Shkola dlia durakov, 1976 (A School for Fools, 1977)
Mezhdu sobakoi i volkom, 1980
Palisandriia, 1984 (Astrophobia, 1989)
Sasha Aleksandr Vsevolodovich Sokolov (SUH-kohl-uhv) was the most critically acclaimed writer to appear on the Russian literary scene during the 1970’s and 1980’s. He was born in Ottawa, Canada, where his father was a Soviet military diplomat until forced to return to Moscow following an espionage scandal. There the young Sokolov drifted through an unsatisfactory career in the public schools before, in 1962, entering the Military Institute of Foreign Languages. Army life was not to his liking, and he ended first in jail for being absent without leave and then in a mental hospital as part of a ploy to gain his military discharge.
After a period living on the fringes of Moscow’s literary bohemia, Sokolov entered the journalism department at Moscow State University. Upon completing an internship on a provincial newspaper, he returned to the capital, where he worked for Literary Russia. When he received his university degree in 1971, Sokolov left Moscow for a job as a gamekeeper on the remote upper Volga. Here, over a two-year period, he completed A School for Fools, a modernist tour de force that then had little chance of appearing in the Soviet Union. Smuggled abroad with the help of an Austrian friend whom Sokolov subsequently married, the novella appeared in the United States in 1976. Growing out of Sokolov’s youthful encounters with Soviet institutions and the sheer dreariness and duplicity of Soviet life, the work depicts that world through the innocent eyes of its schizophrenic narrator, a student at a “special” school. Translated into several languages, A School for Fools became the only novel by a living Russian author to win the praise of Vladimir Nabokov.
While the novel was making its way toward publication abroad, Sokolov launched a campaign to emigrate, which brought him into conflict with the government. Following a hunger strike and extensive publicity, he was allowed to join his bride-to-be in Vienna in late 1975. One year later he arrived in North America, where he was able to claim his Canadian citizenship. While still in Russia, Sokolov had started a novel based upon an unsolved murder he had heard about during his years as a gamekeeper. Many critics considered Mezhdu sobakoi i volkom (between dog and wolf) a novel of startling originality and daring. Its metaphorical title refers to twilight, when the normally distinct becomes blurred. The plot emerges from the drunken narrator’s inability to distinguish between a real dog and wolf–a failure that results in his murder for the killing of a hunting dog. As a result of its structural and stylistic complexity, the novel gained much critical acclaim but few readers. The unofficial Leningrad journal Chasy awarded it its 1981 Andrey Bely Prize.
Sokolov has been peripatetic during his years in the United States and Canada. He held a variety of short-term jobs ranging from language teacher and radio writer to ski instructor in Vermont. He has also held grants from the Canadian government and has been Regents’ Lecturer at the University of California, as well as giving many literary readings and conference lectures, which are highly polished essays of great wit and charm.
Sokolov’s work was banned in the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, although it was known to literary cognoscenti through smuggled copies and radio broadcasts. With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Sokolov became recognized as a major literary figure in his homeland.
Sokolov’s third novel, Astrophobia, a radical departure from his earlier, more involuted work, is a comic, picaresque work that lampoons many popular genres: the sensational memoir, the political espionage thriller, the futurological fantasy, and the pornographic novel. Its hero(ine), the bizarre Palisander/Palisandra, recounts his/her life story from privileged Kremlin orphan to penniless exile, ending with a triumphant return to his/her rightful position as the ruler of Russia. The novel is parody raised to the level of high art.
A School for Fools is representative of Sokolov’s work. It is a first-person account of the mental landscape of a nameless, schizophrenic adolescent. There is little or no plot, and the work is composed of a small number of scenes that occur and recur in evolving variants. It is difficult to determine whether events occur in the past, present, or future, or whether they are real or imaginary. The boy’s disordered perceptions literally shape the language, the manner, and the content of the story, which deals with his attempts to come to terms with the elemental experiences of love, sex, and death in his small, oppressive universe. The novella progresses largely through a complex pattern of phonetic associations and recurrent images. The language is of great wit and beauty.
The central theme that runs throughout Sokolov’s novels is ambiguity. Traditional fiction, like life, rests on certain unconscious and unquestioned assumptions. Time is linear and is divided into past, present, and unknown future; it is constant for all. Memory recalls the past, not the future. People are either male or female, not both. Personal identity is fixed. Incest is avoided. One is either dead or alive. These assumptions are implicitly called into question in Sokolov’s novels. Everything takes place in a twilight zone where nothing is certain. Sokolov replaces the usual coordinates of existence with a richly woven web of words which arises from the world of the subconscious and replaces mundane reality. Sound texture and wordplay are the heart of his lyrical style, which tends to displace content. One critic has aptly remarked that Sokolov’s prose is not merely a stream of consciousness, but rather an inundation of consciousness.
The mainstream of Russian literature in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been realistic in form, socially and morally committed in content. Sokolov belongs to a brilliant, minor line in Russian literary history which was inaugurated by the modernist Andrey Bely in the early years of the twentieth century. That tradition, suppressed in the early years of the revolution in favor of a sturdy, simple-minded Socialist Realism, was reinvoked by Andrei Sinyavsky (as Abram Tertz), whose 1956 samizdat essay “On Socialist Realism” called for a “phantasmagoric art.” Sokolov’s work is the most brilliant response to Sinyavsky’s modernist imperative.