School for Fools.

A few times in my life I’ve encountered works that stopped me in my tracks and made me say “Wait, you can do that?” I vividly remember my first experiences of Godard, Ezra Pound, Thomas Pynchon; they completely changed my ideas of movies, poetry, and the novel respectively. The last couple of weeks have been like that. I spent a week and a half reading Sasha Sokolov’s first novel, Школа для дураков (1976), translated (not very well) by Carl Proffer the following year as A School for Fools — I personally think it should be just plain School for Fools, but the articulated title has established itself. (The newer, and presumably better, translation by Alexander Boguslawski keeps the same title; according to this review, it has “an expertly researched collection of endnotes,” which convinced me to order it — with a book like this you need all the help you can get, and I like to support New York Review Books, which has a terrific Russian-lit list.) It’s a short novel but a long read. After I finished the book, I started reading up on it and thinking about it, and I’ll set down a few preliminary thoughts here; I expect to keep turning it over in my head for a long time.

I’m not the only one who felt it was something completely new; a lot of the early response included remarks to that effect. Of course it didn’t come out of nowhere; Russian precursors were Gogol, Dostoevsky (The Double, Notes from Underground), Bely (Petersburg), Nabokov (The Defense), late Kataev (the fictionalized memoirs), Aksyonov (Surplussed Barrelware), and Bitov (Life in Windy Weather — Sokolov twice uses the phrase дачная местность ‘dacha district,’ a nod to Bitov’s subtitle), not to mention the great samizdat books of 1970, Venedikt Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki and Yuz Aleshkovsky’s Nikolai Nikolaevich; obvious foreign parallels are Joyce and Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury). But Sokolov puts the familiar elements of doubling, madness, and sexual obsession together in a way that is entirely his own. I’ll quote a decent description by Ludmilla L. Litus from her “Intertextuality in Škola dlja durakov Revisited: Sokolov, Gogol, and the Others” (Russian Language Journal/Русский язык, Vol. 52, No. 171/173 [Winter-Spring-Fall 1998], pp. 99-140):

To summarize briefly, Škola is a linguistically self-conscious, complex, metafictional text that takes the form of a disjointed pseudo memoir. The narrative does not follow the traditional contiguous linear line of the realistic novel, but, as in verse, it is developed through associations and metaphoric play. […] The one unifying element in this intricate, disconnected narrative is the voice of the narrator and main character who also functions as both the fictional author of the memoir and the student with whom this fictional author discusses life and the writing of the book. […]

Nymphea is the linguistically perceptive, fictional author/student/double narrator who controls and directs the narrative by calling the reader’s attention to specific phrases, passages, and individual words. Words in Škola are important in themselves, as in verse, for their sound quality, rhythm, and even for their visual appearance. To create special effects and to add emphasis, Sokolov manipulates typography; he introduces typographic разрядка [letter spacing] and spells words backward. […]

Škola is a type of sophisticated modern literary pastiche of “other texts” that includes “fragments” from the Bible, poetry and prose, aphorisms, song fragments, tongue-twisters, and examples of children’s counting rhymes – from Russian/Soviet and world literature, history, and culture. Multiple repetitions in the work help set the tone and help create a sense of repeating, often chaotic, reality.

Sokolov invented the word проэзия ‘proetry’ to describe his technique, and it’s a useful one; he writes prose styled as poetry, in the sense that it’s all about language, image, metaphor, and allusion rather than plot and character (both of which are only sketchily and intermittently present in the novel). It has been said that hidden beneath the surface is a scathing critique of Soviet reality (if you want that kind of analysis, by all means read Litus, who does a good job of ferreting it out); while that’s certainly true to some extent (it’s impossible to read passages about the danger of reading and writing the wrong things without thinking of the situation of writers in the USSR), it’s also not what I go to fiction for — the Soviet Union has been in the dustbin of history for three decades now, so attacks on its evils are of purely historical interest, and as Ez said, literature is news that stays news. No, what’s gripping about the novel (and what aligns it with Godard, Pound, and Pynchon) is the brilliant turning of the spotlight of art on art itself and on the artist trying to create, along with a heady mix of history, cultural allusions, and playful juxtapositions. By the time I reached the final line I was powerfully moved without really knowing how the trick had been pulled off, so I’ll have to go back and read it again; I also want to reread the works that he said inspired him (quote from Litus, “Saša Sokolov’s Škola dlja durakov: Aesopian Language and Intertextual PlayAuthor(s),” The Slavic and East European Journal, Spring, 1997, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 114-134):

