A School for Fools

A School for Fools

Sasha Sokolov (1943- )




Ann Arbor, Michigan

A School for Fools (Shkola dlia durakov) is the first novel by Aleksandr Sokolov. This book in particular launched the name of its author right into the vibrant scene of Russian literature of the second half of 20th century. It was written in the early 1970s in a rather uncommon creative workshop: the quiet countryside in the neighbourhoods of Tver, by the Volga river. Here, in the hunting estate of Bezborodovo, the young Sokolov found refuge (and a job, as game warden) fleeing Moscow: the constant escape from centres, from public life and engagement (from group poetic experiences as well, such as the one among the SMOG) characterized the writer back then, as it marks his life today. Sokolov lived in Bezborodovo for a year and a half (May 1972 – November 1973): in this context his first novel was born. He signed it simply, as the following ones, with the diminutive of his first name, Sasha Sokolov.

The author could hardly hope for A School for Fools to be published officially in the USSR. It was not a matter of content, as the book was devoid of any direct criticism (be it political, ideological, social), but rather of form, which somehow resonated with modernist – when not seen as pre-post-modernist (as argued in the manuals of Russian literature by Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Skoropanova, Viacheslav Kuritsyn) – echoes. The main character of the novel is “student so-and-so”, a young hero with dual personality who throughout the novel develops a monologue/dialogue with his other Self. Even though he does not address nor comment the subject of Soviet everyday life, which as setting of the story lies in the background, the boy’s perspective on the surrounding world is strictly personal and subjective, therefore it produces an estranging effect. “Student so-and-so” dismantles the apparent logic of reality – first of all, the ideas of linear time, and of cause and effect relationship – proposing a different view, “absurd” but possible and real, at least for him. The manuscript of A School for Fools, then, had to take other roads to be published. The writer did not even try to obtain a permit of publication in the USSR. In these first months the novel had a samizdat circulation among friends and acquaintances.

When Sokolov, after a long and gruelling process and thanks also to the help of the Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, obtained the permit to leave the USSR and arrived in Vienna (October 8th 1975), the manuscript of the novel was already overseas in Ann Arbor (Michigan), in the hands of the Ardis publishers, Carl and Ellendea Proffer. A School for Fools had reached the United States thanks to Johanna Steindl, a young Austrian German teacher who Sokolov had met in Moscow and who afterwards became his second wife. Steindl managed to take the novel to Vienna and then mail it to Ardis. As Ellendea Proffer told in an interview, the manuscript arrived, it is unclear why, through Alexandria, Egypt, and the copy was in such very poor condition, so faded that it was hard to read. Maria (Masha) Slonim, who at the time worked at the publishing house, took it on to herself to read the manuscript and found it praiseworthy. Even Vladimir Nabokov, uncommonly, celebrated the talent of the yet unknown writer and his words – «обаятельная, трагическая и трогательнейшая книга» (an enchanting, tragic, and touching book) – have accompanied A School for Fools since then.

The great success of the first oeuvre of the young émigré writer was underlined by many a positive reviews that appeared on important Russian tamizdat journals of the time (such as «Russkaia mysl» and «Posev», respectively in Paris and Frankfurt am Main), as well as by the different translations published in those years – in particular, in English (1976), German (1977) and Dutch (1978). In the 1980s and 1990s the novel was also translated into Polish, Swedish, Serbian, French, Portuguese, Danish, Spanish. In the archive preserved at UCSB (Sasha Sokolov Collection – Mss 117) there is also proof of the Italian publisher Mondadori’s willingness for buying the translation rights (April 1976); however, the contract negotiations apparently turned out to be unsuccessful, as the Italian version of the novel appeared only in 2007, translated by Margherita Crepax and published by Salani. In the USSR the first excerpt from the book was published by magazine «Ogoniok» in August 1988, with a foreword by Tatyana Tolstaya, while the year after «Oktyabr» issued the unabridged version, with an afterword by Andrei Bitov.

S. Sokolov, Rasskazy, napysannye na verande, in «Russkaja žizn’», 20/02/1976, p. 3 and 21/02/1976, p. 3 [excerpt].
Id., Škola dlja durakov, Ann Arbor, Ardis 1976.
Id., Škola dlja durakov, in «Ogonëk», n. 33, 13-20 August 1988, pp. 20-23 [excerpt, with a foreword by Tatyana Tolstaya].
Id., Teper’, in «Sel’skaja molodež’», n. 3, 1989, pp. 32-37 [excerpt].
Id., Škola dlja durakov, in «Oktjabr’», n. 3, 1989, pp. 75-156 [with an afterword by Andrei Bitov].
Id., Škola dlja durakov, in Id., Sobranie sočinenij v 2-ch tt., Simpozium, Sankt-Peterburg 1999, t. 1.
Id., Škola dlja durakov, Moskva, OGI 2013 [with illustrations by Galya Popova; 2nd edition in 2016].

