A Soviet underground classic is back in print. In a "School for Fools", fighting conformity requires confronting the Soviet system—and our inner demons.
“A School for Fools” is a Soviet underground classic of the 1970s, circulating only in samizdat, or self-published literature. A cult novel, it portrays an adolescent boy from Moscow wrestling with the big themes in life: family (dysfunctional, but average), love (unrequited), sex (out of reach), death and the realisation that the adult world around him is corrupt. Yet A School for Fools is not your typical coming-of-age story.
Neither was Aleksandr ‘Sasha’ Sokolov a typical Soviet writer. Born in Ottawa in 1943, Sokolov left for the USSR after his father, who served as military attaché to the Soviet embassy, was deported from Canada following charges of espionage. Sokolov began a journalism course in Moscow in 1966, after which he made several attempts to flee the country, including an adventurous crossing of the Iranian border. In 1975, Sokolov was allowed to leave the USSR, and he settled in the USA the following year where he has since remained.
The novel was first published in Russian in the USA in 1976 and shortly afterwards in English. This underground classic has now been published in a fresh translation by Alexander Boguslawski, accompanied by useful notes.
Thoughts without beginning
The first thing that strikes the reader in A School for Fools is the narrative voice, which oscillates between first person singular (‘I’) and, unusually, second person singular (‘you’) and first person plural (‘we’). Not only is this narrator overtly subjective and unreliable, he is also more than one person. Large sections of the narrative are told by the nameless protagonist’s alter ego, who turns out to be a voice in his head.
Sokolov’s hero is a schizophrenic and pupil at a special school for the learning disabled. The action never ventures outside the protagonist’s disturbed mind even when the narrative appears to be a conversation; the entire novel consists of a single interior monologue. Everything that happens in this book happens in language only.
That narrative form takes primacy over plot in A School for Fools seems only natural; we expect the speech patterns of a schizophrenic to challenge the norms of storytelling. And challenge them our protagonist does: A School for Fools lacks an obvious beginning, a clear end, and developed plotlines. Moreover, conventional representations of time and space are suspended. It is often unclear whether things happened in the past, are happening now, or will happen in the future, and it is not always possible to distinguish between events born entirely in the hero’s imagination and ‘real-life’ incidents he remembers or fears.
Yet the mode of narration chosen by Sokolov is not primarily an attempt at replicating the thought and speech of a mentally ill man. This style has its origin in the avant-garde experimental novel of early 20th century Russian modernism. The recurring lexical and phonetic motifs that structure the novel like musical themes shape a symphony or fugue are reminiscent of the technique employed in Andrei Bely’s Symbolist novel Petersburg (1913) and Boris Pilniak’s The Naked Year (1921), a text seriously indebted to Bely.
These motifs create cohesion by signposting the presence of a person or concern in unrelated contexts. Digression into seemingly meaningless detail, a nod to Nikolai Gogol, is often motivated by sound association rather than semantic relation. The results do nothing to further the action but provide wonderful lyrical descriptions, often challenging to translate, that reveal hidden connections between superficially unrelated things.
The measure of a fool
These recurring motifs introduce the great abstractions, or fundamental concerns, that lie at the foundation of A School for Fools: freedom versus oppression, nature versus institutions, madness versus sanity, intuitive time versus strict linear chronology.
Under its odious director Perillo, the ‘school for fools’ is exemplary of all the oppressive institutions the protagonist encounters. These institutions judge him for violating the accepted behavioural norms, for being mad, i.e. not normal; their sole purpose seems to be enforcing a semblance of conformity.
The family’s Moscow flat is another such institution. The hero’s father, a renowned public prosecutor and thus upholder of societal norms, rejects his ‘defective’ child. The blatant adultery of his mother, an overbearing woman smothering her son with her care, is terrifying as well as fascinating for the boy who struggles with his own awakening sexuality – unable to ‘talk to women’, he has no way of exploring, much less satisfying, his desire. And then there is the psychiatric hospital the protagonist attends regularly, where a certain Dr Zauze tries to cure him by encouraging him to fuse his various personalities.
