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Andrei Bitov: Преподаватель симметрии (The Symmetry Teacher)

This is another post-modern novel from Bitov, full of obscure references, an unreliable narrator (possibly more than one), in-jokes and tortuous cross-plots. We open with the narrator referring to an obscure English book he had come across – The Teacher of Symmetry. He took it with him while on a long geological expedition but never got round to reading it. When the expedition was delayed in returning and all games had been played and books discussed, someone remembered this book. He is asked to tell the story of the book. The book seems to consist of several stories which he recounts one a day. However, his English is not too good and he does not have a dictionary so he has to make some things up. Ten years later he finds he needs one of the stories to help through a difficult period but cannot find the book. He tries to find a copy but cannot remember the name of the author. He tries to hunt down a copy but is unable to do so. He even asks the Library of Congress and wittily names James Billington (a Russian scholar) Lord Billington. He then tries to reconstruct the book in English and then translate it into Russian. This book is, allegedly, the results of his endeavours. At this point he tells us only that the protagonist is named Urbino Vanoski, which is almost an anagram of Sirin Nabokov, Sirin, being Nabokov’s pseudonym for his early works written in Russian.

We then move onto a story about Urbino Vanoski (an obscure author from the 1930s, enjoyed a veritable boom at the end of the sixties) who may or may not be dead, who may or may not have been a churchwarden or a lift operator, who may have been a writer or a painter (even he himself is not sure). He seems to have written numerous books but they may all be the same one (or two different ones). They all have different titles but the different titles may refer to the same book. They may or may not all have different plots. No-one, least of all the author, is sure. They may or may not have been published. They may or may not have been finished. Maybe a book called The Last Case of Letters has been published as the narrator consider it to be one of the most remarkable books he has read but then he is as unreliable as Vanoski. When he asks Vanoski how he was able to write The Last Case of Letters, his answer is that he does not know. We do get excerpts from several of these books but some of them clearly overlap and may be different parts or different versions of the same book. Or not.

What we do know – possibly – is that one day a fat, bald, sweaty man sat down next to Vanoski in the park and that this man was the devil. Of that Vanoski is (more or less) sure. The devil (if it was, indeed, the devil) shows him some photos. One, in particular, is of one of your future acquaintances. This photo shows Vanoski, apparently some ten years in the future with a strikingly beautiful woman who makes him think of Helen of Troy. The devil tries to play down the significance of the photo, before disappearing. Vanoski has a devoted girlfriend, called Dika (short for Eurydika, i.e Eurydice) who is Greek. She is bookish and tender and most enchanting, as Vanoski describes her. However, he seems determined to find Helen, as he now calls the woman in the photo. Unable to find her among passersby, I ventured into museums, bookstores. I discerned the outlines of her face through the strata of centuries in portraits, in the dust of the Renaissance. On my walls at home, in my student digs, I hung up successive pictures of my elusive Helen’s predecessors: a Botticelli He finds her in various places. He meets various women who, he thinks are her. He talks to them. He initiates an affair with them. He meets her in a Polish cemetery where he was looking at the grave of someone called U. Vanoski. But none of them is Helen. However, this hunt for the elusive Helen does have one advantage. As he looks for her, he writes a novel based on his experiences though, he claims, he will later burn this novel. Eventually, he claims to see her but loses her and she disappears, never to be found again. He then wrote something called The Burning Novel. It was a novel in which the characters didn’t say a word. Finally, he admits he has been writing the same two books all his life.

But has he? Because we now get selections of his writings. They are not very good and something of a mishmash. One, for example, seemingly set in some unspecified East Asian country, is about the relationship between a native idiot savant, who claims to come from the Moon, and a conventional Western doctor, while another involves Anton Omolchenko, the only Russian on Scott’s Antarctic Expedition. That there is a lack of plot in the book we are reading as well as well as Vanoski’s books is clear. I just don’t seem to be able to come up with the plot. Perhaps it’s because it’s Russian? Russian—or from Russia? Russia has no plot—only space. (Vanoski is nominally English but of mixed Polish-Dutch-Japanese ancestry (second, third, and fourth generations, respectively), who didn’t know a single one of these languages and had never once travelled to any of these ancestral homelands for any significant length of time and Bitov makes lots of references to the differences between the English and the Russians. He plays a lot of language games, particularly plays on words, with the narrator making comments about how these work or do not work between English and Russian.) Referring to another novel – the number of non-existent novels he refers is well into double figures – he says the plot of how his plot refused to take shape (and that’s what the novel, dispiritingly, was called: The Plot). In short, plot is definitely not what this novel and any of Vanoski’s novels are about.

We do, finally, get to the reconstructed novel mentioned at the very beginning, though the narrator complains about the book’s rather intricate structure and “plotfulness” and “belletrism” so alien to the tradition of the best Russian prose, which gives him an opportunity to start rambling about Russian literature and its relationship to the literature of Western Europe. Russian literary speech has not yet earned the degree of freedom achieved by our language [i.e. English]. It is by nature as timid and chaste as a provincial young lady of the nineteenth century. Vanoski has now changed his name to Ris Vokonabi (a genuine anagram of Sirin Nabokov) but we are now off on more sidetracks, which include various language games, involving poetry, crosswords and encyclopedias.(He has something of a thing about encyclopedias, not least because the Encyclopedia Britannica omits several Russians who, he believes, should have been included. Later in one of the books a king will produce his own encyclopedia supplement, including subjects omitted from the main encyclopedia.) Indeed, Bitov must be one of those rare authors who is very much aware of the issues facing any translators who translates his book but, instead of helping them, he makes a deliberate attempt to make it awkward for them, an attempt he mentions in the footnotes.

Bitov/Vanoksi has many models and one of them clearly in Laurence Sterne. One of the book/articles is called Posthumous Notes Of The Tristram Club and is about a club of writers of unfinished novels (you get thrown out if you finish a novel) which takes its inspiration from Sterne. Their point of departure is There is no idea that cannot be expressed more simply. The final part of their twelve point charter is The Club will dissolve itself if one of the members raises himself or herself to a level above the others. However, it is not this work that will make Vanoski’s name. Every decent writer is supposed to leave a respectable posthumous work in his wake and Vanoski leaves Disappearing Letters, whose discovery will make the narrator’s name.

It’s anarchic, chaotic and very funny. It plays all the post-modern games – language, identity, (lack of ) plot/convoluted plot, seemingly irrelevant facts, no real beginning and no real end. You will get lost in it, wondering what is going on and who is who. But if you take it as Bitov means you to take it – tongue in cheek, game-playing, no clear meaning or plot – it is a thoroughly enjoyable novel

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Fortuna ĖL
First published 2014 in English by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Translated by Mary Catherine Gannon