Sasha Sokolov - If Joyce had written the last chapter of Ulysses in Russian it would have sounded like this

A School for Fools
Sasha Sokolov, A School for Fools, Ztaqns. by Alexander Boguslawski, NYRB Classics, 2015.

By turns lyrical and philosophical, witty and baffling, A School for Fools confounds all expectations of the novel. Here we find not one reliable narrator but two “unreliable” narrators: the young man who is a student at the “school for fools” and his double. What begins as a reverie (with frequent interruptions) comes to seem a sort of fairy-tale quest not for gold or marriage but for self-knowledge. The currents of consciousness running through the novel are passionate and profound. Memories of childhood summers at the dacha are contemporaneous with the present, the dead are alive, and the beloved is present in the wind. Here is a tale either of madness or of the life of the imagination in conversation with reason, straining at the limits of language; in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book.”

INTRODUCTION Sasha Sokolov's A School far Fools has been called "a neglected masterpiece." The late Vladimir Nabokov, a man not known for the generosity of his critical judgements (especially of his fellow Russian writers), hailed it as "an enchanting, tragic, and touching book."
"Neglect" is a relative state. Compared to Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago or Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Sokolov's brilliant novella is little known to the American reading public. Nonetheless, it shares with them the distinction of being one of the very few Russian novels to remain steadily in print since its first publication in 1976. A School for Fools is eagerly read and discussed in university classrooms from New England to Southern California. In Europe, it is read in German, Dutch, Swedish, French, Italian, and Polish translations. Conferences and articles are devoted to its reclusive author who lives in rural Vermont and Canada. He has been Regents' Lecturer at the University of California where there is an archive devoted to his work. Sokolov has entered into the standard Western handbooks and histories of modern Russian literature.
Nor is Sokolov neglected in the Soviet Union, where he wrote A School for Fools before his emigration in 1975. His three novels, all banned although resolutely apolitical, are eagerly sought after by Soviet literary connoisseurs, and also by the authorities who carefully removed all copies of his works from exhibition at the 1987 Moscow International Book Fair — this, in the era of Gorbachev's glasnost when even Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago is finally being published in the land of its birth. Sokolov's works are broadcast to the Soviet Union where they are heard by thousands. They also make the journey in other ways. A recent issue of a Soviet film magazine contained a picture of a young screen idol being interviewed in his apartment. On the book-lined shelves in back of him, a Sokolov novel was (in)discreetly in view. In private conversation the better-read, "official" writers speak of him admiringly, and in 1981 the editorial board of the "unofficial" Leningrad literary magazine Chasy awarded Sokolov's second novel, the arcane Between Dog and Wolf, its annual Andrei Bely prize.
Sokolov has achieved his present enviable reputation in slightly over a decade without the international political scandals, best-sellerdom, and popular film versions that attended Pasternak's tragic love story and Solzhenitsyn's grim camp expose. Unlike these works, both traditional realistic novels, A School for Fools is a quiet, intimately personal book written in the spirit of high modernism. Pasternak's and Solzhenitsyn's novels are a continuation of the great nineteenth-century Russian literary tradition; Sokolov's marks the beginning of a new one.
A School for Fools is a journey through the mental landscape of a nameless, schizophrenic adolescent which he relates with the assistance of an author figure who may be the boy's older self. Througl the kaleidoscopic prism of the teenager's schizoid mind, we share his bizarre perceptions and attempts to come to terms with the surrounding world. The boy, who refers to himself as "we", perceives himself and several other characters as two distinct but related persons, each with his or her own name. Much of the narrative is an interior dialogue between the two halves of the boy's mind, or interior monologues ostensibly directed toward often unidentified characters. Nor can the boy perceive time, or events in time, in any fixed order; past, present, and future are random and intermixed. These aberrations determine the unorthodox form of the novella. There is, in the ordinary sense, no plot, but rather an ever swirling verbal collage.
The novella's characters, who flicker in and out of the boy's imagination, are aligned with the two halves of his personality. The main voice is that of his free fantasy, his delusions; the other, lesser voice is that of rationality which constantly intrudes, hectors, and accuses the first voice of fabrication, both trivial and fundamental. One character grouping represents the repressive, institutionalized forces of society that constrain the freedom and creativity of the individual. These include the boy's prosecutor father; Dr. Zauze, the psychiatrist; and Perillo and Sheina Trachtenberg, the school officials. All are creatures of the city. The positive characters, Norvegov and the Acatovs, are all associated with nature and the summer settlement in the Moscow countryside. They are the characters of spontaneity and freedom. It is Norvegov who counsels the boy to "live in the wind."
Most of the characters are "doubles" who exist in two variants, although they are not always easily identifiable. Pavel, who is also Savl, i.e., Paul/Saul, takes his dual name from the iconoclastic Biblical figure. A more obscure pairing is Vela's scientist father, Arcady Acatov, who appears in many scenes as Leonardo da Vinci, scientist and artist. Mikheev, the elderly postman whose beard streams behind him as he rides his bicycle, is also Medvedev, and, perhaps, the legendary "Sender of the Wind." The villainess, Deputy Principal Sheina Trachtenberg, often appears as the witch Tinbergen. Each of these "doubles," projections of the boy's schizophrenia, is a complex blending of elements from life and the boy's imagination.
