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Caught between two worlds

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The Patriots by Sana Krasikov

Unusually, 2017 has seen a number of new works come out that I’ve been interested in reading; although, somewhat predictably, they’ve had a common theme that could have something to do with the fact that this is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution…

I’ve already spent happy hours with Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” and Julie Lekstrom Himes’ “Mikhail and Margarita”; however, when I read Elle’s interesting and perceptive review of “The Patriots” I knew that it was another new novel I wanted to track down. The publishers, Granta, kindly provided a review copy, and I’ve spent several days completely immersed in the book – which is testament to how good it is. Author Sana Krasikov is a new name to me, and this is her first novel, with a previous short story collection “One More Year” having won awards and plaudits. Born in the Ukraine but now living in New York, she obviously has the background knowledge which informs the story…

“The Patriots” tells the story of Florence Fein, a young Jewish woman living in New York in the 1930s. Florence is a naive idealist; from a Slavic background, she is drawn to Russia and the Soviet dream which is being portrayed to her, and against a background of the American depression and daily anti-Semitism it certainly looks appealing. As a Russian speaker she is able to work for Amtorg, the Soviet Trade Mission, which brings her into contact with Russians who are in America to bring about trade deals; and one of these encounters, with the enigmatic Sergey, will be pivotal.

When he returns to Russia, Florence sets out to follow him, convinced that America has nothing to offer her. However, the reality she meets when she arrives in Moscow, then Magnitogorsk, is shocking, with people existing in poverty (except for the higher ranks in the party) and it is surprising that Florence wants to stay. However, she does, and eventually an encounter with an old acquaintance sends her back to Moscow. Florence is savvy enough to find a job and manages to make her way in a city which is in the process of regenerating; and she still harbours a longing to track down Sergey. However, her life will not go as she planned; she will end up with a very different partner to the one she intended, she will find herself embroiled in politics and betrayal, and she will find that her judgement of the best way to behave is not as sound as she thought. Redemption of sorts will come eventually, but not until a much later date.

Set alongside Florence’s story is that of her son Julian, and her grandson Lenny. In these post-Soviet days, Julian is able to shuttle between America and Russia doing business, and his son has in fact settled in Moscow. Julian remembers what it was like to live under Soviet rule, and how his father disappeared and his mother was sent to a camp. At some point the family escaped back to America, but the ties with Russia are strong; and there are many unanswered questions that Julian has about his mother’s past which come to a head when a friend implies that she was an informer. A business trip to Moscow gives him the chance to investigate the archives, assembling the jigsaw of his past, as well as to try to extricate his son from a difficult situation…

Neither Soviet nor post-Soviet Russia, with all their bureaucracy, are easy places to be. Although Julian’s setting is less obviously bleak, his meetings with various businessmen are as troubling as the chilling scenes of manipulation from the NKVD interrogator endured by Florence. Torture exists and deprivation, although this was never too graphic, and the book is very audacious in its scope, exploring in depth the extremes to which a person will go, not only to survive but also to save a family member.

“The Patriots” is a complex, well structured tale which weaves the various plotlines together brilliantly. As Florence’s story unravels, and we learn more of what happened to her and also to Julian and his father, we watch alongside as Julian starts to piece together more of his history. Both mother and son have to deal with those who are in power in Russia of their time, whether Soviet authorities or Russian oligarchs, and the naivety of both of them is clear. They will find a way out of their situation, but for neither is the process pleasant. The portrayal of Julian is as nuanced as that of his mother, and we see him at various stages of his life; from the little boy adored by his parents, through the confusing and brutal years of loss and orphanages, to rediscovering his missing parent and attempting to remake his life. In many ways he is as out of his depth with the subtleties of modern Russian business as his mother was the complexities of life amongst the Soviets.

I found myself completely engrossed in the story of Florence and her family, so absorbed that I was reluctant to put it down. The characters are strong and well drawn; the background and setting completely convincing; and the sense of helplessness Florence feels living in a totalitarian regime is frightening. The culture of suspicion and betrayal is insidious, leading the naive woman to make foolish decisions which leave her stranded in a hostile foreign country with no way of escape. The ideas and beliefs of the time are never glossed over, but discussion of them is an essential part of the narrative. Running through the story is the thread of the family’s Jewish heritage; something that is always with them, informing every action taken by and against them, and most often used as a stick to beat them with – either literally or metaphorically. The family belongs nowhere, neither in America or Russia, and I wondered if Krasikov was using this lack of a home as a metaphor for the situation of Jewish people and the shocking anti-Semitism they still face nowadays.

