A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov

NYRB have, over recent years, become one of my favourite publishers, and I always check out their list of forthcoming books with great interest. So I was very excited when I saw that they’d be publishing a sparkly new translation of Sasha Sokolov’s “A School for Fools” (which is out today) and was delighted to receive a review copy from the publishers.

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Sokolov and his book have a fascinating history. The author was born in Canada in 1943, where his father was a Soviet diplomat; they were deported in 1946 for spying and returned to the Soviet Union. After studying journalism at Moscow State University, Sokolov made numerous unsuccessful attempts to leave the country (after all, he *was* a Canadian citizen!). “A School for Fools” was written in a remote part of the upper Volga and as it could not be published in Russia, was smuggled to the west by his second wife. Here, it was picked up Carl and Ellendea Proffer of the Ardis publishing house and became a sensation. Sokolov was finally allowed to emigrate in 1975 and although he has published three other works, he is quoted as saying that he keeps writing, but doesn’t want to be published any more (I wonder if this qualifies him as one of the Bartlebys?)

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You might be forgiven for being a little apprehensive about approaching a book which is described thus on the reverse: “If Joyce had written the last chapter of Ulysses in Russian it would have sounded like this”. And indeed, it’s difficult to know quite how to summarise such a unique book, but I’ll try to give a little bit of an outline. “A School for Fools” is narrated by a young man who is actually two young men – or more precisely someone suffering from a split personality. He/they attend the titular school as they obviously don’t function well in r/l, and their time is divided between the city (Moscow) and a dacha on the outskirts. The cast of characters is fairly small – the narrator(s) and his/their parents, the staff of the school (including the headteacher Perillo and his deputy Trachtenberg/Tinbergen, the latter often doubling as a building superintendent), and the narrator(s)’ favourite pedagogue, Savl/Pavel Petrovich Norvegov. There are also “Those Who Came”, the postman Mikheev/Medvedev, the narrator(s)’ beloved Veta Akatova, Veta’s father and Rosa, beloved of Norvegov. As the story progresses we learn of the narrator(s)’ love of Veta, something of his/their background, his love of butterfly collecting, of life in the School and of the fate of Savl/Pavel.

I am talking like a novel and that makes me uneasy and ridiculous…

None of this, of course, unfolds in a straightforward linear narrative – in fact, “A School for Fools” has to be one of the most arresting books I’ve ever read (and I *have* read some unusual ones in my time, including Burroughs’ cut-up masterpieces). Initially, on approaching the opening pages, you do rather wonder if you’ll actually be *able* to read the book or make any sense of it, but oddly enough it ends up being surprisingly understandable. Despite the apparent disconnectedness of the narrative, a vivid picture builds up of the little settlement by the river, and its inhabitants, as well as the city school and its pupils. The narrators converse with themselves throughout, and this is often a book of digressions, with the story going off in several tangents and eventually coming back to its starting point. Nevertheless, it *does* always make sense and by the end you have a strong sense of the narrator(s)’ life and also what it must be like to live with multiple personalities.

Forgive me, sir, it seems to me that I digressed too far from the essence of our conversation.

The narrator(s) also struggle with a confused sense of time, and the story slips backwards and forwards so that it’s not always clear what is past and present, who is dead or alive. The river of Lethe is referenced often, in particular as running through the little dacha village, and the forgetfulness this implies is often felt by the narrator(s). There is much talk of crossing the river to the other side, which ties in the uncertainty about the state of the living or dead, and the vivid imagery of the story builds up a stunning and intoxicating narrative.

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With a book as involved as this there are obviously going to be many different levels, and as the excellent notes by translator Alexander Boguslawski reveal, there is a dazzling array of references in the book to Russian history, customs and literature. The notes guide you through some, and there are obvious nods to Nabokov with the butterflies (apparently he loved the book); but there are others I picked up that hadn’t been highlighted – for example, a reference to Mayakovsky’s poem which ends:

And you
could you perform
a nocturne on a drainpipe flute?

as well as a desert crucifixion scene which not only contained hints of “The Master and Margarita” but also reflected the split personality of the narrator.

In fact, this is very much a book of dualities and bearing in mind its history, it seems clear to me that Sokolov is also meditating on the double nature of Soviet life. If anything, the book made me think of Christa Wolf’s “The Quest for Christa T.”. I commented when I reviewed that book “All the way through the book, as you look for the meanings, it is the things unsaid or implied that come across powerfully” and I felt this element present in ASFF, as the author gradually builds up layers of the story. Under the Soviet regime what was important often had to be hidden and little phrases slipped into the narrative, like “resurrecting from the dead all those whose mouths uttered the truth”, emphasise this point.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the sometimes paragraph-long sentences, the prose is quite beautiful and hypnotic (and indeed, Sokolov has coined the term ‘proetry’ for such writing). Little gem of sentences and truisms jump out at you all the way through until you end up with a forest of sticky notes marking particularly striking sections.

A book is the best gift, everything best in me I owe to books, book after books, cherish books – they ennoble and refine one’s taste, you look in a book but see gobbledygook, a book is a man’s best friend, it enhances interiors, exteriors, and fox terriers.

And there are so many themes here, including the constant coming of the winds (perhaps an allegory for the sweeping down of the Soviet authorities) but most importantly the question of identities; these are fluid in the book, with the shifting and changing of names, and this is something that’s very relevant to life under Soviet rule when many were not who they seemed to be. Time is seen as flexible and as uncertain as identity.

And you yourself, who are you? You don’t know. You’ll get to know it later, when you string the beads of memory. When you consist of memories. When you turn entirely into memories.

I’d be lying if I said “A School for Fools” was a light or easy read, because it isn’t. It’s a complex, brilliantly structured exploration of any number of themes, and I think best read in as few sessions as possible. I spent a couple of days in its company and absolutely loved it, despite its intricacies. Sokolov has created a way of writing and a world of his own, a pair of remarkably unreliable narrators and a portrait of life on the margins in Soviet society – a gripping and essential book.

*****

I should commend separately Alexander Boguslawski for rendering what is obviously an extremely complex book into English, together with the helpful and unobtrusive notes (Boguslawski mentions that these are not indicated in the text so as not to interrupt the flow of the reading and I think that’s excellent in this case). In particular, he seems to have captured the absurdity and sense of word-play present in the original. The book was original translated rapidly by Carl Proffer and was in need of an update; add to this the fact that Sokolov has tweaked the novel over the years, and that he was consulted by Boguslawski during the translation process and you end up with what is obviously the essential version!

(Many thanks to Emma at NYRB for arranging the review copy – much appreciated!)

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