Writer Rediscovers Russian’s Magic : Books: Sasha Sokolov, author of “School for Fools,” has returned to Moscow after a stormy exit in 1975.
“Rats,” he says. “Hear them? Rats in the walls.” The face, a Cubist mass of angles and planes, cracks into a giddy grin--the smile, it turns out, of a man who has come home after a long exile.
All around him now, after 14 years of New England solitude and twang, the juicy, popped sounds of Russian, each glottal stop a seed, each word an acoustical event. “Listen,” he says, holding a finger to his lips. “You can hear the rats talking. They’re talking Russian, I think.”
Sasha Sokolov, the son of a Soviet spy who knew the Rosenbergs in the 1940s, the father of a child he has not seen since his exile, has returned to Moscow after a stormy exit in 1975.
He is back not to see his father and mother--"I have nothing to say to them"--but rather to hear Russian talk, Russian stories. And unlike the dozens of other exiled artists who have been able to visit for the first time in years, Sokolov has a “secret plan”: Although he has kept his Canadian passport, he wants to stay. “Even now, after a few weeks, when I hear the language,” he says, “I begin to shake.”
Sokolov is one of those rare novelists whose primary concern is the praise and exploration of a language rather than the development of a position. In this, he is in the line of Gogol, Lermontov, Nabokov. “For me, the Bible says it: The Word is God,” Sokolov says, “and God is more important than life.”
A critic once wrote of Sokolov’s first novel, “School for Fools"--a polyphony of voices centered on a country school for psychotic children--that it sounded as if the last 50 pages of Joyce’s “Ulysses” had been rewritten, miraculously, in Russian.
Sokolov wrote “School for Fools” when he was working as a game warden on the Volga River in the early 1970s. Although there was nothing overtly political about its content, he knew that its style, its flights of language, its flights away from the stale ground of socialist realism, represented an independence that would prevent publication. So he decided to do what such Soviet artists as Alexander Solzhenitsyn had done, knowing the choice was bound to land him in trouble: He sent his manuscript abroad.
In Sokolov’s case, the book went, through friends, to the late Carl Proffer, a Michigan academic whose pioneering Ardis Publishers had brought to light many important modern Soviet writers. Proffer immediately recognized the greatness, as well as the strangeness, of “School for Fools.”
Nabokov, an astringent critic who could barely tolerate Dostoevski and summarily dismissed Gorky, Malraux and Freud, read “School for Fools” and pronounced it “an enchanting, tragic and touching book.”
Sokolov’s second novel, “Between the Dog and the Wolf,” has so far defeated the efforts of three good translators and may never make it into English. However, Grove Press is publishing a translation of the third novel, “Astrophobia.”
And now, at the country house of a childhood friend, Sokolov sits listening to the birch branches pop and burn in the stove. There are steaming glasses of strong brewed tea on the pine table. The rats scurry inside the walls. Sokolov’s daughter, a pretty, owlish girl of 16 who lives in Moscow, watches her father with a peculiar fascination. To her, he is a name, a family legend, returned.
“It’s funny,” Sokolov says. “This is the second time I’ve ‘come home for good.’ This time feels better.” Sokolov was born in Ottawa in 1943. His father, Vsevold, and his mother, Lidia, were working in the Soviet Embassy in the Canadian capital, ostensibly as diplomats.
His father had the rank of deputy military attache and worked for the GRU, Soviet military intelligence.
‘Barely Knew Father’
“As far as I know, he was sent to Canada by Stalin himself. He took part in stealing blueprints of the A-bomb through the Rosenbergs. But it’s still all very vague,” he says.
“I do know my father regularly went to New York to see the Rosenbergs and other Communists there. But he would only make slight mention of all this. He never told any stories. But there were relatives who knew them well and talked to me about it later on. I hardly saw him. I barely knew who my father was in Stalin’s last years. He was never around.”