Author Sana Krasikov

“The Patriots” was a wonderful, epic read which deserves all the plaudits its received. Florence is a flawed and misguided heroine, but one who you can understand; and the wide range of the book, taking in eight decades, gives it a scope perhaps missing from “Mikhail and Margarita” (which also suffered a little, in my view, from using real figures as major characters). And in many ways it’s an excellent counterpart to the Towles’ book which took a look at Soviet life from a different angle; although there was off-camera evidence of what was happening to Russians at the time in that book, here there is no doubt at all. The hardships and the brutality and the sheer grinding hell of everyday life is laid bare in Krasikov’s narrative, and it’s a chilling scenario which I never want to see returning to the world.

The books I’ve read this year so far about Soviet Russia have all acted as timely reminders of what life can be like under totalitarian rule; and as I’ve said before, with the current state of the world, this is not something we should allow to return. Intolerance and hatred are the worst strands in human behaviour and this excellent book, as well as telling a wonderfully gripping story, brings home how harsh humanity can be. Highly recommended!

…in which I discover that I own an awful lot of Turgenev books…

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As I mentioned in my review of “A Nest of the Gentry”, I have a *lot* of Turgenev books on Mount TBR, few of which I’d actually read, and I thought I’d dig them out to find out what I actually own(!) This was actually something of an eye-opener, particularly in the amount of duplication there is – which kind of shows how unsystematic I often am about buying books!

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So here is the Turgenev pile – and there’s a lot of it, but as you can see several multiple copies. For example:

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Why do I own two Penguin Classics versions of “Sketches from a Hunter’s Album”? I have no idea, but I need to do some checking to see if there are any differences between the two and if not, donate one!

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“Fathers and Sons”/”Fathers and Children” – one of Turgenev’s best-known works (possible *the* best-known). I’ve had the ancient Penguin for as long as I can remember, whereas the shiny new Alma edition was part of a competition prize. Different translations, obviously, and I really should get onto reading this one soon.

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The volume with five short novels contains “Rudin” and “Superfluous”, but also “Spring Torrents” and “First Love” which I have in separate editions. *Sigh* – yet more duplication…

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And finally, “Home of the Gentry”, “A Nest of the Gentry” or indeed, as the little red book is titled, “Liza”… These are, of course, all the same story – apparently early translations of Turgenev’s second novel were sometimes given the name of the central female character, which is a bit misleading really as the book is about much more than just her (though I suppose you could argue that as she comes to embody Russia she’s fairly pivotal…) However, I can’t have realised this when I picked up the book ages ago, obviously just thinking it was a different work. Ho hum.

So – there is an awful lot of Turgenev in my collection and it does need a little judicious pruning. And I shall have to learn to pay attention when I’m picking up books in second-hand stores, because it’s obviously very easy to end up with superfluous copies….!

Exploring my Library: Soviet Sci Fi Short Stories (a niche collection…)

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I realise that Soviet Sci Fi short stories are a bit of a niche read – and certainly my recent guest post about that kind of story by women writers was even more obscure, as it was quite a task to track down any in translation! This set me digging around in my collection of Russian short story books, and I though it might be interesting to share the ones I have.

The first collection I ever acquired was “The Ultimate Threshold”. Translated by the esteemed Mirra Ginsburg, I think it’s probably one of the better known anthologies, and in fact it did contain one of the stories I read for my post.

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As you can see from the contents below, the stories are all from the 1960s, which is interesting in itself. This was mainly the Brezhnev era, when there were attempts at détente between the east and the west, so maybe the book’s appearance reflects this. I don’t think I’d heard of any of the authors before obtaining the book, which is even more exciting. I’ve only read the Larionova so far, and it’s excellent, which bodes well for the rest of the book.

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“World’s Spring” is a more recent acquisition, and one I got hold of when I was in search of stories by Kirill Bulychev, who has two works featured. Both were wonderful reads, and the book itself has a wide range of titles, split according to general theme. I also found one of my women’s stories in this volume, and I think it’s another highly regarded anthology.

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My old friend J, picking up on my interest in Soviet Sci Fi, procured these for me from a bookseller friend of hers! I was of course attracted to the first by the fact that the Strugatskys were featured…

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The second has another Strugatsky, plus a further selection of new-to-me names!

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“Destination: Amaltheia” is the book I tracked down to be able to read “The Astronaut” for my guest post, and I’m so glad I did. It was a wonderful tale and one of the most moving sci-fi stories I’ve read. Plus the book is very beautiful…

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I’m including this final anthology, although it isn’t strictly speaking a sci-fi one, because from reading the foreword it seems that at least one title is a science fiction story. It’s one I acquired for the Kataev story it contains, but there are a number of other authors I know of included so again there are plenty of riches to be explored!

