A dark man with a burning torch was running down the street on a bleak night in late autumn. The little girl saw him through a window of her home as she woke from a bleak dream. Then she heard a powerful shot from a rifle and a poor, sad cry–the man running with the torch had probably been killed. Soon afterwards came the sound of distant, repeated shots and of uproar from the nearby prison. The little girl went back to sleep and everything she saw during the following days got forgotten: she was too small, and the memory and mind of early childhood became overgrown for ever in her body by subsequent life. But until her last years the nameless running man would appear unexpectedly and sadly inside her–in the pale light of memory–and perish once again in the dark of the past, in the heart of a grown-up child. Amid hunger or sleep at a moment of love or some youthful joy–suddenly, the sad cry of the dead man was there again in the distance, deep in her body, and the young woman would immediately change her life: if she was dancing, she would stop dancing; if she was working, she would work more surely, with more concentration; if she was alone, she would cover her face with her hands. On that rainy night in late autumn the October Revolution had begun–in the city where Moscow Ivanovna Chestnova was living.
When I read the above opening passage of Happy Moscow, standing in an Oxford bookstore, I knew I had to buy the book and immediately go find a quiet place to sit and read it through to the end. Although quite different in subject and mood, Happy Moscow reminded me of Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things: a dream-like book, where the characters are drawn along by some kind of irresistible force, taking actions that would seem irrational out of this context but that we and they go along with, caught up as if in a trance.
Happy Moscow is an unfinished novel first published in Russian in 1991. From what I could tell, “unfinished” in this case means “without finishing touches” rather than “without an ending.” The title refers to the woman, Moscow Chestnova, so named when tragedy leaves her orphaned and nearly amnesic, but it also refers ironically to the city, in which much of the novel takes place. I gather that this double entendre is typical of Platonov, and one of the reasons that some Russians believe his writing to be untranslatable. That should not be taken, though, to suggest that Platonov’s prose is at all difficult. On the contrary, as you can see from the excerpt above, this is simple, limpid prose–at least on the surface.
There is no real plot to speak of–just as in a dream. Moscow becomes a Soviet heroine as a daring experimental parachutist, but after an injury, turns her back on the state and spends the rest of the book wandering through a series of relationships with people who have also decided to become outcasts and marginal characters. Stalin is said to have written “Scum” in the margins of one of Platonov’s works, and you can see how the writer’s subtle rejection of Soviet idealism must have irritated him. In Happy Moscow, Platonov celebrates not the new and clean and heroic, but the second-hand and cast-off:
And there were people trading things which had lost all reason for their existence–house-coats that had belonged to enormous women, priest’s cassocks, ornamented basins for baptising children, the frock-coats of deceased gentlemen, charms on waistcoat chains, and so on–but which still circulated among people as symbols of a strict evaluation of quality. There were also many items of clothing worn by people who had died recently–there truly was such a thing as death–as well as clothes that had been got ready for children who had been conceived but whose mothers must have changed their minds about giving birth and had abortions instead, and now they were selling the tiny wept-over garments of an unborn child together with a rattle they had bought in advance.
I dog-eared the page on which this passage appears when I first read the book, but now that I type it out I can see how many chinks Platonov points out in the fine facade of the Soviet state in just two sentences: the remnants from the Tsarist days that still circulate “as symbols of a strict evaluation of quality”; the notion of women changing their minds about giving birth–bringing a child into the bright future of Stalinism–and having abortions instead; that fact that even in this best of all possible worlds “there truly was such a thing as death”. It seems hard to believe that publication of Happy Moscow wouldn’t have earned Platonov and his editors a trip to the gulag.
A reviewer once wrote that, “”In Platonov’s prose, it is impossible to find a single inelegant sentence”, and another that, “Rarely does literature come this close to music.â€ Happy Moscow is rich with examples of such writing. Yet he also embraces the crude, the dirty, the obscene. One character, a surgeon, gets wrapped up in a search for the place in the body where the soul resides and becomes convinced that it lies in the intestines. Grabbing a handful of the excrement from a corpse, he exclaims, “This really is the very best, ordinary soul. There’s no other soul anywhere.”
Platonov’s star is finally on the rise, some fifty-plus years after his death. Harvill, which published Happy Moscow, also has two other Platonov works–Soul and Return–in print. Northwestern University Press released Mirra Ginsburg’s translation of The Foundation Pit in its European Classics series, and New York Review Books has released its own volumes of Soul and The Fierce and Beautiful World. NYRB has also announced the release of a new translation of The Foundation Pit in April 2009.