In his 1985 interview with Olga Matich, Sokolov acknowledged the influence of “Young Prose” on his development. He singled out works by Vasilij P. Aksenov and G. Bitov: “Аксенов, его «Затоваренная бочкотара» для меня только начинавшего пить из копытца Пегаса, была событием грандиозным. А потом был Битов с его изумительной «Жизнью в ветреную погоду»” (“Aksenov, his ‘Surplussed Barrelware’ was for me, as I was just beginning to drink from the hoof of Pegasus, a grand event. Then came Bitov and his amazing ‘Life in Windy Weather'” […]

Also, like everyone in his generation, he was influenced by Andrei Voznesensky, and indeed the novel could be seen as a set of variations on the poems Осень в Сигулде [Autumn in Sigulda] and Кто мы [Who are we?]; the former (“как в резиновую перчатку красный мужской кулак”) is even (mis)quoted in Sokolov’s text. The quotes, indeed, are everywhere, sometimes packed into long sequences; here’s a particularly dense passage in which a literature teacher suggests a course of acceptable reading:

Мальчик из Уржума, Детство Темы, Детство, Дом на горе, Витя Малеев, и вот это: жизнь дается человеку один раз, и прожить ее надо так, чтобы. И еще: бороться и искать, найти и не сдаваться, вперед, заре навстречу, товарищи в борьбе, штыками и картечью проложим путь себе – песни русских революций и гражданских войн, вихри враждебные, во саду ли, как у наших у ворот, ах, вы сени, и потом мы рекомендовали бы занятия музыкой, на любом инструменте, умеренно, терапия, чтобы не было мучительно больно

The Boy from Urzhum [a children’s biography of Kirov], The Childhood of Tyoma [Garin-Mikhailovsky’s 1892 novel about “the emotional development of a youth sensitive to the societal pressures shaping the life of the intelligentsia”], Childhood [presumably either Tolstoy’s autobiographical novel or the first volume of Gorky’s autobiography, though the title has been used many times], The House on the Hill [Musatov’s 1951 kid’s book about love of nature and Stalin as the all-seeing sun who guarantees happiness], Vitya Maleev [another 1951 kid’s book], and this: life is given to a man only once, and you have to live it so that. [The start of a very famous quote from Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered, a basic work of socialist realism] And also: to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield [the Russian version of the famous Tennyson line is well known from Kaverin’s novel Two Captains], forward to meet the dawn, comrades in struggle, with bayonets and grapeshot let us make our way [from the Komsomol anthem] — songs of the Russian Revolution and civil wars, whirlwinds of danger [from the famous revolutionary song Warszawianka], in the garden, at our gates, ah, you entrance hall [three folk songs], and then we would recommend music lessons, on any instrument, moderately, and therapy, so that it wouldn’t be excruciatingly painful [that last phrase is the continuation of the Ostrovsky quote]

Proffer makes a hash of this, mangling the Tennyson line (which he presumably didn’t recognize) into “to seek and to strive, to find and not to surrender” and providing “dark eyes, pack up your troubles, all together, heave ho” for the folk songs; elsewhere he renders “Так живите по ветру” as “So live in the wind,” not recognizing the idiom по ветру ‘(throwing money) to the winds, squandering,’ he translates полтора ‘one and a half’ as “one hundred fifty,” he has “on the ships of the Vigel class” for на кораблях типа Б и г л ь ‘on ships of the Beagle class,” and he renders “пустота сердца, солнечного сплетения” ’emptiness of the heart and solar plexus’ as “emptiness of the heart, of sunny linkages” (!!; cf. this LH post). When I get Boguslawski’s translation, I’ll report back on how he handles these bits.