One of the stories about his father that Sokolov heard “was right out of a detective movie”: Just after the war, when the Soviets were struggling to develop an atom bomb, a car filled with Soviet spies, including Vsevold Sokolov, and carrying a suitcase containing secret blueprints, was racing an FBI chase team from New York to Boston.
At the harbor in Boston, the FBI searched the car and a Soviet ship, finding nothing. “Later, it became known that they had slipped it to a Soviet submarine nearby.”
Some time after that, an embassy officer in Ottawa, Igor Kuzenko, defected to the West and told authorities everything he knew of the spy ring that was working out of the embassy in Canada.
Later the younger Sokolov made an “amusing” trade with the Canadians: They gave him a copy of the “Kuzenko report,” which described his father’s activities, and Sokolov gave them “School for Fools.” “The biggest surprise to me was my mother,” he says. “It turned out she was a spy, too. She was a courier.”
Soon after the Kuzenko defection, most of the Soviet staff had to leave in a hurry for the Soviet Union. “I suppose that is why my English is so poor,” Sokolov says.
The Sokolov family took an ocean cruiser from Vancouver, on the Canadian Pacific coast, to Vladivostok, the Soviet Union’s main port in Asia. “Those were my first memories as a child,” he says. “I remember my father playing tennis on the deck.” When the ship arrived in Vladivostok, the port was frozen. “We all had to come down onto the ice and walk into town.”
Sokolov had never seen his country until then. To him, the Soviet Union after the war was like a Hieronymus Bosch painting: beggars, thieves, the wounded everywhere, the Trans-Siberian Express packed with all the stink and pity of the ruin of war.
Sokolov’s father began working at the General Staff headquarters. Every morning, a black sedan would pick him up. About the only decent moments Sasha Sokolov had with his father were those short, silent rides. “I loved that car; it was so black and official--like a bad omen,” he says. “I’d ride a block or two with him and then run back home.”
The younger Sokolov fought with his parents, and even his older sister, a devout Communist who kept a portrait of Stalin in her room. There were arguments all the time. “We were hot-blooded people, like a working-class Italian family in one of Fellini’s movies,” he says. “A quiet night in our house was a strange thing.”
On the day Stalin died in March 1953, Moscow mourned. Sokolov’s sister hung black crepe around the portrait. Sasha Sokolov had always felt “odd” about all the celebrations of Stalin in the school, sensing that Stalin was somehow tied to his father’s ominous work. That night the younger Sokolov went with his family to see the funeral bier. The way was blocked by a crush of people, some of whom died of suffocation.
“It was the wildest night of the century,” Sokolov says. “It was then that I really came into consciousness.” As an adolescent, he withdrew even more from his parents, especially his father: “I even discovered that he had betrayed my grandfather.”
Denounced His Father
Sokolov’s paternal grandfather was an engineer at a munitions factory, rather high-born and not much of a revolutionist. But Vsevold Sokolov, a leader of the Young Communist League chapter at the prestigious Bauman Institute in Moscow, denounced his father at a league meeting, dissociating himself from his own family.
In 1937, at the height of the Stalinist purges, Sasha Sokolov’s grandfather was arrested--branded, as so many others were, “an enemy of the people.”
Of his father, Sokolov says now: “I suppose that it gave him the chance to begin a great career. If he hadn’t done it, he never would have become a big officer.”
Sasha Sokolov was a sporadic student and took various odd jobs, among them work in a morgue, cutting open bodies for medical students. He spent more time at friends’ houses than at home. He read a lot and began writing poems, sketches, stories.
In his early 20s he saw an ad announcing a short-story contest for the Life of the Blind magazine, which was published in ordinary print and in Braille. Sokolov won the 100-ruble first prize with his first published work, “On the Beach,” about an old, blind sea captain who talks to his cat.
