Sorokin’s Norma.

Not long ago I posted about Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Роман (Roman); I hadn’t been planning to write about his Норма (Norma, forthcoming from New York Review Books in Max Lawton’s translation as The Norm; it was written in 1979-83 but published only in 1994) because I figured I’d described what Sorokin is up to (“present some pleasing cliché and violently deconstruct it”) and I didn’t want to repeat myself. But Norma is so different, and the things written about it in English are so unsatisfying (hopefully that will change when the translation is published), that I wanted to give an idea of what it’s like so the prospective reader might know whether to give it a go. It’s a lot of fun, but (like all Sorokin) frequently offensive and sometimes incomprehensible and/or unreadable.

The first thing you see when you open the book is a few pages in italics, recounting the arrest of Boris Gusev (born 1951, like me, hence thirtyish when the novel was written) by two KGB agents, who search his apartment and find, along with forbidden literature like Vol. III of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a manuscript of 372 typed pages called Норма (Norma). One of them takes it to their boss, a thirteen-year-old boy, who dismisses him coldly and settles down to read. I note that on page 5 of my edition (the first, as it happens), the question “How are things going?” is answered “Все нормально” [Everything’s normal (i.e., OK)]; thus is introduced the leitmotif of the book, nearly every part of which contains the words норма ‘norm,’ нормальный ‘normal,’ and/or нормально ‘normally.’ (For an extensive discussion of the word “normal” and its history, see this 2008 post.) The boy opens the book, and a colon introduces the novel proper, which is divided into eight parts.

Part 1, the longest in the book, consists of thirty-plus short narratives ranging from several pages to less than a page long. The first opens with a guy named Sveklushin who gets off a packed bus and is immediately accosted by his old friend Trofimenko, who he hasn’t seen in ages (“You could at least have written!”); he asks after various mutual acquaintances and invites him to dinner, and shortly after responding to a remark about his wrinkles with “Ну и чего странного? Нормально.” [So what’s strange about that? It’s normal.] he says “Только вот погоди-ка. Норму сжую щас, чтоб домой не тащить. Хорошо, что вспомнил.” [Wait, though. I’ll gobble my norm now, so I don’t have to drag it home. Good thing I remembered.] Trofimenko is impressed by the cellophane wrapping (in the provinces where he’s been living they just wrap the norm in paper, “and coarse paper at that”) and by its freshness (“ours is all dried up”). Then Trofimenko asks him how he managed to get his nice jacket (“It’s Czech, they’re hard to find”). In the second, a kid is trying to get his father’s attention (“They’re showing acrobats on TV, dad!”) while his father is making dinner for himself, including some “norm.” The rest are similar scenes of daily life, involving just about every area of Soviet society short of the highest — the novel has been called “an encyclopedia of Soviet life” — and each one includes the consumption of “norm”; eventually it is made explicit (spoiler!) that it consists of human feces, and all adult citizens are obliged to consume their daily dose. This is the literalization of a common formula of speech whose canonical example for me is from E. E. Cummings’ grim poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big“: “there is some shit I will not eat.” That’s one of Sorokin’s main tricks: making the metaphorical real.

Part 2, a couple of dozen pages long, consists of two-word phrases beginning with forms of нормальный ‘normal’; it starts:
нормальные роды [normal childbirth]
нормальный мальчик [normal boy]
нормальный крик [normal cry/scream/yell]
and ends:
нормальная кома [normal coma]
нормальный разряд [normal discharge]
нормальное массированние [normal massage (?)]
нормальная смерть [normal death]
In between, the chapter passes through all the stages of a normal Soviet (male) life, from boyhood games to adult sex and work. Many of the words are slang, and I had to consult my usual experts (thanks, Sashura and Anatoly!) to learn that робя = ребята ‘boys, guys,’ пенка (occurring in a soccer context) is short for пенальти ‘penalty,’ and чеканочка is a diminutive form of чеканка ‘keepie uppie.’ I still have no idea what нормальные размудя and нормальный ужер mean.

Part 3, the second longest, is a story about Anton revisiting his childhood home, now fallen into ruin, and finding a manuscript in a box, which at first is a letter from the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, who is apparently Anton’s real grandfather, and then — when a reader/editor appears out of nowhere and complains that that part is boring — becomes a story-within-the-story called Падёж [Murrain], a horrifying tale of collectivization I won’t even try to summarize. One thing I enjoyed is that in the course of the first, lyrical, section, there occurs the sentence “Каким спокойствием веяло, ой блядь, нe могу, как плавно плыли над ним облака!” [How peacefully wafted, oh fuck, I can’t, how smoothly floated the clouds over him!], and I immediately noted the very Sorokinian intrusion of obscenity; sure enough, the reader/editor says there’s some cursing in the middle he didn’t understand: “блядь не могу и так далее” [fuck I can’t and so on]. I laughed and felt prescient.

