Platonov Writes Platonov? How Autobiographical are the Works in the Epifanskie Shliuzy Collection?

Keith Blasing, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This paper will address the problem of autobiographical elements in what are generally considered Andrei Platonov’s first mature works: the stories and novellas written in 1926 and 1927, and eventually included in his first collection of prose, Epifanskie Shliuzy. Platonov scholars (e.g., Mikhail Geller, Lev Shubin, Thomas Seifrid, et al.) have traditionally used the central characters’ autobiographical nature as a starting point for understanding them, and the stories in which they are emplotted. The characters and their experiences have usually been viewed as Platonov’s interpretation of himself, his feelings and experiences working as an engineer in Tambov.

I will argue that, while the central characters certainly have autobiographical elements, they are better understood as complicated amalgams, with more traits and life events drawn from beyond Platonov’s biographical experience than are drawn from within it. Much of what is essential to Platonov’s biography in these years is found nowhere in these works, and much that is included in the texts either has little or no relationship to the events and circumstances of Platonov’s biography, or has a relationship to those events that is significantly refracted or distorted. Beginning with an assumption that these stories are autobiographical, and using that as a foundation for further understanding has, in many cases, led scholars to conclusions that seem not to be supported by the texts (for example, Bertrand Perry’s foreignness has been interpreted by Geller and others as a reflection of Platonov’s feeling of alienation in Tambov, an interpretation that, under careful scrutiny, seems not to coincide with the way Perry’s foreignness is constructed and contextualized in the novella). My analysis of these characters and their experiences will focus on the way in which they are narrated in the text, and thus will include substantial analysis of the narrators themselves, and their relationships to the central characters, most importantly Bertrand Perry in Epifanskie Shliuzy, Ivan Zhokh in the short story of that name, and Shmakov in Gorod Gradov. The foundation of my study is the texts themselves, but these will be informed where necessary by narrative theory, including Genette and Bakhtin (particularly Avtor i geroi). Information on Platonov’s biography is drawn from all sources that are available: Vasil’ev’s, Geller’s, and other monographs on Platonov, letters and other primary sources published mainly in the 1980s and 1990s.

This study is part of a larger work on the development of Platonov’s fiction in the late 1920s and early 1930s, which will demonstrate that Platonov’s maturing as an author is accompanied by increasing complexity and abstraction in his characters, his narrators, and the relationships between the characters and the narrators. While Platonov certainly never stops drawing on his own experience to construct his fiction, as his work matures, his narratives are built decreasingly on the foundation of his own biography and increasingly on general observations on human nature and the individual’s (not the biographical Platonov’s) interaction with his political, historical, natural and cultural environment.