Monday, June 27, 2011

Seeing the Light: Platonov’s Juvenile Sea

After reading Il’ia Boiashov’s unsatisfying Stone Woman, I decided to get back to (modern) classics with a bit of Andrei Platonov… it finally felt like time to read the long story Ювенильное море (Juvenile Sea, sometimes Sea of Youth). And what a wonderfully disorienting pleasure it was to read Platonov: it would have been worth reading if only for its giant pumpkin shell sleeping pods.

And where else can a reader find a production story – goals here include increasing cattle production and investigating alternative energy sources – written in a variegated language that braids poetic turns with Soviet-speak and tropes from socialist realism? I think my biggest difficulty in reading Platonov is that his unusual word combinations dazzle so much that I have to read each line twice to apprehend their various literal, figurative, and story meanings. Often, twice is not enough: Platonov’s writing is so full of остранение (making it strange) that almost everything feels a bit off, unusual, or grotesque, making reading a full-on experience. Even the preface to one of my Platonov books begins with the line “Кажется, мы уже никогда не узнаем, как читать Андрея Платонова.” – “It seems that we will never find out how to read Andrei Platonov.” The key has fallen away in the waters of time, explains Valentin Kurbatov… a particularly fitting phrase for The Juvenile Sea.

Of course I prefer back doors and loose windows to lost keys because I don’t think there’s any single correct way to read a book or writer. And all those layers of cryptic words and meaning are why a stubborn reader like me so enjoys Platonov. Rather than write about the entire story, which could take a month or two, I’ll mention a jumble of the oddities and happenings that drew me in on the first pages, then list a few of the themes they raise. If you want to learn more about the whole story, Thomas Seifrid’s book Andrei Platonov summarizes some of the technical themes in The Juvenile Sea here, on Google books.

The Juvenile Sea begins as an engineer and electrician, Nikolai Vermo, crosses the steppe in the southeast Soviet Union on foot, spending his days staving off boredom by imagining himself as a machinist, pilot, or geologist. He finds himself at the home of Adrian Umrishchev, director of a state farm for raising meat; Vermo presents papers that ordered him to the farm. Umrishchev is reading an ancient book with old words, about Ivan the Terrible. On The Juvenile Sea’s third page, Umrishchev says he resolved a housing crisis with the afore-mentioned pumpkin shells. He soon describes how he’d been placed on the rolls of the “unexplained” (невыясненные) after demobilization from the Soviet apparatus. Vermo and Umrishchev talk into the night. Here’s the phrase that indicates morning has arrived: “Ночь, теряя свой смысл, заканчивалась” – “Night, losing its point/meaning/purpose, was ending.”

Light and Dark. I withered when I read that phrase about night, and I kept returning to it as I read The Juvenile Sea: the sun as a source of power is a key piece of the story, and brightness and mentions of electricity link into typical themes from Soviet propaganda and socialist realism, along with more metaphorical aspects of light, such as enlightenment.

Generations. The phrase also struck me on a more emotional level because of the mention of loss of purpose. Umrishchev’s name is rooted in “die” and even his breathing feels tired; he gives off an air of boredom and doubt. And of course he was “unexplained” – talk about lacking purpose! – until he become fully explained through practical work. At the end of the story we see two couples, one young and setting out to America (!) for a business trip, the other old, staying behind.

The Dark Side of Sotsrealism. A horrible sadness – starting with тоска (I’ll just call it deep melancholy) in Vermo’s heart in the second sentence – flows through The Juvenile Sea… along with Platonov’s characters’ optimism. Of course there are plenty of enthusiastic workers in socialist realism, but they don’t carry this kind of toska. Or so many rats: rats run over one character as she sleeps, though she doesn’t hear them. It’s those jarring combinations that make Platonov’s writing feel so wonderfully convoluted and oddly real.

The Great Pumpkin. Russian Dinosaur’s mention of The Velveteen Rabbit in a blog post (and a college course) about socialist realism inspires me to invite Linus van Pelt’s Great Pumpkin into my post: Soviet-era promises of a bright future (the good old светлое будущее), communism, and even superlative meat production were about as likely to materialize as the Great Pumpkin. Belief is at the root of my fascination with the huge pumpkins in The Juvenile Sea: my first thought was to wonder if such pumpkins were possible. I later reminded myself that real reality didn’t matter because I was reading a piece of work that corrupts socialist realism, a myth-laden genre, and its language.

P.S. Platonov’s Life. I’ve been reading and enjoying Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin’s Writers, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. Among other things, Westerman mentions Platonov’s technical education and experience (some of which dovetails with The Juvenile Sea), difficulties publishing, and relationship with Maxim Gorky. I’ll write more about Engineers of the Soul later, probably in a nonfiction roundup post.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: Rather difficult, linguistically, culturally, and most of all, logically, 3.75-4.0/5.00.

Up Next: Definitely *not* Iurii Arabov’s Орлеан (Orleans), a Big Book shortlister that reads easily but felt unconvincing and unfocused at best, kitschy and overwritten at worst. I abandoned it after about 20%.

Disclosures: Overlook Press provided me with a review copy of Engineers of the Soul, thank you!

Photo credit: Three-foot high pumpkin (is that sleepable?) photo from idea22, via


  1. This is great -- I've been saving "Juvenile Sea" for a treat, and you've really made me eager to read it!

  2. What a fantastic review. (By the way, I've just ordered the Westerman book!)

    -- Anonymous Anne Marie

  3. Thanks to both of you for the comments! I'm looking forward to reading more Platonov... probably Dzhan, partly because I've been curious about it for ages and partly because Westerman mentions it.

    Languagehat, I think you'll enjoy "Juvenile Sea." Oddly, I'd also saved it as a treat for myself! It's difficult to compare but I found it more interesting than "The Foundation Pit," perhaps because there was more familiar material for me... that made it feel even more wonderfully disorienting.

    Anonymous Anne Marie, I find the Westerman book very enjoyable, largely because he has a good narrative flow and doesn't cram the book with superfluous facts/information. I got a little stuck in the middle of Molotov's Magic Lantern, which feels a bit crowded with informational bric-a-brac, though I plan to finish it soon.

  4. Thanks, Alex! That is definitely a large pumpkin. I didn't realize there was such a problem with exploding giant pumpkins.