Thanks to Himadri of The Argumentative Old Git. This was one of his Bah-Humbook recommendations for me.
Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov was written and is set in 1930’s Soviet Union. It manages to be both a dynamic and a somewhat hyperactive tale while at the same time delving into the depths of despair. Platonov’s short novel was not published until 1991. This is understandable, for had it been published during his lifetime in Stalin’s Soviet Union, it might have earned Platonov a trip to the Gulag.
The title character, Moscow Chestnova, is a young vibrant woman who becomes a parachutist in the Red Air Force. After being drummed out of military service when an unauthorized midair stunt almost kills her, she takes to hanging out with an assortment of Moscow intellectuals, artists, scientists and engineers. Among them is Dr. Sambikin, who is attempting to scientifically identify the human soul, and Sartorius, an engineer who falls deeply in love with Moscow.
After a night of passion Moscow leaves Sartorius to go explore the world. The remainder of the narrative explores the main characters’ descent into moral and psychological decay. Moscow, the once promising air force parachutist, becomes a laborer, loses her leg in an accident and eventually begins a liaison with Komyagin, another once promising individual whose life has fallen into meaninglessness and stagnation.
Sartorius falls deeper and deeper into a fugue and goes to work for the inglorious Department of Weights and Scales. Eventually losing that position also, he falls further and further. As blindness sets in he begins to lose even his identity and eventually marries an abusive woman.
This novel is full of symbolism and ideas. My version of the book was accompanied by a short but insightful summary of Happy Moscow’s themes by translator Robert Chandler. Though Chandler sees the story as a balanced critique upon modernity, highlighting both the positive and negative aspects of the “New Humanity ”, I see this work as more of an indictment of a world going very wrong.
Moscow clearly represents the new age. She is initially filled with energy and optimism; she completely believes in the new industrial and scientific driven society and wants to protect and support it,
“What Moscow Chestnova wanted was not so much to experience this life as to safeguard it; she wanted to stand day and night by the brake lever of a locomotive taking people to meet one another; she wanted to repair water mains, to weigh out on pharmaceutical scales medicines for patients, to be a lamp that goes out at just the right moment, as others kiss, taking into itself the warmth that a moment before had been light.”
The narrative is filled with descriptions of busy industrial processes and amazing scientific discoveries. The scientist and engineers are franticly pushing the boundaries of knowledge as exemplified by Sambikin’s pursuit of the human soul; at one point he believes that he finds it in the intestines of a cadaver! People are seen to display a dynamic and hyperactive optimism.
But all is not well. Underneath it all there are still masses of people with barely enough food and who live in squalor. In addition, Moscow and her friends are losing their values and their souls. The new high technological and industrialized world is empty and wretched under the surface.
At one point Sartorius observes clothing on sale in the Krestov market,
“petty clothes prepared for infants who had been conceived, but then the mother must have thought twice about giving birth and had an abortion and now she was selling the tiny lamented – over garments of an unborn person along with a rattle purchased in advance”
In particular, Moscow and Sartorius go into a steep decline. In the end, all that they believed in is shown to be nothing and they both fall into a life of degeneration and despair.
Part of the problem is Socialism. This is illustrated in Sartorius’ loss of self as he begins to absorb the identity of people who he meets on the street. Eventually, he loses his entire identity. However, humankind’s relentless pursuit of science, industrialism, and mindless optimism are things that are also condemned here. I see Platonov’s criticism also applying to many aspects of our modern capitalistic industrial and post -industrial democracies.
The book displays many literary, mythological and philosophical influences, some that I picked up on myself and some pointed out in Chandler’s commentary. One inspiration not mentioned by Chandler that I found incredibly striking is that of D.H. Lawrence. My commentary of some of Lawrence’s ideas can be found in my posts on The Rainbow and Women in Love. In those pieces I described how Lawrence seemed to be presenting a warning about the ominous direction that humanity was moving in. Lawrence saw modernity, industrialism and collectivism as poisoning the human soul. A really interesting thing about Platonov’s book is that it seems to be an uncanny description of the nightmare future that Lawrence feared. I get the sense that if Lawrence could read Happy Moscow, written about seventeen years after the publication of The Rainbow, he would have said “I told you so.”
