Reviewed by Lucy Renner Jones
Andrei Bitov describes his book The Symmetry Teacher as a “novel-echo,” a palimpsest of a text which, as he explains in his preface, is his Russian “translation” of an obscure and untraceable English novel by a writer called A. Tired-Boffin. Bitov claims that he took this English book on a geological expedition to the taiga with friends many years ago. When the group ran out of things to read, Bitov’s Russian companions recalled seeing “a foreign novel” in his luggage and asked him to recount its contents. Like Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights, Bitov jotted down his Russian translation as faithfully as his scant English allowed and then retold the story to his Russian friends, elaborating and inventing details where he hadn’t understood the original. Many years later, “an extraordinary event” prompted him to look at his notes again to reconstruct the novel—but hazily, as he largely worked from memory. He says he proceeds with his project “not as one translates texts but as one applies waterslide decals.” And the echo resonates full-circle, back to its original language in Polly Gannon’s expert and beautifully crafted translation into English. The putative author’s name—A. Tired-Boffin, an anagram of Andrei Bitov if “ff” is substituted for “v”—is a clear hint that Bitov’s backstory in the taiga is fictional, and that his novel-echo is a reflection on the act of translation and writing itself.
The Symmetry Teacher is framed around one character by the name of Urbino Vanoski (an anagram for (Sirin) Nabokov, Sirin being Nabokov’s pen name)—an old author who cannot remember if he is a writer or perhaps a painter; and if he is indeed a writer, what might the title of his last unfinished work be—Life Without Us? Or perhaps Disappearing Objects? The fragmented plot of The Symmetry Teacher is divided into three parts and starts with the retelling of Vanoski’s life through the eyes of a young journalist, who has gone in search of the venerable Vanoski to write a piece on him for a prestigious newspaper. Vanoski recounts his meeting with the devil in a park, who hands him a photograph of a terrible event that will happen in the future. In Part II, Bitov enters as narrator: “here I break off the translation and begin my recollection of the forgotten text.” There is a brief interlude in the narrative as Bitov reflects on Russian “plotlessness” and the difficulties in the “terminology referring to what we call sex.” Then he continues his recollection of A. Tired-Boffin’s tales of Vanoski’s life. Part III returns to the meeting between the writer and the journalist.
In Part I, the journalist finds a disoriented old man in a room “like a clean-swept grave.” Inserted into the wall above the writer is a button, which looks like an emergency button in a hospital room. The journalist, narrating this first meeting with Vanoski, says:
“I asked him how he had been able to write The Last Case, and he answered, ‘I don’t know.’ I asked him what he would do with twenty thousand dollars and he answered, ‘I don’t remember.’
I might have called it quits then and there, because the old man couldn’t be of any use to me. He had no needs himself, so he wouldn’t appease me to our mutual advantage; and the newspaper wasn’t interested in anything close to the truth. The truth might have intrigued me personally, but truth was far to seek and time was short.”
This dialogue epitomizes many key aspects in Bitov’s novel-echo: a newspaper is not interested in the truth, and an old writer is not able or willing to give a young journalist any useful or newsworthy information. As with the backstory in the taiga, the “facts” of each event prove slippery: the journalist does not entirely trust the writer—several times he expresses his fear that Vanoski is insane. The journalist and the writer’s exchange sets the tone for a complex weaving of a cycle of stories that question and reflect on truth.
Bitov’s skill—and here the translator Polly Gannon deserves much praise for her fluid and polished translation—is to show the elusiveness of words just as we grasp them: language cannot be pinned down in meaning, characters might or might not have a certain name—or even be the same person—and they may or may not be telling lies.
Elsewhere, Bitov’s writing has been compared to Nabokov: Bitov’s stories also have multiple semantic layers and are avant-garde in the sense that the plot tends to disintegrate in favor of authorial reflection—almost to the point where Bitov’s writing at times starts to look like a sequence of aphorisms. The Symmetry Teacher is peppered with allusions and references, puns and word-spins that increase in momentum and density as the story progresses. In one sense, this novel, as Gannon observed in a private e-mail correspondence with me, is “all about translation.” She writes: “the book contemplates and questions at every turn the very premise of translating” which, for her, “injected a degree of self-consciousness about the whole endeavour from the outset.” The book questions the very foundation on which it is built.
Each of the stories in The Symmetry Teacher returns to the duplicitous nature of words, the impossibility of translation, and the problems of delineating boundaries, or plots, for stories. At one point, A. Tired-Boffin calls attention to the title of the chapter we are reading, “The End of the Sentence”: it can refer either to a set of words or a punishment for a particular offense. In a London pub Vanoski and his friend Anton discuss the common denominator of all languages: the full stop, or period. We are led to the thought that when a writer reaches the final full stop, a kind of death, he is also released from the self-imposed task of writing. Further still, Vanoski claims that plotlessness is inherent to being Russian, to geographical setting. He muses:
“I just don’t seem to be able to come up with a plot. Perhaps because it’s Russian? Russian—or from Russia? Russia has no plot—only space. It’s the same with the ocean. The ocean has no plot, either. Defoe or Stevenson notwithstanding—they marooned their plots on islands, like us Britons. The ocean has no subject, just as Russia has no subject: there is no experience to rest on. There are no edges. It’s an abyss. For a subject, the first thing one must do is close off space. Like theater. Like Shakespeare.”
Near the end, we return to Vanoski’s room, at a point in time just before the journalist pays his first visit to the esteemed writer. Vanoski contemplates whether he should press the emergency button, which he thinks might end his life. While struggling through a Lewis Carroll-like scenario (another button appears, too high to press; a little door appears under his table, beckoning light; a bottle of indeterminate liquid appears in his hand), the old writer attempts to finish his final novel before the journalist arrives—and at the same time contemplates which (disappearing) objects he should lay out on the bed before his death—a razor, a necktie, his final manuscript. In the end, he manages to drink and press the button simultaneously.
“‘You see, life is a piece of writing that the living never read to the end. But writing is alive, too! Every line contains the secret of the line that follows. So it is in life—the next moment is always To Be Announced.’”
The end is like a ricocheting echo—perhaps a last chance to solve the riddles Bitov has presented to the reader? But of course, there is no chance: that is not the point. And there is no ending as such, only Vanoski’s death. And death, as Vanoski reflects, may simply be another beginning. Yet, in the style we have come to expect as the novel progresses, even death is questioned by Bitov: this chapter ends with the words NOT THE END. But rather than mocking the novel, this ending forces us to reflect on the process of writing—and consequently reading too.
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