novel The Foundation Pit, they constitute Platonov’s most impassioned, and penetrating, response to Stalin’s assault on the Soviet peasantry – the catastrophes of the collectivisation of agriculture (1930) and the ensuing Terror Famine (1932-33).

Robert Chandler will introduce his new edition of Fourteen Little Red Huts at the Bookshop on Tuesday 31 January. Book tickets here.