NOVEMBER 17, 2017
RUSSIAN CULTURE over the past half-century has been going through a golden age of foolishness — soaking in it, actually, like a pickle in brine. In this, it is not so different from American culture, whose heroes over the same period have included shlemiel Tyrone Slothrop and slowpoke Forrest Gump, to say nothing of Fuckhead or Homer Simpson. But maybe we should stop here. Any idiot can list idiots, but it takes a steady taxonomical touch to raise the fool to the level of national treasure — to canonize him, or at least wield him like a can-opener on a literature that has so far stayed sealed. Luckily for us, such a touch is exactly what Oliver Ready demonstrates in his new survey, Persisting in Folly: Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963–2013. His invaluable book accomplishes two critical functions, first defining the traditional figure of the Russian fool, and then following him through what remains a largely uncharted region of world literature: late- and post-Soviet Russian fiction.
Ready’s first task is one of excision, since fools lie pretty thick on the ground in Russian literature of any period. Part of this is a translation problem. The Russian language offers a number of near-synonyms that can be believably translated into the English “fool,” from the imported idiot to the softer chudak (“eccentric,” in Ready’s version), to the specific yurodivy or “holy fool,” a term whose English translation misleadingly compounds two words that aren’t even in the original. Such linguistic wealth is vulnerable to imprecision. In Constance Garnett’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov, for example, yurodivy elicits (as Ready notes) “at least six different translations […] from ‘saintly fool’ to ‘idiot.’” Given such static, it is hard for the reader of English not to wonder if Russian foolishness is one of those untranslatable concepts that foreigners are destined to gawk around without ever really approaching, like saudade or wabi-sabi.
Yet Ready argues that pinning the Russian fool down in his native language is just as difficult. Indeed, one of the fool’s defining characteristics over the past four centuries has been a rejection of defining characteristics, especially when these are applied by his fellow countrymen. Like Groucho Marx (a rich American uncle), he has refused to belong to any club that would have him as a member, whether that club be Orthodoxy, communism, or most recently, capitalist pragmatism. His caginess, though frustrating for those who would enlist him, is one of the main reasons for his persistence; by remaining empty he has stayed open, and useful. In the face of unrelenting reason, he has been unreasonable. Or, to put it another way, in a world gone mad (if madness is understood not as an absence of reason but as the over-application of it), the fool has promised a way out and door into freedom — if only of a limited kind.
“To live outside the law you must be honest,” sang Bob Dylan. But for the Russian fool of the last 50 years, living outside the law has required a peculiar talent for fooling oneself, with ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds, and, in the case of Venedikt Erofeev’s famous Moscow to the End of the Line (1970), a whole lot of vodka. A touchstone of Soviet samizdat, Moscow played a foundational role in late- and post-Soviet letters, not just because of its inventiveness (Erofeev, like Gogol before him, called his great and formally shifty book a “poem”), but for the way that it implicitly presented foolishness as a method for staying human in the face of overwhelming repression. Venichka, the book’s lovable souse of a narrator, is an outcast who demonstrates over and over his inability to understand the “normal” life all around him. His unfitness is tragicomic, a waltz of missteps that ends with a short hop off a cliff; and yet, as with so many comic novels, it is impossible to read Moscow without feeling that Venichka comes out on top, if only by demonstrating his spiritual superiority over the world he is forced to live in. In this, he recalls previous yurodlivye, such as the historical Basil the Blessed and Dostoyevsky’s fictional Prince Myshkin, whose tragedies hold up mirrors to the inadequacy of the world. “How Russian!” we think, admiring their ineptitude — meaning something along the lines of “How committed to an idea of the world that is too good for the world as we understand it, that is, the real world.” But Ready is wisely skeptical of both the condescension and the chauvinism of this compliment. He reminds us that readers both inside and outside Russia have wrestled for centuries with the urge to see its masterpieces as either cute aberrations or brilliant mutants, with no ties (or debts) to outside tradition. One of the great strengths of Persisting in Folly is the effort it makes to show Russian foolishness in the larger context of world literature, a context in which Moscow to the End of the Line shows up for what it is: a late, great inheritor of the European tradition of Christian folly from Erasmus to Joyce.