Part 4 is twelve month-based poems, and the норм- words don’t occur anywhere in them, which I found odd. Part 5, perhaps the highlight of the book, is a series of letters from an increasingly upset worker to Martin Alekseevich, a homeowner whose house he’s working on; beginning with respectful reports and polite enquiries about the health of his family, it ends in obscene abuse and a wordless scream that goes on for pages (ааааааааааааааааааааааааааааааааааааааааааа). Part 6 consists of all-cap slogans involving “norm-,” one on each page (an amusing sequence uses the name of the opera Norma: АРИЯ НОРМЫ ВЕЛИКОЛЕПНА! [the aria from Norma is magnificent!]). Part 7 is short pieces with dialogue that is in verse even though written out as prose, and Part 8 is a staff meeting that quickly devolves into gibberish. We then get a brief passage in italics picking up from the introduction; the thirteen-year-old boy calls a colleague and reports on the manuscript: “Четыре, Сергей Иваныч.” [Four, Sergei Ivanych.] This is apparently going to cause trouble for someone.

I have to add that I’m currently reading Vladimir Solovyov’s famous series of articles «Смысл любви», published as a book in 1894, and I’m probably the only reader who ever burst into a loud laugh on getting to this passage in the fourth article (bold added): “В последнее время в психиатрической литературе Германии и Франции появилось несколько специальных книг посвященных тому, что автор одной из них назвал psychopathia sexualis, т. е. разнообразным уклонениям от нормы в половых отношениях […] те влечения и действия в половой области, которые сравнительно редки, признаются патологическими уклонениями, требующими лечения, а те, которые обыкновенны и общеприняты, предполагаются как норма.” [Recently in the psychiatric literature of Germany and France there have been several specialist books devoted to what the author of one of them called psychopathia sexualis, i.e., various deviations from the norm in sexual relations … those cravings and sexual activities, which are relatively rare, are recognized as pathological deviations requiring treatment, and those that are common and generally accepted are assumed to be the norm.] Context is all.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Hey! I just came across Tyutchev, having finally got round to watching Stalker
    (The poem is striking enough that it made me look up the author.)

  2. Tyutchev was a great poet, not sure how he fares in translation… This is my favorite.

    Norma is an anagram of Roman, just saying (same in Russian).

    нормальный ужер in the context is nominalization from ужраться, drink excessively, sometimes people eat vodka, not drink.

    нормальные размудя I am afraid doesn’t have exact meaning. It is clearly from муды (not being exactly legally printable for quite some time, the word has a wonderful collection of plural forms, including dual), bollocks. мудить means to do something ineptly (wrong, long, boring, anything a speaker disapproves of). размудя probably means happening.

  3. нормальный ужер in the context is nominalization from ужраться, drink excessively, sometimes people eat vodka, not drink.

    Thanks, I would never have guessed that!

    нормальные размудя I am afraid doesn’t have exact meaning. It is clearly from муды

    I guessed it was from муды/муде, but had no idea what the meaning might be; thanks again.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    муды … bollocks. мудить means to do something ineptly (wrong, long, boring, anything a speaker disapproves of).

    We have the misogynous expression die Eier schaukeln: sitting around swinging your balls back and forth, instead of doing something worthwhile. In leisure theory, this is dynamically equifinal with sitting around with your thumb in your butt. [I must admit I learned much useful American folklore from my father]

  5. We have the misogynous expression die Eier schaukeln: sitting around swinging your balls back and forth, instead of doing something worthwhile.

    Surely misandrous rather than misogynous?

  6. Stu Clayton says

    No, because the expression excludes women from participating – for no other reason than that they lack the requisite bit of anatomy.

  7. But perhaps the implication is that women do something worthwhile instead.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Yes, women are expected to work all the time. A woman’s work is never done, as the economists say. Frauenhände ruhen nie.

    # Man may work from sun to sun,
    But woman’s work is never done.#

  9. Russians scratch them, but in that expression it is “eggs”, like in German, a more acceptable expression for the same body part.

  10. Vladimir Soloviev and the Spiritualization of Matter

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Nice poem-here is an attempt at translation:

    In the first few days of autumn,
    There is a season, marvelous and short
    Where each day rises like a crystal
    More radiant than the day before it.