With his first wife, Taiya (they were later divorced), Sokolov traveled and wrote, earning a little as a journalist in the provinces and then as a game warden on the Volga. In the woods, most of the day was his own. He looked out for fires, chased off poachers and hunted for moose, bear, duck. “You belong to yourself there. The only problem was that I was covered with blood a lot of the time.”
Surrounded by Volga slang and provided time and quiet to write, Sokolov made “a great leap.” He set aside the realism of current fashion and developed a style of free association and language play almost unknown in Russian.
“All of a sudden I realized I could write like a free man. I had never imagined such freedom. I wanted to show what was possible in the Russian language.”
In Russian, Sokolov’s prose is full of leaps and associations that are born not of the subject at hand, but rather of zvook , of the sounds. “It may be a heretical idea here, but sound is the yeast of language. When you are really in the mood, there are so many things to sing about, it’s like tunes, different tunes, and there is the wish inside me to put them on paper in some sort of order.”
The idea of using a schizophrenic as his principal character also allowed Sokolov to keep shifting between voices and tones in “School for Fools,” as if he were a composer freed to move from strings to brass to percussion and back again. Of mental hospitals, he had already had some experience.
Had to Get Out
In his youth, Sokolov had tried to finesse the draft by signing up for a military institute for foreign languages. He signed on for five years, but after two he saw himself on the path toward repeating his father’s life in the military. He thought he might end up “on the Mongolian border somewhere,” listening to crackly radio broadcasts and trying to write. “It wasn’t going to work. I had to get out of this.”
So he decided to go crazy.
“I was physically and mentally all right, of course, but I began to tell myself, ‘Maybe you are crazy. Imagine you are sick.’ And so I began to prepare very carefully. I started trying to fool my friends, convince them I was a weirdo. I was using the Stanislavsky method.” In the middle of the night, while his classmates slept in their barracks, Sokolov would begin to laugh hysterically or weep. “I showed some of the best features of lunatism. And they believed it.”
Carted off to the nearest asylum, Sokolov “met some beautiful guys. The whole thing was one of the best experiences of my life. Some of the best people in the world are in the nut house.”
Luckily, Sokolov avoided the drug treatments and terrifying abuse that so many others faced in Soviet mental hospitals. He was released and, experience and language in mind, went off to write “School for Fools” in the forests near the banks of the Volga.
The problem, though, was how to publish it. By the mid-'70s, the Brezhnev regime was cracking down hard on the country’s most independent-minded artists. The expulsion of Solzhenitsyn was only the most famous of a series of exiles that would include Vladimir Voinovich, Vasily Aksyonov, Yuri Lyubimov, Valery Chalidze.
Sokolov was obscure, far from the tumult of Moscow literary politics in both distance and style. And he knew well that “School for Fools” would find no acceptance. “I realized it was going to be necessary to publish abroad and then leave. But I’m not a Jew. I could not go to Israel. It was absurd to apply to leave. And also, I am my father’s son. He would never sit still for this. And so the best way was to get married.”
Sokolov met an Austrian woman, “a kind of semi-hippie” who was teaching German at a Moscow institute. Under normal circumstances they never would have married, but they decided to go through with a marriage of convenience to help Sokolov get a visa to follow his book out of the country.
The government balked. Sokolov increased the pressure by holding press conferences at which he told correspondents about his story and about his father as well. Then came harassment: an ambulance parked outside the door, waiting to cart Sokolov off to a mental hospital.
The KGB installed listening devices in his apartment and in his neighbors’ apartments. “They didn’t bother hiding it. They screwed big black boxes to the floor and told everyone they were earthquake-measuring devices.” He went into hiding, changing apartments every night or so. “It’s obvious,” Sokolov says. “My father pretended not to know or care, but I knew for sure he had pushed the button on me.”
The Soviet authorities threw Sokolov’s Austrian wife out of the country but forbade him to leave. In response, the two conducted public hunger strikes, attracting as much public attention as they could.
