Simple Means

Two years ago, on a balmy summer day, I wistfully meandered around The Coop bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I was in town visiting my good friend Tyler (whose blog I have to advocate as essential reading if you’re into the philosophy of religion and cultural criticism) and, as always, I was also looking for something to read on the looming plane ride back home.  While thumbing through the Russian literature, I found myself taken–in a purely aesthetic way at this point thanks to the lovely New York Review Books design–by Andrey Platonov’s Soul, a novella coupled with a few additional short stories.  I’d heard of him before, but Platonov always seems to get lost amid the immense greatness of other Russian writers like Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Tolstoy, etc.

I first read a story entitled “The Third Son” about a father calling his sons home to mourn the death of their mother.  There’s something haunting about the plain, straightforward nature of Platonov’s prose-and at times, the simplicity takes a much more substantial emotional toll on the reader:

“Grandad!  Hey, Grandad!  Are you asleep?”

“No, I’m not asleep, I’m not anything,” said the old man, and he coughed timidly.

The little girl couldn’t bear it any longer, and she burst out sobbing.  The old man stroked her face:  it was wet.

“Why are you crying?” whispered the old man.

“Poor Granny,” said the granddaughter.  “Everyone’s alive, and she’s dead on her own.”

The old man said nothing.  From time to time he just sniffed a bit, and coughed.  The little girl felt frightened and she raised herself up a little so that she could see her grandfather better and be sure he wasn’t asleep.  She looked at his face and asked, “Why are you crying too?  I’ve stopped.”

The grandfather stroked her head and whispered, “I’m…I’m not crying.  It’s sweat.”

The little girl was now sitting next to the old man’s pillow.

“Are you missing Granny?” she asked.  “Please don’t cry.  You’re old too, you’ll die soon and then you’ll stop crying anyway.”

“I’ll stop,” the old man answered quietly.

Platonov, like many of my other favorite authors, writes beautifully and eloquently about death; it acts as the centerpiece of his fiction and we are constantly reminded of our mortality.  There’s something to be said for any artist who understands how fleeting everything really is.  And Platonov encapsulates all of the angst, all of the joy, all of the suffering of the human experience in such simple terms that one can only marvel at the craftsmanship of his writing; every word fights for its very existence on the page.

To close with a quote from Platonov’s journals, which also acts as an adequate summation of his own writing:  “Art consists in expressing what is most complicated by the most simple means. It is the highest form of economy.”

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No Comments on "Simple Means"

  1. matt
    17/11/2009 at 9:56 pm Permalink

    Ever read “A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov? I’m not well-versed with Russian literature, but my brother has been raving about it long enough that I’m tempted to pick it up.

  2. ryan
    18/11/2009 at 9:58 pm Permalink

    I haven’t, but I’ll look into it.

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