I hadn’t read a book in Russian for thirty-five years until last week. A couple months ago, my father sent me a link to an hour-long documentary about a writer named Sasha Sokolov. I have an email folder full of links from my parents. I can’t say I’ll ever get to reading, watching, and listening to all of it, but now and again something in there grabs me. That’s what happened with the Sokolov doc. It’s called something like The Last Russian Writer and I can’t remember if there are English subtitles. Lately I’ve been trying to watch Russian movies more and it’s a big help if there are no subtitles because it forces me to just listen to the talking rather than reading the invariably limited and inferior English translation.
I’d heard of Sokolov before, probably for his first and best-known book, A School For Fools, which was handed around as samizdat in the 60s, then published in Russian in the 70s by a press in Michigan. There are several English translations, but I’ve been itching to see if I could get through a book in my mother tongue, so I took a copy out from the library. From the first sentence, it felt like taking a gulp of water after wandering in the desert for decades. It was something I’d missed without even knowing it. That said, it’s been very slow going and the edition I got has illustrations I dislike and is oversized, making it cumbersome. I called up my father to see if he had a copy lying around, but he couldn’t find one, so I went online and found one at Russian site for about six dollars. It’ll be good to have my own, because getting to the end of the book will probably take months.
I started the painting above the day after David Berman died. Because the sleepless night before inspired it, I was gonna name the painting in his honor. But as I worked on it I changed my mind. Center-left in the picture is a light blue-green rectangle with some yellow marks in the middle. It is the cover of a book of art from Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Schweik. Joseph Lada’s illustrations were done after Hašek’s death in 1923 but are inseparable in my mind from the text of the story. They are also the basis for Jiri Trnka’s great 1955 animated film. I flip through this book every now and then and remember listening to Schweik’s adventures as my father or mother read them aloud when I was small.
Schweik was a fool who revealed the folly of those running his world. We could use a fool like that today because we’re so far through the looking glass there may be no way back without some serious outside help. Sokolov’s book, so far, is an attempt to render a different kind of lunacy. I don’t know that I’m getting it all yet but am thoroughly enjoying the music of his stream-of-consciousness phrasing. It’s pretty out-there stuff, but it makes a lot more sense to me than what I read in my adoptive language every day in the New York Times.
It’s a welcome reprieve.
—I went to see Jeff Parker perform his amazing album, The New Breed, and, not unlike with Sokolov and Schweik, it felt like that music made it easier to breathe. I’ve listened to the record dozens of times, but having it played in real time was very special.