I cannot help to wonder what a conversation would be like between Moscow Chestnova and Lawrence’s heroine, Ursula Brangwen, who achieves what we would today call self-actualization when she frees herself from the pressures and concerns of conformity and modernity.
It seems to me that both Platonov and Lawrence had some brilliant insights. We would still do very well to heed some of their warnings. However, both authors are too hard on the modern world. Moral degeneracy, dissociation from the positive aspects of nature, vacuity of self, etc. are not as new to recent times as these authors’ worldviews would lead one to believe. In many ways, an individual has more freedoms to resist such things in our world than they ever did in centuries past. I cut Platonov a lot more slack, as he lived in what was a brutal dictatorship. Surprisingly, however, for the most part his characters do not seem to be very oppressed by the government and seem to be living very free lifestyles of their choice. This may have been to protect himself, as Chandler indicates that Platonov actually hoped to get this book published. However, it seems to me that the story of an oppressive dictatorship was just not the one that Platonov was looking to tell in this novel.
Happy Moscow is considered unfinished. As per Chandler, it is likely mostly finished and Platonov just wanted to complete some minor revisions and touch ups. Yet this work does seem to be underdeveloped to me. I wanted to learn and experience more from the characters. I think that thematically Platonov could also have filled in a much clearer picture as to what exactly the problem was with the twentieth century. Basically the book was too short. Despite its flaws however, this is an extraordinary imaginative novel full of compelling characters and ideas.
Brian: I have this one (the NYRB version) in a stack. I have a fondness for most things Russian and so will be getting to it sooner or later.
Apart from that, you also reminded me that I need to read Emma's second pick for me.
Hi Guy - As a fan and someone more knowledgeable about Russian literature then I am as there are lots of connections with other Russian writers.
This Bah - Humbook think has been lots of fun!
Hello Brian, one reason I recommended this book was really to find out what you'd think of it: me - I was confused, and I don't think I understood it fully. Platonov does, I agree, seem anti-modernist, but i also got the imprssion that it was a particular type of modernism he was reacting against. I could be wrong though. This is a book I really need to read again.
The one bit I do remember responding to was that marvellously surreal passage where the doctor claims to have identified the physical location of the human soul within the body. I suppose it's the ultimate victory of empiricism!
(Although fans of old Hammer Horror films, such as myself, would point to the film "Frankenstein created Woman", in which Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) discovers a way of isolating the soul from the body. I wonder what Platonov would have made of Hammer horror films!)
I have placed an order in my local bookshop for Harold Bloom's book on Shakespeare that you had recommended. "Les Miserables" I am saving for my summer reading.
Hi Himdari - I remember that movie! I too like the old horror movies.
I think that you are correct that one can zero in more then I have done on the modernism that so horrifies Platonov. I think that it clearly relates to science and industrialism.
Chandler's commentary did a lot to demystify this book for me.
Though the Bloom book is long I will really look forward to reading what you think about his ideas.
Excellent, thoughtful review, Brian!
This novel (or novella) does seem to focus heavily on symbolism and ideas, which reflects the era that it was written in (the 30s). Contemporary writers and artists of that time seemed to focus on the conflicts and intersections between science and religion, and the various "side effects" of an industrialized world, including "dehumanization".
This sounds like a really interesting book. I'm also reading a book by a Russian, Andrei Bitov- called "The Monkey Link". It's also very interesting but written in a wholly different style than Happy Moscow.
This sounds very interesting but I often have problems with books which seem not to be finished.
Hi Suko - This was indeed a period when dehumanization was on the many of many for very good reasons. It is indeed still a very interesting subject!
Hi Sharon - I just Googled the Monkey link and Bitov, it looks very thought provoking! I look forward to your commentary on it!
I Caroline - I too usually shy away from unfinished works. I even did a little research on this one before I started it to make sure that the story was at least complete. Chandler contends that this is mostly complete however.