There is some irony here. In linking up to this broader tradition, Ready seems to endanger his whole enterprise — for if the Russian fool is nothing more or less than the local refraction of Don Quixote or Leopold Bloom, then isn’t the more pertinent question not what makes him European, but what makes him Russian? The answer is one of degrees, the fool in Soviet Moscow being less a different type of water than water subjected to extreme conditions and so transformed into a snowflake or burst of steam. Such a change may initially seem like an imitation, if only because it reminds us of so many non-Russian writers we’ve already read. So, for example, when Ready talks about the first-person narrators of Erofeev and Yuz Aleshkovsky, it is very difficult not to think of Humbert Humbert or Zeno Cosini, who also told their stories in very crooked ways. For that matter, it is difficult not to think of James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self, a book that, though of a completely different genre (Persisting in Folly is clearly an academic work, whereas Wood’s book collects reviews published in outlets like the Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times Book Review) provides a complementary picture of how fictional narratives can use foolishness to provoke feelings of forgiveness and mercy in the reader.
Still, though the Russian fool may resemble his European cousins, there are certain ways in which he sets himself apart from them. Perhaps the most important of these, for Ready’s book at least, is his understanding of how dangerous it is to sing folly’s praise in a world where fools so often find themselves in power. For while advocating foolishness in Western democracies has often been a symbolic act (or so we would like to think), in Russia it can carry the weight of endorsement. The goal for the Soviet and post-Soviet writers discussed in Persisting in Folly is to persist beyond praise, into an irony as harsh and unsparing as nuclear winter. Nothing survives this irony, not even the speaker himself, as we see in Ready’s chapter on Sasha Sokolov’s School for Fools, a novel told from the point of view of a narrator so unreliable that even his poetry becomes suspect: the self-protective shell of an exquisite sensibility. Such “Pan-irony” (the term is Sokolov’s) is ultimately, as Ready sees it, a criticism of the holy fool — “not irony towards society, or the ironizing perspective of the wise fool (‘Erasmian irony’), but an ironic, self-reflexive skepticism about the perspective and role of the wise fool.” The world is foolish and terrible, in other words, but perhaps the worst thing we can do in the face of this horror is try to escape it, thereby giving things the power to go on exactly as they always have.
And so the choice for the post-Soviet writers presented in the concluding chapters of Ready’s book is whether to persist within folly or against it, into what might presumably be a new maturity. Ready’s representative for the first of these paths is Victor Pelevin, a writer who offers a critique of homo sovieticus so cutting that it leaves its subject legless. Pelevin’s heroes are fools and ingrates, but their foolishness leads them, and us, nowhere, or rather only into a wholly satirical cul-de-sac. As Ready puts it, in Pelevin’s works, “Moscow may be ‘Babylon,’ but there is no sense that Jerusalem can be regained; Paradise has been lost, but redemption seems impossible.” With his Murakamian combination of stone-faced narration and reality-tweaking storytelling, Pelevin was one of the few stars of Russian prose in the 1990s to register internationally — but then perhaps this is because his satire of the period fit so perfectly into the Western narrative of Soviet Russia as something catastrophic, misguided, and ultimately unforgivable. Satire is a lesson, but it is also, essentially, a gigantic patting of one’s own back. The only thing it teaches us is what we already know.
Where does this leave us? Back in the pickle jar? Or can Russian literature indicate a place outside foolishness? Ready’s survey of contemporary examples, from Yuri Buida to Vladimir Sharov (both of whom he has translated), suggests that today’s authors have for the most part turned away from the nihilism of Pelevin and toward a more aggressive critique of foolishness in its various manifestations. And yet, there is a circular, somewhat ambivalent note to Ready’s survey, which is capped by a quote from Belarusian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time. “The chosen people. The special Russian path,” Alexievich’s speaker notes, before referring to Ivan Goncharov’s classic 19th-century fool: “Our country is full of Oblomovs, lying around on their sofas, awaiting miracles.” To wonder whether such waiting will ever yield results is, perhaps, a Western thing to do. Perhaps the waiting is the result. Foolishness may open a door into possibility, but, as Persisting in Folly reminds us time and again, its real place is always here and now.