A School for Fools can be read as a socio-political indictment, but this is far too narrow an interpretation. Russian literature has a tradition, largely associated with Dostoevsky, that links rationalism with political tyranny and artistic sterility. The irrational, on the other hand, is identified with social and political freedom, and artistic creativity.
Madness, the most extreme manifestation of the irrational (at least in its romanticized, fictional representation), permits Sokolov's hero freedom from drab, institutionalized reality. His madness and "selective memory" even free him from the laws of time. The hero can simultaneously be a snotty-nosed, crazy schoolboy and a suave graduate engineer courting Veta in his own car. Death, along with all else, becomes problematic. Norvegov can be simultaneously alive and dead. The boy and his idol Norvegov pay a high price for their freedom, however, since it puts them in conflict with society. Sokolov is a brilliant stylist, a language-obsessed writer, who revels in witty, elegant word play. His novella is a whirlwind of language and sound that shapes the narrative and rushes it along. This irrational, free, creative force of nature is embodied in the mythic figure of the "Sender of the Wind" which inspires and defends the positive characters and threatens havoc on their enemies. Norvegov, its prophet, is nicknamed the "winddriver" and the "windvane." His schoolgirl mistress is the mortally ill Rosa Windova. The name of the boy's beloved Veta poetically derives from the Russian word for wind, veter, as do the names and sobriquets of all of the affirmative characters. They are quite literally "children of the wind" who emerge from the verbal hurricane of the novella's stream of consciousness passages. Such poetic devices are the essence of Sokolov's literary style.
Sokolov was born in 1943 in Ottawa, Canada where his father, Major Vsevolod Sokolov, was attached to the Commercial Counsellor's section of the Soviet Embassy. In fact, Major (later General) Sokolov was deputy head of the intelligence network that passed U.S. atomic secrets on to Moscow. Expelled from Canada, the Sokolov family returned to Moscow where their dreamy son drifted through an unsatisfactory career in the public schools. After graduation the teenage Sokolov worked briefly as a morgue attendant and lathe operator before entering the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in 1962. This educational venture ended in brief stays in jail for being AWOL and then in a mental hospital as a ploy to be discharged from his military obligation. His favorite rehearsed delusions, that he was an unex-ploded bomb or a taut drum with internal Aeolian harp strings, were fine metaphors for a developing writer. The ploy was successful. Sokolov had been extremely fortunate that an ill-fated attempt to cross the Soviet-Iranian border on foot had not been detected. In the mid-sixties Sokolov was part of Moscow's literary bohemia, before entering the journalism department at Moscow State University in 1967. Receiving his degree in 1971, Sokolov took a job as a game warden in a hunting preserve on the remote upper Volga. It was here that he wrote A School for Fools, although there was little hope of publishing such an avant-garde, stylistic tour de force in the USSR. Rather than submit the work to a Soviet publisher, Sokolov adopted the dangerous course of sending the manuscript abroad. While the novel was making its way toward publication abroad, Sokolov renewed his efforts to leave the Soviet Union. The interest of the KGB had been aroused by inquiries at the Canadian Embassy about Sokolov's possible citizenship. Matters came to a head when Sokolov and the Austrian girl who had taken his manuscript abroad decided to marry. The issue of Sokolov's mental health was raised again, and his parents signed a document disavowing his actions. Other authorities entered the picture.
If the writer were not in fact mentally indisposed, he still faced completion of his military obligation. When the fiancee returned home to Austria for a visit, she was barred from reentering Moscow. The couple decided to stage a well-publicized hunger strike: the bride-to-be in Vienna, and the groom in front of the Palace of Weddings in Moscow. Through the intercession of Austrian Chancellor Kreisky with Leonid Brezhnev, Sokolov was permitted to leave the USSR.
Sokolov emigrated in 1975. In response to an invitation from his publishers, Carl and Ellendea Proffer, the co-founders of Ardis Press, he arrived in North America where his Canadian citizenship was soon confirmed. While still in Russia, Sokolov had conceived a novel based on a murder he had heard about on the remote upper Volga. Between Dog and Wolf (1980) is a novel of startling originality, difficulty and daring. Its Russian title-idiom refers to twilight when the normally distinct becomes blurred, if not indistinguishable. Between Dog and Wolf, which has some claim to being the Finnegans Wake of Russian literature, was a quantum leap in Sokolov's literary development.
Sokolov, who had taught in Russian language summer programs in rural Vermont, found it an appealing place and settled there hi 1981. There he wrote his thud novel, Pali-sandria (1985). Known in English as Astrophobia, it is a comic, picaresque work that lampoons many popular genres.
Although too much the atopical, recherche stylist to attract a mass audience, Sokolov is the most critically acclaimed of the younger Russian prose writers to come to the fore in the late seventies and eighties. Together with his fellow emigre, poet Joseph Brodsky, the 1987 Nobel Laureate, Sokolov is writing a new chapter in the history of Russian literature. - D. Barton Johnson

