cover image A School for Fools

A School for Fools

Sasha Sokolov, trans. from the Russian by Alexander Boguslawski. New York Review Books, $14.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-59017-846-1

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. (May)