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There is a line (there are many) that my wife Oksana and I frequently quote from Nikolai Erdman’s play The Suicide. The mailman Yegor is starting to throw his weight around because he’s getting tired of being treated with what he considers to be disrespect, by life and by those around him. So when someone tells him all the topics that writers write about, Yegor puffs up and snaps, “I’m a mailman! And mailmen want to read about mailmen!”
I couldn’t help but think of that when I was standing on the platform of the Voronezh train station a few weeks ago at around 7 a.m. You see, entirely unexpectedly, I ended up standing just beneath a plaque on the station wall that proclaimed: “Voronezh. The homeland of the writer Andrei Platonov, the author of many works about railroad workers. 1899-1999.” A second plaque just beneath that adds: “On the 100th anniversary of the writer’s birthday.”
Anniversaries are great – if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have found half the plaques and sculptures that make up this blog. But, as you understand, I’m most intrigued right now by that information that the Voronezh railway station offers up on its platform – that Platonov (real last name Klimentov) wrote “many works about the railroad.”
Yes! Railway workers want to read about railways!
By the way, my concentrated reference back to Erdman here has another aspect to it. Platonov and Erdman were good friends who shared a similar life in the 1940s. Platonov (1899-1951) went virtually unpublished after the 1930s. He never was arrested, never spent time in the camps, but he was virtually erased from the face of contemporary Soviet literature. He could not be erased from Soviet or Russian literature proper, because he was too damn good. He is now considered one of the greatest Russian writers of his age. There are those would consider him one of the greatest, most distinctive writers of any language in the 20th century. But that’s what we know now. In his life he, like Erdman, was shunted off into obscurity. Perhaps this drew the two together, or perhaps they were simply sympatico. The details I have at my fingertips, are, unfortunately, skimpy. It’s something I’ve always wanted to know more about, in grand, juicy detail. But, so far, no go.
Still, what I can say is this: Platonov and Erdman used to hang out from time to time at the Metropole Hotel in the center of Moscow. They would drink and talk and, perhaps, drink some more. I don’t know what Platonov drank. Erdman drank only cognac. That was his poison. But there was another component to these meetings and his name was Yury Olesha. That’s right, three writers with great comic talent, three writers hounded out of the public eye by the times they lived in and the people they lived among. And they would get together at the Metropole and talk. And drink. I know Olesha was quite a drinker. Erdman was too, although the word I have from many a source is that no one ever saw him drunk. In fact, he didn’t like sloppy drunks. But he did love his cognac. Platonov – I don’t know. This blog space is public, somebody can fill me in if they do know. But the image I’m working in my head right now is of the magnificent Metropole, right across from the Bolshoi and Maly Theaters, and there in the bar or restaurant is a table with three men sitting, drinking, chatting. Platonov. Erdman. Olesha. Wow.
Who knows what they talked about? Literature? Maybe. Colleagues? Probably. Women? Certainly. Themselves? No way. What I’m saying is that even if we could find a way to go back 70 years in the guise of a fly on the wall, I’m betting we wouldn’t learn a damn thing about any of these guys and what they were up against. We might learn plenty about life, but not about their biographies. All three of them were a special cut of individual – reserved, self-protected, quiet. What a sight it must have been. For the record, I heard tales of these meetings from the writer Iosif Prut, a childhood friend of Erdman’s, who used to get into street fights with the future playwright, and who was also a friend and admirer of Platonov and Olesha.
Platonov’s father Platon Klimentov worked as a mechanic on the railroad. One day, when Andrei was around 15, his dad took him to work, a trip that changed the boy’s life. Here is what the Literary Map of the Voronezh Region website says about it:
“In June 1914, with school behind him, the 15 year-old Andrei set off with his father to the estate of the Bek-Marmarchevy family (village of Ustye of the Devitskaya district of Voronezh county – now the Khokholsky area) to repair a broken-down steam locomotive. Having fixed the engine, Andrei stayed on as the engineer’s assistant. For the first time there he encountered real machines – steam powered combines that created kinetic energy, such as he had studied in school in his physics classes. The train rig made a lasting impression on the youth and inspired great interest in technology and the striving to harness it, that lasted all his life. […] From January 1915 to July 1916 he worked as a clerk in the South-East Railroad Society. By summer’s end in 1916, Andrei began working in a pipe factory, an affiliate of the Stoll and Co. Mechanics Factory. After working there a year as a foundryman, he returned to the South-East Railroad Society, where he worked in the railway workshops.”
In summer 1920 Andrei began studying to be a railroad electrician, but the hardships of the Russian Civil War interrupted that plan. I return the narrative to the website text:
“The first workers’ Communist regiment of railway defenders of the southern front was formed by the political office of the South-East Railroad from volunteers among workers and clerks along that stretch of the railroad. Cadet [Andrei] Klimentov volunteered as a common infantryman in the regiment. It was a difficult time for the future writer and it had an enormous influence on him. His impressions bound up in the Civil War; his work on the steam engine; and the stories he heard from his father – who worked on a snow-clearing engine that cleared out snowdrifts inundating the steel rails from Voronezh to Lisok; – all of this was reflected directly in his novella The Innermost Man.”
Platonov’s language and images had the spirit of railroads and engines and machines in them. It is a constructed language and world, built by a man who had a unique eye and ear for the world around him. This station platform where Oksana and I stood for a few minutes before boarding our train to Moscow would have been a place Platonov saw and visited often.