VASILY GROSSMAN AND ANDREY PLATONOV
Among his contemporaries there was only one writer whom Grossman admired without reservation: Andrey Platonov. Fyodor Guber, Yekaterina Korotkova and Semyon Lipkin have all written about the close friendship between the two writers and their admiration of each other’s work.
Platonov was six years older than Grossman, but Grossman was the more established figure and he clearly did what he could to help Platonov; in 1942 he asked David Ortenberg, the chief editor of Red Star, to take Platonov under his protection, saying that ‘this good writer’ was ‘defenceless’ and ‘without any settled position’. Ortenberg duly took Platonov on as a war correspondent. Later Grossman invited Platonov to collaborate on The Black Book; it seems that Platonov was given responsibility for all the material relating to the Minsk ghetto. During Platonov’s final illness, Grossman visited him almost daily, and he gave one of the main speeches at Platonov’s funeral. In a 1960 radio broadcast based on this speech, Grossman described Platonov as ‘a writer who wanted to understand the most complicated – which really means the most simple – foundations of human existence.’ Lipkin refers to this broadcast as ‘the first sensible and worthwhile word said in Russia about Platonov.’
In some respects Grossman and Platonov stand at opposite ends of the spectrum. Platonov’s prose is often close to poetry whereas Grossman’s is often close to journalism – perhaps as close to journalism as great prose can be while remaining great prose. Nevertheless, the two writers evidently had a great deal in common. Ortenberg, for example, writes in his memoirs, ‘Grossman, like his friend Andrey Platonov, was not a talkative person. The two of them sometimes came to Red Star, settled on one of the sofas […] and stay there for an entire hour without saying a word. They seemed, without words, to be carrying on a conversation known only to them.’ Lipkin, for his part, describes Platonov as ‘more independent in his judgments’ and Grossman as a ‘more traditional’ writer. He goes on to relate how he used to sit with Platonov and Grossman on the street opposite Platonov’s apartment. The three of them would take turns in making up stories about passers-by. Grossman’s were detailed and realistic; Platonov’s were ‘plotless’, more focussed on the person’s inner life, which was ‘both unusual and simple, like the life of a plant.’
Still more interesting, however, is the extent to which Grossman, throughout the period from Platonov’s death in 1951 to his own death in 1964, seems to have grown more like Platonov. It is almost as if he felt Platonov’s spirit to be something so precious that he wanted to keep it alive. ‘The Dog’ is about a mongrel by the name of ‘Pestrushka’ – the first living creature to survive a journey in space. With her capacity for devotion, her past life as a homeless wanderer, living out on the streets, and her quick, instinctive understanding of technology, Pestrushka embodies all the most characteristic qualities of Platonov’s peasant heroes. In another story, ‘The Road’, Grossman almost outdoes Platonov. Platonov often shows us uneducated people grappling with difficult philosophical questions; Grossman, however, presents us with a mule who arrives at the concept of infinity and successfully resolves Hamlet’s dilemma about whether to be or not to be.
Like Platonov, Grossman moves freely between abstract ideas and an intense physicality. The misanthropic zookeeper in ‘Tiergarten’ who kisses a beloved gorilla on the lips is another figure who could have been dreamed up by Platonov. And the description at the end of ‘In Kislovodsk’ of a husband kissing his wife’s underwear and slippers is oddly similar to these lines from Platonov’s posthumously published Happy Moscow: ‘Moscow gave him her shoes to carry. Without her noticing, he sniffed them and even touched them with his tongue; now neither Moscow Chestnova herself, nor anything about her, however dirty, could have made Sartorius feel in the least squeamish, and he could have looked at the waste products of her body with the greatest of interest, since they too had not long ago formed part of a splendid person.’
Both Grossman and Platonov are very ambitious as writers. Both focus unabashedly on the grandest of questions: the meaning of life and the nature of good and evil. They share a reverence for simple working people. Lipkin has suggested that in Grossman’s case this sprang from his family upbringing – from the intellectual and revolutionary beliefs with which his parents imbued him – whereas in Platonov’s case it was more a matter of a pantheistic reverence for life in all its manifestations, human and non-human. All that needs to be added is that Grossman’s last stories are imbued with a similar reverence.
[D. Ortenberg, ‘Andrey Platonov – Frontovoy Korespondent’ in Andrey Platonov: Vospominaniya sovremennikov, ed. N.V. Kornienko and E.D. Shubina (Moscow: Sovremenny pisatel’, 1994), p. 105.
Platonov is not listed among the 29 writers who contributed to The Black Book. But see Garrard, op. cit., p. 203 and p. 395, notes 10 & 13. See also Malygina, N.M., ‘Yevreiskaya tema v tvorchestve Andreya Platonova’ in Semanticheskaya poetika russkoi literatury. K yubileyu professora Nauma Lazarevicha Leidermana (Yekaterinburg, 2008), p. 128-39
Lipkin, op. cit., p. 527. Platonov’s daughter-in-law, Tamara Grigorievna Platonova, has confirmed this in conversation with the Russian scholar, Nina Malygina. [personal communication from Malygina]
ibid., p. 528
Bocharov, op. cit., p. 323
Lipkin, op. cit., p. 527
Fyodor Guber writes that Grossman ‘was ecstatic (byl v vostorge) about his friend’s work and knew all its subterranean [i.e. unpublished] part [op. cit., p. 41]. And Lipkin heard Platonov read out aloud from Soul [Dzhan], which was first published only fifteen years after Platonov’s death [op. cit., p. 524]. There are, however, no accounts of Platonov showing, or reading, Happy Moscow to anyone. It is not inconceivable that Grossman knew this passage about Sartorius, but it is unlikely.]