The Austrian leader, Bruno Kreisky, finally appealed to the Kremlin and Brezhnev put an end to the affair. Sokolov was free to go. He picked up his passport at the central visa office and was on a plane to Austria the next day.
“My family had already denounced me, but just before I left, I telephoned my sister. ‘Who is this?’ she said. ‘It’s Sasha,’ I said. ‘Sasha? Sasha who?’ she said. I said, ‘It’s me, Sasha, your brother.’ There was a pause, and then she said, ‘I have no brother.’ ”
Americans have a comfortable sense about the life and freedom of new emigres, especially those artists and writers who have left oppressive communist regimes. The combination of economic plenty and the freedom to create as one wishes is, they suppose, a recipe for guaranteed, immediate satisfaction.
For Sokolov, it was not. “America provided me mostly with loneliness, a useful loneliness. But after a while I started feeling a lack of material, of stories.” He found Americans--especially those he met living in Vermont--more restrained, less inclined toward the sort of endless nights of storytelling and wordplay that fill a Russian evening.
He had no nostalgia for the repression of Moscow, but he did not take to the media glut of America, the incessant literary politics in emigre circles, “and this constant compulsion for writers to go around advertising themselves on talk shows and the lecture circuit instead of just writing. That should be enough, but it isn’t somehow.”
“You see, most important, it was easier for me to write here in Russia,” he says. “The language is there, the stories are there. It doesn’t take such an effort. Abroad, you have to hold it all in your head. Here you can just reach out and pluck it from the air. It was language-hunger. At first I didn’t notice it, but then you start to feel something, you are not quite sure what it is, but you lose your proper state of mind without language.”
After divorcing his Austrian wife, Sokolov married and divorced twice more. In northern Vermont, living with his American girlfriend, Marlene, a world-class rower, Sokolov wrote steadily and worked at odd jobs.
He also got money from “the Sasha Sokolov Fund,” a group of emigre patrons willing to keep the novelist in groceries and pencil leads.
As glasnost began to bloom and Sokolov read of all the new publications in his air-mail subscription of Literaturnaya Gazeta, “I could hardly contain myself.”
Sokolov and Marlene spent last year living in Greece and were shocked to get a positive response when they applied for multiple-entry Soviet visas. They took the train through Yugoslavia and Hungary, and then across the Soviet border.
For Sokolov, this homecoming was every bit as strange as the first, his walk across the ice to Vladivostok.
He was thrilled by the sound of nightingales. “The light was different. The color is northern, deeper, redder, yellower, radiant. The American sky is brilliant, brighter. The Russian sky radiates.” And then, as his train passed a freight train filled with Soviet troops demobilizing from Hungary, he heard his first blast of native Russian speech in years. And he shook.
After several weeks in Moscow getting reacquainted with his daughter and his friends, after making arrangements for various publications, Sokolov left for the countryside, where he first found that free language all his own.
“Everything has been said already, there isn’t much more that can be said about anything. You can only find a new way to say it. An artist has to create beautiful texts, that’s my mind and experience.
“Texts are more important than life, for me. Language is more important than life. So if you deal with language, you are creating not only texts but also something more important than life. It’s been said many times, of course, but it is true that first there was the Word, and God created the Word, the Word is God, and God is more important than life.
“Without language there is no life. Language, like music, can exist without life and after life. All texts will survive after your personal death and the death of society. Real art is pure energy, and it prevails, and it is dissolved into space. It is forever, it’s eternal, a part of eternity, whereas life is just a very short thing. It’s temporary.”
Not long after our meeting at the dacha in Rakovo, Sokolov called me in Moscow. He had left the manuscript of his fourth novel in Greece because he had been afraid the Soviet authorities would confiscate it. The house where he had stored the manuscript in Greece had burned to the ground. There was no copy. Sokolov had been working on the pages for more than three years.
What are you going to do now? I asked. “I am drinking a lot of beer,” he said. “Then tomorrow maybe I will wake up and start again.”