Although it’s now February, I’m going to count this book as one of my January re-reads, as I did finish the main story before the end of the month. But this is another book that could be considered a new read and a re-read since the last time I came across this volume was in the original translation, and this is a brand-spanking-new NYRB version by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler – so there’s something to look forward to!
I should say up-front that this is the first book, since I began blogging, that I’ve felt a kind of trepidation about reviewing – I’m really concerned that I’m not going to be able to do it justice. However, as it’s such a remarkable book I will have a go – but would recommend any interested readers to look no further than Robert Chandler’s excellent notes and commentary within the book itself. These are exceptionally informative and illuminating.
A few words about Platonov first.
“Andrei Platonov (1899–1951) was the pen name of Andrei Platonovich Klimentov, a Soviet author whose works anticipate existentialism. Although Platonov was a Communist, his works were banned in his own lifetime for their sceptical attitude toward collectivization and other Stalinist policies. His famous works include the novels The Foundation Pit and Chevengur .” (Wikipedia)
A key here is the use of the word existentialism, as Platonov’s works are certainly concerned with existence and the best way to live. “Happy Moscow” was unfinished and unpublished during his lifetime, and it begins with the eponymous heroine, Moscow Chestnova, coming into consciousness with her first childhood memory: that of a dark man with a flaming torch running through the streets of the city, and the noise and clamour of the start of revolution. Immediately the girl is linked to the city, and the image from her childhood returns at intervals throughout the book to haunt her.
Chestnova grows up an orphan and becomes a good, hardworking Communist, believing in the socialist future. She is a large-hearted, large-bodied girl, full of life, initially becoming a parachutist. She encounters many fellow citizens who come to love her, the main ones being:
Sambikin the surgeon
Sartorius the engineer
Bozhko the Esperantist
Komyagin the reservist
All of these men are struggling to find a way of life under the new order, and Chestnova in many ways seems to symbolise the city and the future for them.
But the book does not progress in a predictable way. As Christiane Craig puts it in her excellent review:
“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”
She also points out:
“From its first image, Happy Moscow reads like an allegory, the meaning of which remains, as in a dream, uncertain, changeable.”
Here, dream is the pivotal word, and the book does have this quality. The characters are constantly moving, physically and emotionally, reflecting the constant change of the world around them. The story starts positively, with Moscow embracing life and the developing Soviet world around her. However, after a parachuting accident where she plunges to the ground in flames, her existence changes and loses focus.
Obviously, we are meant to conflate the characters and the city – Chestnova represents Moscow the city which was being dramatically reconstructed at the time of this book – so much so that, as Chandler points out in his introduction, Moscow was undergoing such change that there was no accurate map of the city at the time, only old maps of how it used to be, and plans of the metropolis of the future.
I was struck on this reading of Platonov by his extraordinarily unique use of language. In the same way as he has given Moscow the city an existence and a personality through the eponymous heroine, he is constantly imbuing inanimate objects with feelings and sensations:
“It seemed to him that the office had the same smell as places of prolonged confinement – the lifeless smell of a pining human body that consciously acts modestly and thriftily, so as not to awaken within it the facing attraction toward a now distant life and then vainly torture itself with the ache of despair.”
“Sambikin set off through Moscow. It was strange and even sad to see the empty tram stops and the deserted black route numbers on their white signs – along with the pavements, the tramway poles, and the electric clock on the square, they were yearning for crowds of people.”
“The large table had been laid for fifty people. Every half meter there were flowers, looking pensive because of their delayed death and giving off a posthumous fragrance.”
However, he also pinpoints the rejuvenating properties of the city, reflecting its current growth and regeneration, so that the city becomes almost organic:
“Outside the open door, on the balcony, a small Komsomol orchestra was playing short pieces. The night’s spacious air was coming through the balcony door and into the hall, and the flowers on the long table breathed and gave off a stronger smell, feeling they were alive in the earth they had lost. The ancient city was full of clamor and light, like a construction site; now and again the voice and laughter of a transient passer by would be carried up from the street, and Moscow Chestnova would feel like going outside and inviting everybody to join them for supper: after all, socialism was setting in.”
Often, however, I just marvelled at the beauty of the language:
“The capital was going to sleep. There was only the far-off tapping of a typewriter in some late office and the sound of steam being let off from the chimneys of the Central Power Station. Most people were now lying down, in rest or in someone’s arms; or else, in the darkness of their rooms, they were feeding on the secrets and secretions of their hidden souls, on the dark ideas of egotism and false bliss.”
“Muldbauer saw in the music a representation of the distant and weightless countries of the air, where the black sky is located and amid it hangs an unflickering sun with a dead incandescence of light, and where, far from the warm and dimly green earth, the real, serious cosmos starts: mute space, lit up now and again by stars signaling that the path to them has long been open and free. Yes, better to put an end straightaway to the bothersome conflicts of the earth….”
One of the recurring motifs of the book is height – Chestnova is up in the heavens parachuting; the city is thrusting skywards with its new buildings; we see the city and the stars and the skies from above. Conversely things begin to go wrong with downward motion – it is in the construction of the Moscow underground that Chestnova suffers the accident that changes her forever. Her complex series of relationships with the men in her life is altered after this, and the focus of the story slips away from her to Sartorius. While Bozhko converses around the world with other Esperantists in an attempt to spread the socialist word, Sambikin operates and tries to find the essence of life in dying and dead patients and Komyagin the reservist struggles to complete – well, anything at all that he has started.
So we are left with Sartorius during the closing chapters, and his constant movement and state of change. He has abandoned his scientific work in the field of weighing and moves on, almost Buddha like, to take on the personality and responsibilities of whoever or whatever comes his way.
“His heart seemed to turn dark but he comforted it with an ordinary understanding that came to his mind: that it was necessary to research the entire extent of current life through transformation of himself into others.”
This complete abnegation of his own personality could be seen as an extreme parody of service to the state, or maybe simply a reflection of the transformation of Russia which was going on around him.
Initially when reading “Happy Moscow” it’s hard to see why Platonov couldn’t publish it in his lifetime, as on the surface level it ticks all the boxes for Soviet Realism – rebuilding of Moscow, construction of the underground, scientific process, the great and glorious Stalin. However, the careful and detailed notes by Chandler remind us of how subversive this book actually is, and when things begin to go askew for the protagonists it is quite clear that we are dealing with no ordinary author here.
This is a remarkably complex book and I think I would need several reads of it to really come to grips with it. Platonov reflects many elements of Soviet society of the 1930s – the scientific attempts to solve the problem of the human soul, the search for immortality, the thrusting towards the future and the trampling of humanity beneath the instrument of state. The language is beautiful and dream-like, and this is one of those books that gets inside you, so you’re still thinking about it for ages afterwards. Very much recommended for anyone who loves Russian fiction and also wants to read something that is different, thought-provoking and memorable.
As a footnote, this volume not only comes with the novel itself plus notes and commentary from Robert Chandler. There is also the inclusion of other pieces peripheral to and related to “Happy Moscow” including the short story “Moscow Violin” which repeats sections of HM and gives a fascinating insight into Platonov’s construction of his work. Really, there could be no better presentation and Robert and Elizabeth Chandler plus NYRB should be commented on this exemplary work!