I cannot comment intelligently on your review because at the moment it is too much for me to take in, however, that being said I love visiting and trying to understand these deep and heavy books you are reading. I am challenged by your blog and that is a good thing. Belle
I ve this on my wishlist after it was a bah humbug choice ,just seen the harvill cover and may check my library they might have the old version of it available ,many thanks for sharing ,all the best stu
I'm glad Himadri got you such an interesting book. I'm not sure I could read it but I enjoyed reading your review.
Hi Belle - Thanks but do not sell yourself short. I am looking at your blog now and you have some pretty insightful commentary on some very deep books up yourself!
Keep in mind that to some extant I am just bloviating to some degree about what comes to mind when I read a book and some might say that I do not know what I am talking about :)
I will actually be commenting on lighter fare soon.
Hi Stu - Based on your reading choices up on your blog I think that you would enjoy this. I would love to know what you think if you give it a try.
Hi Emma - Thanks! This one was not too difficult to comprehend and Chandler's commentary was very helpful.
Hi again Brian! I probably will never get to the book since there's such a plethora of philosophical Russian books that I've yet to read - but I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.
It's interesting that it's not only socialism that's being criticized here, but also more capitalistic pursuits. But actually, I agree. Any pursuit/philosophy taken to extremes will break down in the end!
Hello Rachel - If I am reading him correctly I think that Platonov sees socialism as being a part of a much bigger problem. I am not certain of this but I may be getting the sense from this book that he had accepted the theory that it was the future of mankind.
He spends a lot more time dwelling upon industrialization, science, and the general franticness and uncritical optimism of people.
Hi Brian, sounds like an interesting read, the last Russian book I read was The Dreamlife of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin an Russian-American writer, of which I said that it was a proper Russian novel because Grushin had invested in the character of Sukhanov, all the angst and pathos, all the weakness and hubris that I remember reading in all those great Russian novels.
Hi Parish - I really need to read more Russian literature. I agree with you about the pathos and hubris of characters.
The Dreamlife sound really good. I think that I will be soon tackling some Dostoevsky.
Given the time of the writing, it doesn't seem all that surprising that the work seems unfinished. I would imagine just having this manuscript lying around was enough so scare the bejesus out of Platonov.
Hi Ryan - Strangely enough, at least according to Chandler's commentary, Platonov was trying to sell this as a movie. Apparently however he was often under the threat of arrest but somehow escaped that fate.
Brian - Funny, I came within seconds of picking this up just today and opted for The Foundation Pit instead. Platonov has been getting a lot of attention lately, so I'm eager to read him. When I asked a Russian-American colleague perhaps ten years ago what I should read from modern Russian literature that few people in the U.S. were likely to have heard of, she recommended Boris and Arkady Strugatski's Roadside Picnic - now long a favorite - and "everything by Andrei Platonov."
Hi Serallion - I think that the recent attention that Platonov has been getting is partially the result of new editions of several of his books out recently. I definitely want to read more of him and will likely do so soon.
Enjoyed your description of this book in your second sentence, Brian, and was glad to see another generally pro-Platonov review since he's an author I've become very interested in recently. Will likely add it to my "eventual" TBR list based on your comments and Himadri's. What a singularly unappealing book cover, though!
P.S. I meant the cover at the bottom of your post was the hideous one, but that one up top isn't all that attractive either.
Hi Richard - Though this is the only Platonov book that I have read so far, based upon this book he is author worth reading. I have heard that his other novels are superb too.
I agree about the covers. The one up top is newer. I could not find any others. Maybe the next edition will be an improvement.
I've often wondered what life was like in Russia and this grey book may tell us more.
Hi Harvee - The thing is that I am not sure that this is portraying what Stalinist Russia was like. There is little fear of state repression or gulags in the narrative. The characters even exhibit a great deal freedom in regard to their lifestyles and work choices. There is the sense that industrialism, science, and yes, some degree socialism is destroying the soul.
A brilliant review Brian - this sounds like a very difficult book to get to grips with and I admire your persistence in reading it.
Hi Tom - Thanks for the good word. This one was not all that difficult. I try to come up with my own ideas in my commentary, as I did here, but book Chandler's analysis helped to prime my thinking.
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