This novel by Sokolov was a favorite of Vladimir Nabakov’s—but those picking up the new translation by Alexander Boguslawski could be forgiven for wondering what they’re reading. It’s not a matter of being unreadable; it’s a matter of the book seemingly not wanting to be read, at least at face value. The narrator no sooner begins to speak of his youth in the Russian countryside than he is interrupted by another narrator who calls the first’s recollections into doubt and offers competing characterizations of the townsfolk, effectively creating a double novel full of classical allusions and odd digressions. The story, as such, concerns the first narrator’s enrollment in the “school for fools” in “the Land of the Lonely Goatsucker,” where he either does or does not romance Veta Arkadievna, the comely botany teacher, does or does not conform to the principal’s strange new dress code, and does or does not discover a prophetic story called “The Carpenter in the Desert,” depending which narrator you believe. An expertly researched collection of endnotes clarifies that A School for Fools is a monument to wordplay on the scale of Finnegans Wake, rife with double meanings that invoke Russian history, culture, and literature while condemning the Soviet censors who had imprisoned Sokolov and forced him to smuggle this heavily coded—but brilliant—novel of ecstatic absurdity out of the U.S.S.R. In the end, the “fools” of the title are those who deny the joyful multiplicity of this novel. - Publishers Weekly

Sokolov did not even try to publish this novel in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s and it was first published in Russian in the United States. It is easy to see why the Soviet Union would not allow him to publish. It is a very modernist work, more in the style of Joyce and Faulkner than that of any Soviet author. It is narrated by a young man who has psychological troubles and who is looking back two years to the time when he was in a special school. There is no linear plot but, rather, a mosaic of impressions of his life, his trouble with authority (his parents and teachers), his love of nature and his search for identity, which he often discusses with an alter ego. It is a very poetical work, whose reputation has continued in Russia and the West. -

“Sokolov’s A School for Fools should be considered one of the finest 20th-century Russian novels.” —Harvey Pekar, The Washington Post

“If Joyce had written the last chapter of Ulysses in Russian it would have sounded like this." —Vladimir Markov

“Sokolov is one of those rare novelists whose primary concern is the praise and exploration of a language rather than the development of a position. In this, he is in the line of Gogol, Lermontov, Nabokov. ‘For me, the Bible says it: The Word is God,’ Sokolov says, ‘and God is more important than life.’ ” —David Remnick, The Washington Post

“An enchanting, tragic, and touching work.” —Vladimir Nabokov

“[A School for Fools] will undoubtedly come to be recognized as one of the great classics of Russian prose.” —Newsweek

“The voice is amazingly sensitive and imaginative, gloriously lucid of language and full of broad comedy and whimsical wit. For all its gloominess, this strange novel is a celebration of life.” —The Washington Post

“A lyrical vision of extraordinary intensity. Sokolov is an astounding new voice.” —Chicago Daily News

“A puzzling and wonderful book. The novel is an anti-authoritarian statement, a compassionate cry for understanding of those who are different, the nonconformists of any society who must find their own way.” —The Kansas City Star

“One of the most original and talented works to emerge from the Soviet Union in many years.” —The Times Literary Supplement

This new novel from Soviet Russia, Sokolov's first, is in the tradition of digressive tales with delightful irrelevancies, with the narrator (in this case an anonymous mental defective) forever commenting on and intervening in the narrative, making much of his freedom, particularly his independence from the fetters of time. A story line gradually emerges from the lyrical chain of digressions. But one remembers more the texture, individual scenes, and descriptions than this thin tale.
One character stands out from the rest -- the geographer Pavel Petrovich Norvegov. This rebellious pedagogue dies early in the book, then returns and returns again from the dead, as the narrator's mind interweaves fantasy and apparent reality. For the narrator, death isn't real or final; the local river is Lethe; and just on the other bank of the river, in a summer dacha, lives his much loved teacher who apparently died. Time, too, plays a part in these multiple resurrections; for, to the narrator, time is unpredictable and discontinuous and moves forward and backward with equal ease. But time and death, forever denied, lurk in the background, forever present, forever disturbing, regardless of the narrator's tricks of mind and memory. The narrator collects butterflies (a la Nabokov). But the landscape he perceives is populated not just by ordinary butterflies, but also by strange and beautiful creatures, such as "winter butterflies" (cf. Salinger's banana fish) never before catalogued, or even perceived, that thrive in winter, just as Norvegov seems to thrive in death, sitting casually on the basks of Lethe. As the title seems to imply, this book has touches of realism and satire. Although the events are forever covered with doubt (did they happen or were they dreamt up by the not so reliable narrator?), the rules, the prohibitions, and the expectations to which the characters and/or figments of the book react remain constant and real, almost as real as death. An image of country life in Russia (a far different Russia from that of Turgenev) emerges through the pattern of everyday impediments that the characters encounter and take for granted. For instance, they have to put up with long waits for common necessary items, like clothing and even cloth, forever in short supply. They wait in long lines at stores to sign up, then wait months for the goods to arrive. They have to plan ahead meticulously (rather like the poor clerk in Gogol's "Overcoat") every such purchase. But these obstacles arise not form individual poverty, but rather from the general shortages and inefficient procedures of the state-run economy. The tone is only rarely political. More often, the satire touches on foible of human nature, and the tone is apparently lighthearted and lyrical. In the midst of a description or anecdote, the narrator suddenly picks an apparently irrelevant detail to expound and elaborate upon, leading the reader on a merry chase in and out and around the country town, the school for mental defectives, and the lives of the strange folk who live there. But the indirect speeches of Norvegov provide a different, more serious, bitter type of satire, highlighted by the general good humor and digressive chatter. This is satire without specific objects of attack. The implication is that something is fundamentally wrong with society as it now stands, but that there is no way of putting one's finger on this or that, that there is no way that reforms here and there could make any real difference. Rather, Norvegov emphasizes with the wind and the whirlwind (almost in the style of an Old Testament prophet.) "And if you are ever called a wind-driver, -- said Norvegov, rattling the box of matches he had found so loudly it could be heard all over the school, -- don't feel offended: that's not such a bad thing. For what do I fear in the face of eternity if today a wind ruffles my hair, freshens my face, puffs the sleeves of my shirt, blows through my packets and tears at the buttons on my jacket, but tomorrow -- destroys the unneeded old buildings, rips out oaks by the roots, stirs and swells the reservoirs and scatters the seeds of my garden all across the earth, -- what do I fear, geographer Pavel Norvegov, an honest suntanned man from suburban zone five, a modest pedagogue, but one who knows his business, whose skinny but nonetheless commanding hand turns the hollow globe made of paper-mache from morning to night! Give me time -- I'll shoe you which of us is right, some day I'll give your lazy squeaky ellipsoid such a whirl that your rivers will back up, you'll forget your false books and newspapers, your own voices, names, and ranks will make you vomit, you will forget how to read and write, you will want to babble and whisper like aspen leaves in August. An angry crosswind will blast away the names of your streets and back alleys and asinine signs, and you will want the truth. You lousy cockroach tribe! You brainless Panurgian herd, crawling with bedbugs and flies! You will want the great truth. And then I will come. I will come and bring with me the ones you have murdered and humiliated and I will say: this is your truth for you and retribution against you. From horror and sorrow the obsequious pus that pollutes the blood in your veins will turn into ice. Fear The Sender of Wind, you sovereigns of cities and dachas, cower before the breezes and crosswinds, they engender hurricanes and tornadoes. I tell you this, I, geographer of the fifth suburban zone, the man who turns the vacuous cardboard globe. And saying this, I take eternity as my witness - isn't that right, my youthful assistants, my dear contemporaries and colleagues, isn't that right?"  - Richard Seltzer

