The Scratching of the Pen.

José Vergara (see this post) was kind enough to send me a copy of his article “The Embodied Language of Sasha Sokolov’s A School for Fools” (Slavonic and East European Review 97.3 [July 2019]: 426-450), which is available at JSTOR, and it’s one of the best things I’ve read about Sokolov (see this post for my take on A School for Fools); in particular, it gets the importance of language in his work in a way that scholars who concentrate on psychology or (feh) politics don’t. I’ll quote some relevant passages and recommend the whole thing to anyone with an interest in Sokolov (or, really, modernist literature in general):

A third factor that bears consideration is Sokolov’s attitude toward language in general and Russian in particular. The author has consistently advocated a perspective that places the literary word above all else, as in an interview with David Remnick conducted after his return to Russia in 1989:

Texts are more important than life, for me. Language is more important than life. So if you deal with language, you are creating not only texts, but also something more important than life. It’s been said many times, of course, but it is true that first there was the Word, and God created the Word, the Word is God, and God is more important than life.

His novels, in turn, reflect these beliefs, as Sokolov prioritizes the intricacies of his language over plot, character and setting. […]

…by playing with the tension between speech and writing, and pitting different characters’ approaches to language against each other, School foregrounds the power of the word to shape life itself.

Elsewhere, in an interview with Viktor Erofeev from around the same time, Sokolov expresses his love of the Russian language. Although he notes that he could theoretically write in English, he finds it lacking in certain respects (for example, grammatical cases) and explains his limitations by means of a musical parallel, ‘as if music were deprived of half-tones’. This desire to experience the innumerable possibilities afforded by language led Sokolov to spend about a year in Moscow after more than a decade in emigration, ‘listen[ing] with pleasure to all kinds of idle chit-chat’ as he told Ivan Podshivalov. In another recent interview, Sokolov has used similar metaphors to describe his writing process: ‘For me, language is a kind of symphony, and it happens that I’m composing variations on its themes.’ The musical metaphor applies equally well to the structure of his novels, which are largely built upon recurrent motifs, as to his prose at large with its constant word play, a concern with phonetic qualities and explorations of the linguistic diversity and plasticity of Russian. The overarching goal of Sokolov’s craft is to manifest the word in a way that is, on the one hand, musical and therefore ephemeral and, on the other, concrete through its insistence on a physical form. […]

Sokolov has written about how ‘nothing on the page should distract the reader from the “mellifluous flow” of the narrative’, resulting in works that omit paragraph breaks, footnotes, and other such perfectly everyday features of written documents in order to immerse the reader in the imagined worlds of his works, including his essays. This is not the flow of the mind, but the scratching of the pen. […]

Student So-and-So himself expresses a similar idea when conversing with Norvegov near the end of the novel. His mentor, who, again, has died at some point earlier in the narrative, sold his skeleton before his death, and it found its way to the school. Student So-and-So says that he will do the same when he is no more, and ‘whole generations of fools […] will study the structure of the human skeleton by means of our imperishable carcasses. Dear Savl Petrovich, isn’t that the shortest path to immortality?’47[see below — LH] This skeleton of an imaginary hero (the Student) who invents other imaginary characters (Norvegov, Veta and so on) can only be the text of A School for Fools, which he weaves in collaboration with the purported author and the reader. Language itself is given this linguistic body that he shares with future generations of the school for fools, whether it be Soviet Russia or a wider readership. The immortality that he seeks is the same immortality of Pushkin’s monument: the legacy of his thought made real in the form of a written text. […]

This, then, is the central tension felt throughout Sokolov’s novel: what might be considered real in a text where everything seems to spring from the mind of a schizophrenic hero? Put simply, what matters? Sokolov relieves this pressure by immersing his book in the differences between thought and writing as depicted on the page, as well as by deploying a string of images that constantly remind the reader that it is all an illusion. What remains by the time we reach the last page is the idea that language alone constitutes the core of the novel on all levels: narration, plot, character, style. […]

It is perhaps this approach to writing that has led some critics and readers to complain of Sokolov’s total solipsistic aestheticism, a deep dive into style over substance. As has been demonstrated here, Sokolov’s wordweaving involves much higher stakes than a simple play on words. He, in fact, invokes a (fictional) world through language and especially through the written word. It is therefore an issue of life and death.

Footnote 47 has a nice example of how extraliterary knowledge can be helpful in analyzing literature: “The skeleton might also be linked to the chalk described earlier, as they represent two forms of calcium, one more solid than the other.”


  1. Just like donating your skeleton to a medical school provides some degree of life after death, so is writing a text to be included in the textbooks. If A school for fools is a skeleton donated to medical students, Sokolov is in a good position to reach the goal of the donation.

    This also reminds me of this very famous literary skeleton.

  2. Прими сей череп, Дельвиг, он
    Принадлежит тебе по праву.
    Тебе поведаю, барон,
    Его готическую славу.

    Pushkin is so much fun!

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