I thought it would never happen. No, there was no way Sasha Sokolov’s most impenetrable novel would be translated. Reading Between Dog and Wolf back in the 1990s made me reconsider the presumptuous notion that I “knew” the Russian language. Even with the assistance of the four volumes of a facsimile edition of Vladimir Dal’s Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language I was not always able to make out what was going on in this maverick masterpiece. What I was positive about, however, was the fact that for the first time in my life I saw the Russian language perform impossible tricks right before my eyes. Sasha Sokolov wasn’t just a writer – he was a magician, an alchemist creating his text by some secret crafts like a homunculus in a retort.
In my view, since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been four great Russian wordsmiths, and Sasha Sokolov is certainly one of them. The other three are Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Goldstein. These writers have shown that they could do with the language whatever they pleased, creating works of breathtaking stylistic complexity and sheer brilliance at the sentence level. It is worth noting that Nabokov welcomed Sokolov’s debut novel A School for Fools, calling it “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book”. We can regard Nabokov’s warm response as the symbolic gesture of an older grand stylist passing on the baton to a younger one. A School for Fools is an unconventional novel in many respects, but it doesn’t come even close to the runaway weirdness and verbal pyrotechnics of Between Dog and Wolf. Although this novel is obviously a parody of various styles and literary traditions, like all great works, it transcends the ludic element and breaks out into the sphere of the sublime.
The protagonist of the novel is an itinerant knife-grinder with the name as uncertain as the proverbial position of an elementary particle. It keeps changing all the time. He wanders about the fictitious lands partly based on the the Volga region, and partly on the landscape in Pieter Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow which, by the way, inspired Sokolov to write the novel in the first place. Eight years prior to the publication of Between Dog and Wolf it had also been used to a stunning effect by another Russian master: Andrei Tarkovsky in his film adaptation of Solaris. There is no shortage of Breugelian grotesques in the book, the main character Ilya being the most prominent and the most eloquent of them. The story of his love, miseries, and existential horror is related in an eclectic torrent of verbiage flaunting a wide range of mimicked styles and genres, obscure archaisms and hilarious wordplay. From time to time the main narrative is interrupted by sequences of poems from the collection A Hunter’s Sketches (titled after Ivan Turgenev’s famous short-story collection) , although “interrupt” might not be the most appropriate word here, for the poems are as carnivalesque and off-the-wall as the prose. Sokolov’s next novel Palisandria, which came out in English as Astrophobia, was a longer work with a more convoluted plot, more copious literary allusions and a bigger cast of characters, but it couldn’t rival Between Dog and Wolf in its linguistic intensity. In terms of language, this short novel still remains the zenith of Sokolov’s writing career.
Let me remind you that everything written above refers to the original Russian text. I have no conceivable idea how this philosopher’s stone may be re-transmuted in the English language. Alexander Boguslwaski, who has also translated A School for Fools, must be exceptionally brave to have undertaken this challenging task. Sasha Sokolov has created a new kind of Russian for his novel that makes a short shrift of the impatient reader and sends the patient one on an arduous journey of rediscovering his own mother tongue. In order to convey that in translation, a new kind of English has to be created. Whether the translator has succeeded in pulling off this feat we’ll see pretty soon.