As I read this book I was reminded of a formative time in my life. I had left university only to become ill and as I waited for an operation I spent my time reading and watching films on television. One of the books I read was One Hundred Years of Solitude and so began my love of magic realism. One of the films I watched was Tarkovsky's film The Mirror. I was in the right state of mind for both book and film. I had time. I was willing to let go of expectations and experience these remarkable works of art. The experience was almost a mystical one.  A School for Fools reminds me of Tarkovsky's film. Maybe this is partly because of its non-linear structure, the poetry, the disorientation, the slowness even, the focus on a young man growing up. It also reminds me of these things because you have to be in the right state of mind. I am not sure I was/am in the right "zone" to really appreciate the book. Perhaps the pressure of having to read and review a book a week for this blog played against me. The book is complex and full of symbols and not by any means an easy read. Nevertheless I was able to appreciate much of what it had to offer, if not fully enjoy it. 

At the centre of the novel is the narrator, or should I say two narrators, because the book's central character is a young man with schizophrenia and two distinct personalities, Pavel and Savl (Paul and Saul of the Bible), and the narration flicks between them in a sort of internal or possibly external dialogue. But the duality of the book doesn't stop there as we see the world through Pavel's eyes and find that other characters have two personifications. 
Pavel also has a problem with linear time and the narrative jumps backwards and forewards  without warning. Pavel can be at once a schoolboy at a special school (the school for fools of the title) and a successful engineer wooing a woman. I took that to mean he is at once the schoolboy and what he should have been. This is psychological magic realism of the first order.
Other elements of magic realism include the butterflies Pavel collects, which appear in the winter as well as in the summer. The schoolteacher and the boy's idol, the inhabitant of a dacha on the other side of the river, is able to be both alive and dead.  The river is identified by Pavel as the river Lethe. 
With so many magic realism books to read I seldom allow myself the luxury of saying that I intend to read a book again, but I do want to return to this book. I will do so when the time is right and my mind is able to fully grasp the book's brilliance. 

Sasha Sokolov, In the House of the Hanged- Essays and Vers, Trans. by Alexander Boguslawski, University of Toronto Press, 2012.
read it at Google Books

Arguably the most important living Russian writer, Sasha Sokolov is an acknowledged literary master. Widely admired for his ability to elevate prose to the level of poetry, he is also known for his craftsmanship and phenomenal use of language. Until now, however, English-speaking audiences have only had access to a few of his acclaimed works — novels A School for Fools (1977) and Astrophobia (1989), and the essay ‘The Anxious Pupa.’ In The House of the Hanged features the first-ever translation of thirteen of Sokolov's major essays and free verses.
Exploring universal truths concerning language, the role of the artist, talent, and virtuosity, these texts provide key insight into the development of Sokolov's shorter forms. Each is accompanied by explanatory notes and an annotated index developed by Alexander Boguslawski in conjunction with Sokolov himself. These serve to contextualize Sokolov's Russian cultural and linguistic references, and allow worldwide audiences to enjoy his astounding erudition, wit, curiosity, and ever-developing talent.


Sasha Sokolov, Astrophobia, Trans. by Michael Henry Heim, Grove Weidenfeld, 1989.                      