    Where lively mowers moved and felled the grain
    Now all is empty, everywhere is space
    In idle furrows thin-haired spiderwebs
    Leave a temporary glistening trace.

    The air is clear, and birds are heard no more,
    But there is time before the winter storms,
    And over the slumber of the fields
    A clean blue hazy blanket forms.

  12. Russians scratch them
    An alternative to the expression Stu mentioned is sich den Sack kraulen “to tickle / stroke one’s scrotum”.

  13. English has “fuck the dog” and its euphemistic variant “screw the pooch.”

  14. juha, thanks for the translation. Unfortunately, I am not able to judge English poetry. Tyutchev’s verse conveys a sense of calm and quiet beauty through words, of course, which you rendered very well, but also through cadence and even sounds, which I cannot appreciate in English, sadly.

  15. @languagehat: I think that the primary meaning of “screw the pooch” nowadays is “fuck up,” not “fuck around”; this may be related to the fact that “fuck the dog” is not part of the idiom of many younger (say, under fifty) Americans at all.

    @Stu Clayton: Wasn’t it Xenophon to mocked his intellectual adversaries by describing them as sitting around with their testicles bespattered with semen?

  16. I think that the primary meaning of “screw the pooch” nowadays is “fuck up,” not “fuck around”; this may be related to the fact that “fuck the dog” is not part of the idiom of many younger (say, under fifty) Americans at all.

    Sigh. Kids today…

  17. David Marjanović says

    I’ve come across screw the pooch (in the meaning “fuck up”), but not fuck the dog or either of the German sayings, though I think a Hirnwichser “brainwanker” is someone who thinks useless thoughts and doesn’t do anything useful. Y sí, los huevos son Eier.

    those cravings and sexual activities, which are relatively rare, are recognized as pathological deviations requiring treatment

    I think that’s just German-style use of commas (which Russian seems to use wherever German has an extra clause, even if in Russian it’s just a participial construction) and is restrictive: “those cravings and sexual activities that are relatively rare are recognized as pathological deviations requiring treatment”, while those that are not relatively rare are considered the norm.

  18. I’m not sure whether “fuck to dog” is actually more or less evocative as a description of inept indolence than another dated expression, “gather wool.”

  19. One for the guys, one for the gals.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    This claims that etymological accounts of the idiom “to gather wool” have “remained more or less at the level of Brewer’s* explanation,” criticized as inadequate, for a very long time. FWIW I think of “screw the pooch” in the “screw something up badly” sense as itself somewhat dated or at least cohort-specific, i.e. an expression most likely to be used by someone meaningfully older than me (say born in or prior to 1955ish?). But that’s impressionistic and not based on any sort of rigorous data collection. I do cherish the memory of witnessing a rather “colorful” (to be euphemistic) lawyer say to a (female FWIW) federal judge in open court something like “I gotta tell you, Your Honor, [NAME OF OTHER LAWYER SUPPOSEDLY ALIGNED WITH HIM] really screwed the pooch on this one.”

    *No relation AFAIK.

  21. From screw the pooch to jump the shark: by now everyone knows that the latter came from the sitcom Happy Days, etc. But I’ve never seen anyone explain how jump ever came to be used as a transitive verb.

  22. Dmitry Pruss says

    you already got ужёр, I see. I think that замудить / размудить are an antonym pair of verbs, to complicate needlessly / obfuscate vs to sort it out / make it clear. But I never heard a noun form of it.

  23. I have no comment about the translations, but I just realized I’ve heard of Sorokin before.

    @languagehat “Screw the pooch” is definitely used by under 50-year-olds as “fuck the dog” at least in parts of Canada.

    @David Eddyshaw
    >I just came across Tyutchev, having finally got round to watching Stalker …

    How do you think the film compares to the novel?

  24. Stu Clayton says

    But I’ve never seen anyone explain how jump ever came to be used as a transitive verb.

    Jump the gun, jump the hurdle, jump the car, jump the creek.

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    Took me only a moment in the google books corpus to find an instance of transitive jump published (in in anthology whose contents might in many instances be significantly older) in 1811, or maybe 1808, but relating to events occurring in 1757: “Jacobs’ squaw wielded a tomahawk round her head before she jumped the fence.”

    That’s from Vol. II of Archibald Loudon’s “A Selection of Some of the Most Interesting Narratives of Outrages Committed by the Indians in Their Wars with the White People” (which has an even even longer subtitle I’m not going to transcribe).