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Although I’ve only read a few of the stories from these collections, each one has been a gem and I’m very excited at the prospect of having such wonderful delightsto dip into. Maybe I’ll find time over the Christmas break to indulge a little…. 🙂

A Wonderful piece of Russian Satire – Another Shiny Link

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If there’s one thing I loved, it’s a chunky piece of Russian satire, and so I was particular pleased to be offered the chance to review a lovely new edition of such a book for Shiny New Books! The reprint in question is “The History of a Town” by Saltykov-Shchedrin, an author best-known for his classic satirical novel “The Golovlyov Family”.

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“The History of a Town” has been reprinted in a beautiful new edition by Apollo, an imprint of Head of Zeus – and their books really are lovely, with striking pictorial covers and end papers. This was my first experience of Saltykov-Shchedrin and it was a wonderful one – you can read my full review here!

Dispatches from the Revolution

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1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dralyuk

Sometimes a book comes along that you just know is going to be perfect for you; and “1917”, just published by Pushkin Press, is certainly the right one for me! It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I have something of an interest in Russian literature and culture, and this reaches back a long way with me, since I first studied the Russian Revolution at the age of 12 or 13. This engendered my lifelong fascination and so a book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the country’s year of change is something I was quite desperate to read!

1917

1917 was indeed a year of turmoil for Russia, with not one but two revolutions taking place: in February/March the royal family was overthrown and a provisional government put in place; and in October/November the more famous conflict occurred, with Lenin’s Bolsheviks seizing power. This was eventually followed by a bloody civil war which tore the country apart and continued until 1921, when the old guard of the White Army were finally defeated. During the relatively liberal decade that followed, there were many accounts which looked back on the uprisings, but those featured in this excellent book are all between 1917 and 1919 (when the tide really turned in the Civil War, in favour of the Red Army), so they’re from right in the eye of the storm.

Expertly collected (and often translated) by Boris Dralyuk (who also translated the volume of Babel’s “Odessa Stories” I reviewed recently), he’s keen to stress the importance of contemporary reactions to the conflict. The book features an amazing range of authors espousing a variety of viewpoints, and all witnessing the conflict at first hand. Some embraced the revolution, some were horrified and rejected it, but all responded with lyrical passion. The various works are grouped thematically with erudite and informative introductions providing context and the first half of the book concentrates on poetry.

Remember this – this morning, after that black night –
this sun, this polished brass.
Remember what you never dreamt would come to pass
but what had always burned within your heart!

(from Russian Revolution by Mikhail Kuzmin
Translated by Boris Dralyuk)

From well-known names like Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Esenin and Akhmatova to names new to me like Vladimir Kirillov, Alexey Kraysky and Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze, there’s a wonderful array of work on view here. The marvellous Mayakovsky, often thought of as the poet of the Revolution, earns a section to himself, and his complex reactions to the conflict are covered. But central to the poetry section, and crucial, are Alexander Blok’s two great works “The Twelve” and “The Scythians” – starkly powerful, the former is rendered brilliantly by Dralyuk and Robert Chandler. As someone who sometimes struggles to read collections of poetry, I found this one gripping and absorbing, with such a wonderful range of imagery and human emotion.

The second section is prose – short fictions, journalism and responses from such luminaries as Teffi, Zamyatin, Zoshchenko and the great Bulgakov. I was pleased to see an evocative piece by Kataev which was new to me, a powerful story called “The Drum”. Dralyuk draws on an astonishingly wide range of works, pulling in as many peoples and creeds affected as he can. For example, Dovid Bergelson wrote in Yiddish and his imaginative piece “Scenes from the Revolution” is memorable. Teffi, of course, is her usual pithy, outspoken, no-nonsense self and her pen portrait of Lenin is devastating; her satirical story “The Guillotine” chilling.

And what of my beloved Bulgakov? He closes the book with an early piece entitled “Future Prospects” – his first piece of writing, in fact – which looks ahead with desperate hope. Bulgakov was at the time a White Army supporter and with our benefit of hindsight his optimism seems misguided and tragic – or perhaps born of desperation as the world around him crumbled.