"There is no other book in Russian Literature that is perfect stylistically and conceptually, and is capable of simultaneously arousing a lucky reader in the middle of the night and making him laugh as loud as never before; and marvelling at the true wisdom of some or maybe all of the statements in the book... The Nobel-worthy Palisandria by Sasha Sokolov is a pleasure to read, unlike the overrated pompous loads by such bores as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn. Sokolov finally shows that you do not have to sport a mass of facial hair and preach about Russian "soul" to be truly a writer of genius." (

"An enchanting, tragic, and touching work." - VLADIMIR NABOKOV

"A book of rare depth, ...wildly funny and oddly fascinating and sad; it is the sort of book you feel sorry to close after the last page." - TATYANA TOLSTAYA

"It will undoubtedly come to be recognized as one of the great classics of Russian prose." — Newsweek

"The voice is amazingly sensitive and imaginative, gloriously lucid of language and full of broad comedy and whimsical wit." — The Washington-Post Book World

"Sokolov [is] already, on the strength of A School for Fools, assured of a place in the pantheon of twentieth-century Russian literature... He is a prose poet who combines, to a rare degree, linguistic precision, imaginative boldness, and wit in its profounder sense—the intellectual faculty that directs a penetrating, pencil-thin shaft of light on that elusive point where absurdity and sadness meet." — Voice Literary Supplement

"A lyrical vision of extraordinary intensity..." — Chicago Daily News

With their exploded sense of time and space and one-dimensional characterization, these postmodern "memoirs" of a 21st-century Soviet leader are purely Russian in temperament, although the author's inventive use of language is uniquely his own. The narrator, Palisander Dahlberg, is raised in an orphanage inside the Kremlin walls, a warm, enveloping womb of a place that even includes a whorehouse for residents. There Palisander becomes privy to every change of Soviet leadership from Stalin to Andropov. Still a young man, he is persuaded by Yuri Andropov to make an attempt (abortive) on Brezhnev's life. Briefly imprisoned, he escapes to the mythical country of Belvedere, where he ends up in an insane asylum and is revealed to be a hermaphrodite. By the close of the novel, Palisander/a has been recalled to the Soviet Union and mysteriously made chief. Sokolov ( A School for Fools ) seems to lose interest in his "art for art's sake" narrative midway through. Once Palisander leaves the Soviet Union, the rollicking pace collapses and the novel turns into a directionless farce. But readers will be amused by the author's Alice-through-the-looking-glass depiction of a top-heavy Soviet bureaucracy. - Publishers Weekly

Russian emigre Sokolov here offers the purported memoirs of a Russian head of state who knows (or is related to) almost everybody. Most notable for its rich Rabelaisian style, the book's farcical indulgences can be hilarious or merely hysterical. Palisander Dahlberg writes from the year 2044. Related to Beria and Rasputin, favorite of Stalin and Andropov and a sort of Kremlin mascot, he is told by ""Uncle Nikita"" that he is ""a hard nut to crack. But born to lead."" And the story that follows glories in its implausibility, ""a stream-of-consciousness of words,"" a frowned-upon ""freethinking lyricism"": the self-mocking Dahlberg writes his memoirs even as he lampoons the genre with skilled strokes and deprecation. After the death of Stalin (in which he plays a minor role), he is sent as steward to The New Virgin, a Government Massage Parlor, and the ensuing anecdotal parade of picaresque episodes includes a good deal of sexual bravado and intrigue. Dahlberg also meets Beckett (who expostulates on the worthlessness of Godot); tries to shoot Brezhnev (puncturing a wax figure instead): and survives jail to write his Prison Diary (""another House of the Dead? . .Yes, another Dostoevsky!"" a critic exults) and to become a celebrity and self-publicist (he also writes Proustian Reminiscences of Old Age). The chronicle turns capricious as Dahlberg meets C.J. Jung, ""Baul Sellow,"" and the diabolical Princess Majorette, among others, before ending ""tastelessly and slowly,"" lost among ""the inevitable foliage of neither-here-nor-there literature."" At best, a paean to vibrancy and to life (""Long live existence!"") worthy of Falstaff; but also too often impressed with its own excess. - Kirkus Reviews

A magnificent translation of Sokolov's Palisandriia (1985), this novel by a leading avant-garde Russian emigre writer (the next Nabokov?) is a literary parody written with great wit and luxurious verbal texture. It is a mock-memoir by high-born orphan Palisander, who is banished from the Kremlin for a prank that killed Stalin, then imprisoned for an assassination attempt on Brezhnev, exiled by Andropov, and, finally, returns as leader of Russia in 1999, all the while carrying on a sexual campaign against elderly women. Sokolov works with several subtexts and themes--including time, death, and sex--and the text brims with literary allusions. He spoofs both pornography and dissident writing on Soviet history, trivializing the terrors as he describes instead the imagined domestic and sex lives of the leaders. With its total irreverence for fact, chronology, and credibility, the book is ultimately very funny. - Ulla Sweedler