  26. Jumping a car or jumping the gun are clearly something else. Jumping a hurdle or jumping a fence are closer, and yet the shark somehow seems different. In interviews with members of Happy Days quoted in the WP article, they always talk about jumping over a shark.

  27. Interesting. I’d guess whoever came up with the name of the meme unconsciously shortened it to make it more memorable; cf. “gild the lily.”

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    @Y: I would say that “jump the fence” and “jump over the fence” are both variations freely available in American English without any particular difference in meaning other than that the former is maybe a bit more informal or colloquial so you might risk a schoolteacher criticizing you for using it in written work.* But there’s enough free variation that “jump over the shark” in the original Happy Days context could have evolved over time into “jump the shark” as a fixed phrase without anyone along the way being conscious of the transition.

    I suppose maybe I should add that I think it’s pretty blindingly obvious to an American old enough to remember the 1970’s that the Fonzie-on-waterskis stunt jump over obstacles/hazards was inspired by or at least alluded to Evel Knievel’s numerous stunt motorcycle jumps over obstacles/hazards, but perhaps that genealogical background is opaque to those of other generations and places of origin.


    “I asked my mama for fifteen cents / To watch the elephant jump the fence”


    “Pounds shillings and pence / The monkey jumped over the fence”

    I think the difference there is not register but the prosodic need for less versus more syllables in the line.

  29. Stu Clayton says

    For the ladies I found a fabulous counterpart to (sich) die Eier schaukeln, on the gutefrage website:

    # Naja mir ist kein äquivalent bekannt aber wir könnten ja versuchen uns was neues auszudenken, ich fände z.B. “Das schnitzel hängen lassen” wäre einen versuch wert :3 #

  30. Jon Hein, who coined “jumping the shark,” used to be very good about replying to e-mails from whatever nurdulent randos wrote to him with questions. However, his Web site, (an early manifestation of Web 2.0, revolving around user-submitted content) no longer exists; he apparently sold the domain name for a pile of money, and he may just have gotten tired of the whole joke.

  31. juha, thanks for the translation.

    That wasn’t me.

    gather wool

    In Russian, there is an expression ‘щёлкать еблом’—yet another instrumental object—that both sexes all genders can use/engage in.

  32. PlasticPaddy says

    Just wanted to thank you for the poem. Re cadence and sounds, as you say, this is difficult to reflect in translation (or to judge in another language). Tjutchev has in this poem a strict rhyme scheme abab, where a is a feminine rhyme (two-syllable with penultimate stress) and b is a masculine rhyme (one-syllable). This is an artificial pattern for serious English verse (although, as for rhyming couplets I am sure one can find long examples in the metre). I always find it difficult to associate moods (calm and peaceful) with the sounds, as completely divorced from the meaning and connotations of the words and phrases. For instance the famous poem by Goethe “in allen Gipfeln ist Ruh” has a calm and peaceful mood but rather different cadence and sound palette, although maybe the use of feminine rhyme in lines 4-5 of that poem and the elevated frequency of l and r sounds is similar to the Tjutchev.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Thanks to non-rhoticity, the whole poem has only 3 r-sounds, though given where Goethe was from I’m not sure if he might have put in a fourth (in warte). L-sounds number no less than 7.

    But for me, the only onomatopoeia in it is [uː] and [aʊ̯x], and those are much less frequent. All the rest of the effect comes from the meaning of the words.

  34. @PlasticPaddy: “This is an artificial pattern for serious English verse.” For iambic meters, definitely. Emily Brontë used it more than once, and James Joyce did at least once (“Wind whines and whines the shingle”) but that’s not much. However, it works OK for trochaic, trisyllabic and mixed meters. E.g., “On the idle hill of summer,” “When we two parted,” “When the lamp is shattered.”

  35. PlasticPaddy says

    @alex k
    You are right, my statement was tendentious :

    I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    ⁠dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    ⁠Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

    In his ecstacy! then off, off forth on swing,
    ⁠As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    ⁠Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
    Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

    Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    ⁠Buckle! and the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
    Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
    ⁠No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
    Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    ⁠Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

  36. @PlasticPaddy: I only wanted to narrow down your statement, not to challenge it. Iambic tetrameters, pentameters and trimeters in abab stanzas, where a is a feminine and b is a masculine rhyme, are typical of the Russian Golden Age but rare in Anglo-American poetry. (For all her talent, Emily Brontë was a marginal figure in her lifetime, and for all his fame, Joyce is not considered a major poet.) Curiously, two of Tyutchev’s best-known poems, Silentium! and Весенние воды, only use masculine rhymes.

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