S. Sokolov, Nymphea, translated by Carl Proffer, in C. Proffer, E. Proffer (eds.), The Ardis Anthology of Recent Russian Literature, Ardis, Ann Arbor 1975, pp. 391-420 [excerpt].
Id., Savl, translated by Carl Proffer, «Chicago Review», 1976, XXVIII, 1, pp. 4-28 [excerpt].
Id., A School for Fools, translated by Carl Proffer, Ardis, Ann Arbor 1977.
Id., Die Schule der Dummen, übersetzt von Wolfgang Kasack, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt 1977.
Id., School voor gekken, vertaling van Gerard Cruys, Bezige Bij, Amsterdam 1978.
Id., Szkoła dla Głupków, przeł. Aleksander Bogusławski, Kontra, Londyn 1984.
Id., Skola for dårar, till svenska av Annika Bäckström, AWE/Gebers, Stockholm 1984.
Id., From “A School for Fools”, translated by Carl Proffer, in C. Brown (ed.), The Portable 20th Century Russian Reader, Viking Press, New York 1985, pp. 586-595 [excerpt].
Id., Škola za ludake, prevod Radmila Mečanin, Biblioteka Albatros – Filip Višnjić, Beograd 1988.
Id., L’ecole des idiots, trad. du russe par Françoise Monat, Edition Zoé, Genève 1991.
Id., Escola para bobos, tradução do russo por Konstantin Asryantz e Svetlana Kardash, Ars Poetica, Sao Paulo 1993.
Id., Dåreskolen, oversat af Jan Hansen, Munksgaard-Rosinante, Copenhagen 1994.
Id., Escuela para idiotas, trad. de Margarita Estapé, Circulo de lectores, Barcelona 1994.
Id., Lollide kool, tõlkinud Rein Saluri, Eesti raamat, Tallinn 2005.
Id., La scuola degli sciocchi, trad. di Margherita Crepax, Salani, Milano 2007.
Id., A School for Fools, translated by Alexander Boguslawski, New York Review Books, New York 2015.

AA.VV., «Canadian-American Slavic Studies», n. XXI (3-4), 1987 [monographic issue on Sokolov’s oeuvre].
AA.VV., «Canadian-American Slavic Studies», n. XL (2-4), 2006 [monographic issue on Sokolov’s oeuvre].
A. Boguslawski, Translator’s Note; Notes, in S. Sokolov, A School for Fools, translated by A. Boguslawski, New York Review Books, New York 2015, pp. VII-IX; pp. 179-191.
M. Caramitti, Strategie autofinzionali in Sinjavskij, Sokolov e Venedikt Erofeev, tesi di dottorato, Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, 2001.
J. Freedman, Memory, Imagination and the Liberating Force of Literature in Sasha Sokolov’s A School for Fools, in «Canadian-American Slavic Studies», n. XXI (3-4), 1987, pp. 265-278.
F. Ingold, Škola dlja durakov. Versuch über Saša Sokolov, in «Wiener Slawistischer Almanach», n. 3, 1979, pp. 93-124.
D.B. Johnson, A Structural Analysis of Sasha Sokolov’s School for Fools: A Paradigmatic Novel, in Birnbaum H., Eekman T. (eds.) Fiction and Drama in Eastern and Southeastern Europe: Evolution and Experiment in the Postwar Period, Slavica, Columbus 1980, pp. 207-237.
D.B. Johnson, Sasha Sokolov: A Literary Biography, in «Canadian-American Slavic Studies», n. XXI (3-4), 1987, pp. 203-230.
M. Lipoveckij, Mifologija metamorfoz: Poetika Školy dlja durakov Saši Sokolova, in «Oktjabr’», n. 7, 1995, pp. 183-192.
I. Marchesini, Il personaggio scontornato in Škola dlja durakov. Dal romanzo di Saša Sokolov agli adattamenti teatrali, in «Between», n. II (4), 2012, pp. 1-19.
O. Matich, Sasha Sokolov and His Literary Context, in «Canadian-American Slavic Studies», n. XXI (3-4), 1987, pp. 301-319.
A. Suslov, Te, kto prišli, in «Posev», n. 5, 1977, pp. 59-60.
P. Vajl’, A. Genis, Uroki Školy dlja durakov: O romane Saši Sokolova, in «Literaturnoe obozrenie», n. 1, 1993, pp. 13-16.
A. Vavulina, Saša Sokolov: Osobennosti chronotopa v Škole dlja durakov, in «Canadian-American Slavic Studies», n. XL (2-4), 2006, pp. 251-278.
G. Witte, Text als Spiel – Saša Sokolovs Škola dlja durakov, in Id., Appell – Spiel – Ritual. Textpraktiken in der russischen Literatur der sechziger bis achtziger Jahre, Harassowitz, Wiesbaden 1989, pp. 93-144.

    [Martina Napolitano]