Update. I got the Boguslawski version (I only ordered it yesterday!), and I’m happy to say it exceeded expectations. Not only are the notes excellent (he explained a number of allusions I had completely missed, not to mention Soviet bicycle technology), but he approached the translation in exactly the right way:

In translating A School for Fools, I have set out to stay as close as possible to the original, no matter the difficulties such a goal might present. I have retained Sokolov’s very long paragraphs, a literary device that, as he says in his essay “Another Encounter,” doesn’t allow the reader to “doubt even for a second that existence is precisely what is happening here and now, on the given page.” I have also sought to capture the rhythm and flow of the text, its remarkable musicality. When the original breaks into rhyme and verse, as it does at points, I have tried not only to capture the meaning but to maintain the rhyme and the meter. I have done my best to leave nothing out. Certain turns of speech, however, certain word games and puns, are likely to escape English-speaking readers, so I have added notes that discuss Sokolov’s intertextual links and neologisms, explain the significance of some names and, at points, compare the translation to the original Russian. The notes are not marked in the text—I did not wish to interrupt the flow of the novel—but they can be found in the back of the book. In general, I can only hope that I have produced a translation that is as accurate as can be, but which also preserves some of the book’s “proetry”—Sokolov’s coinage for prose elevated to the level of poetry.

To take a short and simple example, the first sentence of the main text is “Так, но с чего же начать, какими словами?” Proffer renders it “All right, but how do you begin, what words do you use?” Boguslawski squeezes out the excess and makes it “Right, but how to begin, with what words?” That’s pretty much a perfect equivalent of the effect in Russian. Needless to say, he doesn’t make any of Proffer’s mistakes. And I was stopped in my tracks by a word at the bottom of the first page (bolding added): “Tired, huffing, wiping their faces with handkerchiefs, dragging their briefcases and shopping bags, and making gwooking noises.” Gwooking! I’d love it for its own sweet sake, and I wouldn’t care if he’d made it up, but here’s the relevant note:

making gwooking noises: In Russian, the expression ekaia selezenkoi (making noise with the spleen) is used to describe the noise made by trotting geldings (by the way, the horses make the noise not with the spleen but with the scrotum). Even though there is no word in English for this sound, American equine specialists favor the onomatopoeic “gwook.”

The book is worth it for that alone. (I wrote about that very expression a couple of years ago; Proffer simply omitted the phrase.) I’m going to read Boguslawski’s version because it will go more quickly and I remember different things when I read in English; it will give me a more rounded picture of the novel. And I recommend his translation unreservedly to anyone intrigued by this great novel.


  1. PlasticPaddy says:

    From your description the style seems more Dos Passos than Faulkner.Was (the young) Dos Passos read much in the USSR?

  2. Yes, he was, I believe, but the style is actually not at all like his; by Faulkner I am referring specifically to the first chapter of The Sound and the Fury (“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting”). Dos Passos is all about the sociopolitical stuff, and the sentences may be telegraphic but they are not hard to understand; Sokolov is the opposite.

  3. Just fascinating. A must, someday, especially now that there is a new translation.

  4. Yes, I’m really hoping the new translation is good enough I can recommend it to people. It should arrive tomorrow, thanks to the magic of Amazon Prime.

  5. By the way, I somehow forgot to mention that the novel incorporates a chunk of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country in the standard Russian translation, and then has a passage in which a couple of Russian characters are transformed into Japanese men discussing snow.

  6. Update: The new translation just got here, a day early! All hail Amazon!

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    It sounds very check-outable. But I think I’ll hang fire until you report back on the quality of the translation. No pressure.

  8. The quality is superb; see my update above.

  9. Actually, I think one of his notes (on “the engineer Burago is walking down the riverbank”) is wrong:

    Burago: Probably a reference to a character from Nikolai Shpanov’s 1942 novel, The Secret of Professor Burago (Taina professora Burago).

    That’s possible, but I think it’s more likely to be a reference to инженер Бураго [engineer Burago], one of the main characters in Leonid Leonov’s 1930 novel Соть (The Sot; also translated Soviet River and The River); not only is it much better known, but (as is obvious from the title) a river features prominently.

  10. (I can’t find an e-mail address for him, or I’d write to him about it.)

  11. PlasticPaddy says:

    He retired from Rollins College a few years ago, but he seems to be teaching here:

  12. Thanks! Now that I think about it, though, it might be kind of obnoxious to contact somebody about a perceived error in a translation they finished with half a dozen years ago. I’ll have to cogitate on it.

  13. By the loosest association, Dylan Thomas’s The School for Witches most definitely is prose in poetry too, of a very different kind.

    I tried to find a recording of a gwooking trotting gelding, and failed. In my search I found out more about horse’s “sheaths” than I’d ever imagined I would be thinking about.

  14. I have seen We described as a novel-length prose poem. Obviously, I haven’t read it in Russian, but I didn’t think that description was really accurate for the translation I read.

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