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Persisting in Folly

Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963–2013


Oliver Ready

The theme of foolishness has long occupied an unusually prominent place in Russian culture, touching on key questions of national, spiritual, and intellectual identity. In literature, the figure of the fool – and the voice of the fool – has carried additional appeal as an enduring source of comic and stylistic innovation. Never has this appeal been stronger than in the past half-century, whether as a reaction to the «scientific atheism» and official culture of the late-socialist era, or as a response to the intellectual and moral disorientation that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Persisting in Folly traces three contrasting phases within this period: the «praise of folly» that underpins acknowledged samizdat masterpieces by Venedikt Erofeev, Yuz Aleshkovsky, and Sasha Sokolov; the sceptical appraisals of the Russian cult of the fool offered in the 1980s by Viktor Erofeev and Dmitry Galkovsky; and the legacy of this conflicted tradition in post-Soviet prose. By combining close readings with a rich comparative and contextual framework, this book charts a new path through recent Russian literature and offers a wide-ranging consideration of the causes and consequences of Russian writers’ enduring quest for wisdom through folly.

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Chapter 3: Wisdom and Stasis in School for Fools


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Wisdom and Stasis in School for Fools

In Moscow-Petushki, the themes of folly and wisdom emerge from an intellectual’s alcoholic haze. In the fiction of Voinovich, Shukshin and others, they are associated primarily with the narod, which in Nikolai Nikolaevich narrows down to its criminal elements. The distinctive contextual feature for our topic of Sasha Sokolov’s debut novel School for Fools (Shkola dlya durakov, 1972–3) is that here folly and wisdom are grounded in the voice and experience of childhood, creating an influential precedent for the work of subsequent authors, such as Viktor Pelevin. In particular, the educational setting of School for Fools permits Sokolov to explore in fresh and far-reaching, but also ambivalent directions the preoccupations discussed in previous chapters.

Written when its elusive author, then employed as a game keeper, was still in his twenties, School for Fools is largely narrated by a pupil at a Soviet ‘special school’ for the mentally ‘defective’ (defektivnye).1 The novel, which chiefly takes the form of a dialogue between at least two voices, two personae within a single mind, leaves little doubt that this narrator, who calls himself Nymphaea after ‘partially’ transforming himself into the white water lily Nymphaea Alba (43), is suffering from a chronic mental disorder. The clinical backdrop, however, is triumphantly effaced for long stretches by the mesmerizing flow of language in which a cognitive pathology based on dissociation is transformed into the free association of...

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