In many instances, the protagonist’s alter ego appears to be a projection of all the things the boy wants to be and do: it is the voice in his head that stands up to the tyrannical school principal, visits the father of his beloved in order to ask for his daughter’s hand, graduates from school and ‘becomes an engineer’, a recurring motif that is shorthand for someone who has made his way in ordinary life. The distinction between the schizophrenic, for whom the trappings of normal life are ‘naturally’ beyond reach, and the ‘normal’ person thwarted in their aspirations, is one of degree rather than principle. The teaching methods in the ‘school for fools’ stifle the creativity of these particular children, but in the end all institutions that hinge on an imbalance of power suppress individual initiative.
The isolating interiority of his condition endows the protagonist with a heightened perspicacity. And his perception of reality is perhaps more truthful than that of those who never question society’s norms, those who find it easy to ‘become engineers’ and attract women for ‘screak’ (i.e. sex, derived from the indiscreet squeaky noise of furniture). The protagonist commands a fool’s wisdom—inaccessible to the conventionally intelligent—that allows him to see that many of the concepts to which we cling in order to regulate society and explain the universe are relative. The most limiting such construct is linear chronology, which neatly separates the present from the past and both of them from the future.
The hero, on the other hand, uses all three tenses of the verb simultaneously and states matter-of-factly that ‘there is confusion with time’. Simultaneity, all-presence, is the defining feature of eternity. As world religions teach and quantum physics shows, the boy’s idea of time is closer to the truth of the universe than the one we conventionally employ.
The contrast to oppressive institutions that demand ‘sanity’ and conformity is nature, where the protagonist can be mad and free, identifying as ‘Nymphaea Alba’, a water nymph. All pleasant events and phantasies take place outside of Moscow, at the dacha community where the protagonist spent his childhood summer holidays. All the positive characters are close to nature, too: Pavel/Savl Norvegov, the boy’s deceased idol and mentor, used to teach geography at the school.
The boy and Norvegov converse freely in the timeframe where past and presence, life and death, are not really separate; moreover, Norvegov is in some mysterious way identified with the ultimate harbinger of freedom, the ‘Sender of the Wind’. Wind, veter in Russian, resounds in Norvegov’s own name, and in that of Veta Akatova, the protagonist’s biology teacher and the woman he dreams of and imagines marrying.
A shout against the system
While he is compulsively verbal inside his own mind, the protagonist has problems communicating directly with other people, which is typical of schizophrenics. So he shouts instead of speaking. In his own description, his shouts or screams are poetic – they enable him, quite literally, to fill empty things with his voice, with ‘himself’.
Yet those around him are riled or embarrassed by his habit. ‘Filling something with my shout’ is one of the recurring motifs of the novel, and through its repetition it furnishes a strong association between this particular pariah and others who are oppressed.
As the outcry of those deprived of a voice in society, the madman’s scream is directed against the Soviet system, which not only shut away ‘invalids’ like our hero, but persecuted all those violating the prescriptive norms that regulated everything from literary aesthetics to choice of profession. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the hero’s ear-piercing objection to the treatment of outsiders is valid beyond the confines of any particular society, historic or contemporary.
A subtler point of criticism, or rather self-criticism, can perhaps be more clearly associated with the system in which protagonist (and author) live. The boy admits that, much as he hates the ‘school for fools’, he is afraid of one day having to move beyond this protective environment that takes care of all his immediate needs and tells him what to do every moment of the day.
At times, the protagonist’s incessant rambling is hard to bear, and it takes a while to adjust to the pace and perspective of this novel. However, once the initial resistance is overcome, the reader becomes increasingly complicit with the protagonist.
We accompany him on his quest for self-knowledge, and Sokolov succeeds in making us see the world from the point of view of somebody playing the role of court jester whose ‘abnormal’ perception reveals the beauty of language (and often also the beauty of that to which language refers).
Yet we also feel the pain of unfulfilled, and unfulfillable, longing that surely marks the life of all of us who haven’t become so preoccupied with ‘becoming engineers’, that we too have stifled that quiet voice inside own own heads.
Sasha Sokolov’s A School for Fools was published by NYRB press in November 2015.
Josephine von Zitzewitz is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Russian Literature at the University of Cambridge, where she is researching Leningrad samizdat literature and journals. Her main interest is Russian 20th-century poetry, and her monograph Poetry and the Leningrad Religious-Philosophical Seminar 1974-1980 will be published by Legenda in February 2016.
Article courtesy of Open Democracy