Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Notes on The Foundation Pit's strangeness - thoughtfulness among the general tempo of labor

France, this summer, was pleasant, but I did not want to write about it.  I do want to write about some French books, lots of them really, so I am going to organize my French reading from the last couple of years and see if I can make anything of it.

But I will freely interrupt that project.  I will begin by interrupting it, first with a couple of books with bold translations.  Books with multiple translations, weird and less weird.

Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (written 1929-30) is a nightmare in prose about recent and ongoing events in the Soviet Union, famines and forced collectivization and the liquidation of the kulaks and so on.  The events of the novel are in a sense satirical or allegorical or satirical – I mean, one of the characters is a bear, who is also a blacksmith and is always hammering, when he is not liquidating kulaks.  That seems like it might be symbolic in some way.  But I am not sure that allegory or symbolism is the way to go.

Actual life, everything around Platonov, a civil engineer who had abandoned (public) literature, had become the equivalent of a nightmare.  What literary language is capable of representing the nightmare?  I think that is the problem Platonov was working on.

It is the problem the translators are working on.  I read the most recent translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson.  Robert Chandler had co-translated a previous version, too, but was dissatisfied.  It was not wrong enough.  He and his colleagues wanted this version to be as messed up as the original.  This is how I understand the problem.

I will stick to the first few pages.  Voshchev, the first character Platonov introduces, not a protagonist , exactly, is “removed from production” at the factory for “thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor” (1).  He wanders by “a large house where children with no family were being habituated to labor and use” (1) – an orphanage, I would call this, but not Platonov.   In the bar, he “listen[s] to various sad sounds, and feel[s] the torment of a heart surrounded by hard and stony bones” (2).  He and a creepy dude are watching a parade of Pioneer girls, and “he was glad that socialist children would always be beyond the reach of this freak of imperialism” (7).

There is something like this every few sentences, something odd, a slogan or awkwardness or peculiarity that in a more ordinary text would need to be fixed.

The Soviet regime has transformed, mutilated, and corrupted everything, including language, metaphor, and thought.  Even more than contemporary Soviet novels like We (1924) and Envy (1927), The Foundation Pit looks like a radical attempt to represent the destruction.  Or so these translators make it appear.  Maybe they are wrong.  How would I know.  I am convinced.  The apparatus in the NYRB edition, the notes and afterword and so on, are half as long as the novel and are superb.

The novel’s structure and characters are similarly broken.  But it is the language, and its problems for the translators, that really caught my attention.

The odd thing is that at my distance, in time, language, space, and trouble, the entire book becomes an exercise in “make it strange.”  Mere aesthetics.  But I know that is not the source of the strangeness, and my understanding is that for many post-Soviet authors Platonov looked like a way out, an escape from the Soviet novel.  His publication is complex, but for Russians he was effectively an author of the 1990s, his books appearing at just the right time.


  1. The expectations, they wuther once more! Calloo, callay!

    Or so these translators make it appear.

    And so it is. I wrote about it here:

    And here's a nice little piece about his style:

  2. Reading Soul and other stories made me wonder about how well Platanov was translated. There were jarring moments for me that didn't jar my son, who is in grad school studying Russian literature. He's not advanced enough yet to tell me why, though--or else there's a disconnect between my study of satire and his study of Russian culture.

  3. If it was jarring, it was well translated. If it had read smoothly, it would have been badly translated.

  4. Huh. On the one hand, I wish I had remembered to look up Platonov on Languagehat; on the other, what an interesting result. We approached the book - writing about the book - from an almost identical direction.

    To anyone interested, skim me and read Languagehat.

    Probably good I did not read that first. This devil was hard enough to write as it was. Why didn't I start with something easier?

    Where I am going with this, scheduled for tomorrow, is: jarring is good. Translators, in general, should jar more. With Platonov, of course, they should jar a lot. Make my teeth rattle in my head.

  5. I was just about to read this, once I've finished a few more of the books I'm in the middle of. I've read the first page.

    It was part of a stack of books a friend returned to me after I'd left them at his house 15 or so years ago. Curious what I was into back then. Lots of Soviet stuff - both We and Envy, both of which I've read before. I'm reading some Olesha short stories, which I'm really enjoying. He reminds me most of Robert Walser. Also some Gorky, whose better than I remember. Also currently reading Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope against Hope, about the persecution of her husband Osip, and Shklovsky's book about Mayakovsky.

  6. Now that's a stack of books.

    The first page of Platonov again! I should have written about the 2nd page, or the 17th.