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Boris Dralyuk dedicates this collection to the memory of his grandmother, and he does have a very personal connection to the Revolution through his grandparents which you can read more about here. I can’t praise enough the work he’s done compiling and translating this wonderful book; needless to say, “1917” not only lived up to my expectations, it exceeded them. I could simply sit here and churn out superlatives, but that’s not really constructive. This is a book that captures a moment in time when the world was changing, in rich, beautiful and sometimes visceral writing. Tellingly, a character in “The Soul’s Pendulum” by Alexander Grin comments on the perspective of history, and it is this missing perspective that gives the works their immediacy, capturing the chaos and uncertainty of a society in flux. It’s easy for us to look back now, a hundred years on, and see the events of that time as a structured thing, with a beginning and an end; living through them was an entirely different experience, but it’s one that can be glimpsed through the pages of this wonderful collection. “1917” was an entirely absorbing, moving and exceptional read, and it’s definitely going to be high on my list of books of the year.

Soviet Satire is Dead – Long Live Russian Satire!

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Fardwor, Russia by Oleg Kashin

Soviet satire, from Bulgakov to Kataev, is something I go on about a lot on the Ramblings. So I was very pleased to find out that the tradition is being carried on in modern Russian, after being kindly provided with a review copy of OK’s Fardwor, Russia! As far as I’m aware this is Kashin’s first work of fiction, published by Restless Books, and the man certainly has had a dramatic life so far…

A Russian journalist known for his political articles for a variety of publications, Kashin has always been critical of the authorities. In 2010 he was the subject of a violent assault near his Moscow home, and hospitalised with several fractures. The police treated the attack as attempted murder, and despite some apparent culprits being accused, no-one has ever been convicted of the attack. Kashin now lives in Switzerland.

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“Fardwor, Russia!”, translated by Will Evans, tells the story of a man called Karpov. The book opens with our hero travelling with his wife Marina back to his homeland in the Russian South; they’ve abandoned their Moscow life so that Karpov can work in seclusion on a strange invention he’s stumbled across. In a makeshift laboratory, he develops a growth serum (think Bulgakov’s “The Fatal Eggs”!) and it proves to work very well on livestock, much to the delight of the locals!

However, Karpov is not satisfied with experimenting on animals and tries the serum out on a circus dwarf – with remarkable results. The potion comes to the attention of a number of interested parties, including local meat producers and scientists, as well as a miniature oil mogul. He too soon grows, and runs off with Karpov’s wife; however, the inventor has more problems in the form of the authorities and the secret service, all of whom are after the serum. Can Karpov ever get the peace to invent, and will he ever get Marina back?

It’s quite clear that this marvellous book is the latest incarnation in a grand tradition of Russian/Soviet satire. There are echoes back to the past, most strongly Bulgakov, and Kashin is happy to have a swipe at everything from Russian big business to the olympics. Despite the recognisably modern setting and traits, the same kind of corruption and incompetence that the classic satirists were lampooning still exist, and under any kind of repressive regime the best way to fight is to use satire as a weapon.

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As well as being clever and pointed, the story is also very funny, as the different elements fight it out and struggle for control of the serum. Kashin is clear-eyed about his homeland and happy to mock the stereotypes!

Surprisingly, the next morning Karpov encountered around eight local residents by the shack who looked as if they had been specially selected for a photo shoot of “The Common Peoples of Rural Southern Russia”. They included a timid, suntanned grandmother in a snow-white headscarf and a clearly intoxicated man in a dusty jacket and cap (he had most likely taken the calf without asking his wife and a week later he would steal the money from her and sell the cow too) and a teenager with a fishing rod and a young goat (Karpov had not mentioned goats in his ad, he forgot) – basically, a feast for the eyes, but without any audience.

And although we are in the modern world, it still seems like there are the haves at the top and the have-nots at the bottom – plus ca change, as they say.

Through it all sails Karpov, like some kind of fabled innocent. Despite setbacks, beatings and the temporary loss of his wife, he seems untouched, totally obsessed with the one task at hand – his serum. He’s an engaging character; a typical mad inventor who can’t see past his dream, regardless of the effect it will have on everyone and everything else; and all those with vested interests are desperate to stop him.

Both Kashin and Restless Books are new to me, and both are to be applauded – Kashin for writing such brave and funny satire, and Restless Books for bringing it to us Anglophones. “Fardwor, Russia” (the title is a comment on a misspelled tweet) comes with an excellent introduction by Max Seddon which gives the context of the book and highlights some of its targets.

Needless to say, I loved “Fardwor, Russia!” and I salute Kashin for his bravery in writing it. If you’ve enjoyed Bulgakov, Ilf and Petrov, Yuri Olesha, Kataev and co, you probably would enjoy it too – highly recommended!

Many thanks to Restless Books for kindly providing a review copy

A multiplicity of narrators…

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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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