Sasha Sokolov is a--many believe, the --leading voice of Russian prose today. In what has amounted to a passing of the lyre, Nabokov called Sokolov's first novel, "A School for Fools," an "enchanting, tragic and touching book." One wonders, however, whether Nabokov (who once dismissed Pasternak's "Zhivago" as the "adventures of a sentimental doctor") would have been as charitable to the threateningly consummate "Astrophobia."
The widely translated "School for Fools" is the definitive classic of Soviet "youth prose," narrated (with the possible help of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury") by the "we" of a schizophrenic adolescent. Sokolov's second novel, "Between Dog and Wolf," a surrealist variation on "village prose," may prove as untranslatable as "Finnegan's Wake." "Astrophobia," his third and latest, is probably his "Petersburg" (the 1915 novel by the James Joyce of Russian modernism, Andrei Bely).
"Astrophobia" also is a hilariously shocking book. Tongue in cheek, Sokolov reinvents all recent and not-so-recent Russian history. He writes against the background of the Soviet literary antipodes and revels in playing the official pole against the dissident. For example, since Solzhenitsyn's "First Circle," many have tried their hand at portraying Stalin.
Sokolov presents us with a likable Uncle Joseph who dies in a prank played by the children of the Kremlin elite, among them the narrator. They hide his dachshund, "the faithful Russland," in his wardrobe and scramble up the stove. "The unsuspecting Joseph . . . shuffled to the wardrobe. . . . The Baskerville hound leaped out and onto his liberator's chest. 'It's an ambush!'. . ." The Generalissimo's aorta burst. "A comet, flashing across the window like a murky eye, underscored the fatality of the event." The children, "feeling . . . guilt without blame" for "the crime of the century," were severely punished--"with exile and the camps: . . . the Artek in the Crimea, . . . the spa at Piatigorsk from (Lermontov's) 'A Hero of Our Time' "
All this, of course, is sheer blasphemy against the pieties of de-Stalinization: Uncle Joseph parades as liberator and victim, and the exiles go to elitist resorts and to scout, not concentration, camps. Yet the madcap subversion of dissident discourse is subtly reconciled with one of its mainstays: Stalin dies of paranoid fear.
The episode is fashioned out of purely literary props. Lermontov and Conan Doyle are only two of the many intertextual strings strummed by the narrator. The ominous comet and the stove (in the famous Kutuzov hut) come from "War and Peace," while "Guilt Without Blame" is the title of a classic Russian melodrama, aptly coupled here with the tabloid "crime of the century."
The "faithful Russland" is borrowed--and brazenly demoted to dachshund--from a dissident tale about a ruthless German shepherd, symbol of the Gulag era. (The dog's name has been skillfully altered by the translator, who also has thrown in the Baskerville connection to compensate for the Russian allusions. Michael Henry Heim, the translator of Chekhov, Kundera and Aksyonov, has created an eminently readable English counterpart of the formidable original.)
If the Baskerville dachshund is a queer bird, so is everything else in these pseudo-memoirs from the 21st Century, i.e. literally from beyond history. In a true post-modernist spirit, "Astrophobia" is a novel about the retrospective compatibility of all of history's vagaries and verbalizations.
The cumulative effect of "Astrophobia" resembles Komar and Melamid's painting, "Comrade Stalin and the Muses," in which the socialist-realist Stalin, generalissimo uniform and all, is waited upon by classicist muses in fluttering gowns. But Sokolov goes them one better. His narrator Palisander--a Kremlin orphan, Stalin's involuntary and Brezhnev's unsuccessful assassin, seducer of Madame Brezhnev, prolific literary genius, and final ruler of Russia, His Eternity--combines Stalin and the muses in one person.
This pivotal fusion is rooted in the master myth of Russian literature: the opposition/equation of poet and czar (a Romantic notion perpetuated in Russia by literature's role as the shadow government). On the solemn side, it has resulted in the celebrated martyrology of Russian writers; on the carnivalesque, in Gogol's and Dostoevsky's menagerie of obsessive graphomaniacs, mad or feather-brained impostors, grand as well as petty inquisitors, and other verbal would-be saviors of Russia.
Sokolov's treatment of this myth owes its success to a cross-breeding with another literary species: the decadents, sex maniacs and monsters of Romantic and Modernist art. The identity of Palisander remains mysteriously protean to the end. He is child and adult, male and female, beauty and beast. Indeed, in previous incarnations he was a horse (Catherine the Great's lover) and a tree (palisander, i.e. rosewood). In this life, he is an indefatigable lover of decrepit old ladies--an inverted Humbert Humbert of "Lolita" fame. Like a reptilian Dracula, Palisander lives in a moveable tub, whence he reigns over Russia's lands and letters.
Palisander's polymorphism fleshes out what otherwise would have remained a purely cerebral mock-remythologizing of the Stalinist past. The ambiguous ideological cross between the Kremlin and its critics also gives rise to a corresponding stylistic hybrid: a stunning patchwork of official idioms (revolutionary, military, imperial) and a panoply of alien, "un-Soviet" discourses (those of the czarist ancien regime, of the aesthetic, somewhat precious revival of the 1900s, of the dissident movement and emigration, of the libertarian and libertine, porno-decadent West, etc.), all de- and re-flated at the same time in an exuberant celebration of writing as such.
But the narrator's verbal prowess is more than matched by his picaresque exploits. The plot strings together a series of Oedipal relationships with major political families (especially elaborate are the triangles with the Brezhnevs and the czar's descendants--Anastasia and her husband--in their European castle).
The ensuing conflicts take Palisander to prison (a famous monastery turned Kremlin massage parlor), to exile (where he fails to marry into the Romanov dynasty but succeeds in helping Samuel Beckett phrase the arrival of Godot and in winning two Nobel Prizes--one for literature and one for his hermaphrodite- rights crusade), and, finally, like a Ulysses or a Lenin, back to Russia (with a trainload of the remains of Russian emigres, in a motif rife with cultural connotations).
The Russo-American bond, as symbolized by Nabokov's dual literary citizenship, reflects the basic complementarity of the two cultures, one purveying, the other thriving on immigrants. Like a constellation of other literati, Sokolov followed his text to the West ("A School for Fools" was published by Ardis in 1976). For more than a decade, he earned his living (at one time as a ski instructor, not unlike Nabokov, who in leaner years taught tennis) and wrote in Canada and the United States.
When "Astrophobia" first came out in 1985, there was no hope of a Soviet publication. But under glasnost, Sokolov's two previous books now have appeared in Russia and, in a twist rare in recent history but actually forecast in "Astrophobia," the exiled writer himself has tentatively moved back to Moscow.
Yet despite the acclaim he receives in the Soviet media, "Astrophobia" remains unpublished. It is not so much a matter of censorship (both anti-Communism and sex being perfectly welcome now) as of chronological order: Before post-something you must have the thing itself. To paraphrase Lenin about capitalism, Russia suffers not from modernism but from the insufficient development thereof. Like many other "isms" in Russia, Sokolov's post-modernism probably will have to ring twice.
But here, where history is over, "Astrophobia" is available, in an excellent translation, and we have world enough and time to enjoy it. - Alexander Zholkovsky

Sasha Sokolov's satirical novel, ''Astrophobia,'' is a story by a Soviet emigre that is caught in a time warp and self-immolated by heavy-handed humor. At a moment when readers are receptive to newly liberated fiction from the Gorbachev era, the author concentrates on the familiar excesses of Leonid I. Brezhnev and other post-Stalin leaders, who turn up as characters in his novel. They were dull in real life and remain leaden on the page.
To make things difficult for himself, Mr. Sokolov has a biographer from 700 years in the future look back on the epic career of a man named Palisander Dahlberg in the year 2044. Pretentiously, the author has Palisander keep referring back to the 1960's and 70's, when Mr. Sokolov lived in the Soviet Union before emigrating in 1975. All this insures that the reader who goes the distance will be confused by the anachronisms.
By contrast, in recent years some of the cleverest Russian writers, without leaving their country, have also placed their stories in the future but called their social criticism science fiction. When something rotten was happening in Moscow, they pretended that it was taking place on Mars or some invented planet, thereby evading the censor. Of course, their readers got the message. Among the finest practitioners of the Soviet sci-fi genre are the Strugatsky brothers, Arkady and Boris, whose novels include ''Aliens, Travelers and Other Strangers'' and ''Escape Attempt.''
To complicate matters, Palisander is supposedly the great-nephew of Stalin's harsh comrade in arms Lavrenti P. Beria and grandson of Rasputin, the monk who exercised control over the household of Czar Nicholas II. Palisander has a meteoric rise to become head of state, mainly because of his sexual prowess with the wives of the high and mighty. At the same time, he gains favor with the Kremlin leaders by providing them with the services of the Government Massage Parlor, of which he is chief steward.
Mr. Sokolov's descriptions of what goes on there are neither amusing nor erotic because he is too busy trying to be cute in his choice of substitute words for sex. Pity poor Michael Henry Heim, who translated the book from the Russian and who must make sense of such sexy sentences as, ''Sybariting it up, I see.''
The cast of characters includes most of the post-Stalin premiers, presidents and K.G.B. bosses. But among the names thrown about by the author - even though they do not have speaking roles - are Ho Chi Minh, Jacqueline Onassis, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sigmund Freud and Fidel Castro. The joke is on Mr. Castro here; while he is one of the privileged foreigners entitled to use the Government Massage Parlor, the women laugh at his physicality.
In one of the silliest passages in the novel - for no particular reason other than name-dropping - the author creates a conversation with Samuel Beckett. The dialogue is embarrassing, and I bet it is just as bad in the original Russian. Beckett is quoted as saying, ''You may call me Samuel,'' and, at lunchtime, ''How about having a bite?'' Beckett talks about his play ''Waiting for Godot'': ''Tired of being surprised. Tired of Godot's no-show behavior and of audiences and characters naively believing he's on the way. Tired of waiting for him with them.'' Then Palisander helps him rewrite lines from ''Godot,'' for which Beckett expresses his gratitude: '' 'Better,' said Samuel. 'Much better.
I'll redo it. I promise.' ''
Mr. Sokolov must also think highly of his corny puns and name games because he uses so many. For example, he has Saul Bellow write a foreword to Palisander's book, ''The Life and Times of a Great-Nephew.'' He identifies him as ''Baul Sellow, editor of Callboy.''
John Dryden, the 17th-century poet laureate, wrote that the true end of satire was the amendment of vices, but that claim cannot be proved by this shallow attempt to expose the vices of the old Communist Party princes. According to a jacket note, Mr. Sokolov now divides his time among Canada, Vermont and the Greek islands and is the author of a highly praised first novel, ''A School for Fools.'' If nothing else, ''Astrophobia'' proves that despite his reputation and the great literary tradition of his former country, even a Russian author can sometimes be clumsy. - HERBERT MITGANG
Elena Kravchenko, The Prose of Sasha Sokolov: Reflections On/Of the Real, Modern Humanities Research Association, 2013.

Hailed as one of the most significant writers in contemporary Russian literature, Sasha Sokolov (1943-) nevertheless remains one of its most hermetic. Despite a considerable scholarly interest in his work, no comprehensive book-length study has yet been published on Sokolov. With the focus on his three main texts, 'School for Fools', 'Between Dog and Wolf' and 'Palisandriia', this groundbreaking monograph is an exploration of Sokolov's aesthetics in which language is shown to embody reality, rather than express it. In her study Elena Kravchenko invites us to examine how language and art affect our perception of the real that, fading away into its reflections, finds its essence. Elena Kravchenko is an independent researcher, whose doctoral thesis (School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, UCL) laid a foundation for this monograph.

Sasha Sokolov is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding Russian prose writers of today. Each of his novels reveals an almost completely different aspect of his talent. In the first, Shkola dlia durakov (A School for Fools), he shows most clearly the influence of Nabokov, in depicting with delicate grace the confused yet poetic world of a schizophrenic youth in a special school near Moscow. Recalling his life some two years earlier, the 20-year-old hero/ narrator reveals his thoughts and aspirations via a stream of consciousness, sometimes in dialogue with his alter ego, sometimes reflective, and sometimes imaginative. The main themes arising from this subtle and sensitive mind’s rambling discourse are: the boundaries between madness and sanity; adolescent cravings (identity, status, and sex); the selectivity of memory that characterizes madness, and related to it, the elusiveness of conventional time—the absence of conventional chronology, like the blurred differences between life and death, is both a thematic element and at the same time a fundamental structural element. Close attention is demanded of the reader wishing to disentangle every strand, but the lyrical atmosphere and the narrator’s whimsical charm are always evident, and the complexity never seems forced. A School for Fools is a psychological and stylistic tour de force which may well prove to be Sokolov’s masterpiece.
His second novel, Mezhdu sobakoi i volkom [Between Dog and Wolf], has been described by the leading Sokolov scholar D. Barton Johnson as ”a quantum leap, leaving behind many . . . readers.” The thin and sometimes unclear line between reality and fantasy of A School for Fools is here completely lost. Written in a mixture of poetry and prose, the novel is set in a godforsaken part of the Upper Volga region where crippled, deranged, and deformed people lead lives of physical squalor and spiritual emptiness. The story, which appears to retell the Oedipus legend in an obscure and grotesque form, is of adventures, jealousy, revenge, love, murder, and other extremes of behaviour. But with the boundary between life and death being eroded, causality reduced to the point of disappearance, and time erratic and unpredictable, it requires close reading and considerable detective work to unravel a text whose complexity appears to have defied all translators. An important part of the book comprises discursive, barely literate letters to the public prosecutor by the (probably dead) hero Il’ia and 37 poems by his son (and, possibly, murderer) Iakov, mainly comprising parodies of the great early 19th-century classics, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol’.
As always with Sokolov, language and style are paramount, philosophical and moral ideas minimal. In this he is an untypical Russian writer, but his mastery of native, uncorrupted, almost folkloric Central Russian vocabulary and style for the main narration, the half-literate passion of the letters, and the parodic verse all reveal a dark but powerful and original talent. Critical rapture has been modified, but the Leningrad samizdat journal Chasy acclaimed Mezhdu sobakoi i volkom ”the best prose of 1981.”
Sokolov’s third novel, Palisandriia (Astrophobia), unlike its two predecessors, does have an overt plot, but its purpose seems to be to link a series of wild and colourful episodes rather than to pursue a credible or consistent story or, indeed, to develop a strong idea. Ostensibly produced in the year 2757 by a biographer-cum-editor, it consists of the picaresque memoirs of Palisandr Dal’berg, a grand-nephew of Beriia and great-grandson of Rasputin, who is heir apparent to the throne of Russia during Brezhnev’s reign. His life comprises a series of erotic and political adventures, as the narrator, an oversexed hermaphrodite, bald, seven-fingered, and cross-eyed, rampages around the Kremlin, Moscow, and later Europe, indulging his necrophiliac passions (induced by rape as a child) and pursuing a successful career as a bisexual prostitute, pornographer, and Nobel prize-winning advocate of hermaphrodite rights, before collecting together the graves of all exiled Russians and returning home to assume his rightful place on the throne of Russia. -

Sasha Sokolov was born in Canada in 1943. His father, a high-ranking Soviet diplomat, was deported from Canada as a spy in 1946, and Sokolov grew up in the Soviet Union, where he studied journalism at Moscow State University. He made repeated attempts to escape from the USSR, for which he was briefly imprisoned, but after international protests, he was finally permitted to leave the country in 1975. That same year the manuscript of A School for Fools, his first novel, was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West to great acclaim. The recipient of the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize in 1981 and of the Pushkin Prize for literature in 1996, Sokolov is the author of the novels Astrophobia and Between Dog and Wolf and of a book of essays, In the House of the Hanged.


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