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The Teacher of Symmetry: A Novel-Echo

Translated from a foreign tongue by Andrei Bitov, retranslated into English by Poly Gannon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

352 pages, $26

By William L. Morris

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Novels fall infinitely through space and time, gradually accreting volume and mass until the great ones like “War and Peace” and “The Brothers Karamazov” become so heavy you can hardly pick them up.

If you believe that sort of stuff and nonsense, you’ll love this book.

Like his mentors, Nikolai Gogol, Laurence Sterne and Kurt Vonnegut, Andrei Bitov writes anti-literature. He takes it a step further and makes his narrators not only unreliable, but untalented as well.

To further complicate matters, Bitov takes his time to finish his novels. He claims he started this collection in 1971 and only completed it in 2007. And he doesn’t like to revise. But he loves to talk about how they came into being.

He claims he was in the Gulag somewhere working on a construction project. He wasn’t a prisoner but he might as well have been. Time was going slowly and all the books had been read except one he’d brought with him by chance, “The Teacher of Symmetry” written in English by A. Tired-Boffin in 1937. (Boffin is British slang for a geek, a behind-the-scenes worker who never does anything daring.) Bitov didn’t know English but that didn’t keep him from slowly – like Scheherazade, he says – translating pages every night for his co-workers to keep them from going crazy. When they were helicoptered out, he threw away the book.

Years later the book began to haunt him but he couldn’t find it so he decided to rewrite it from his vague (I’ll say!) memories of it. The best he can come up with is several novellas that aren’t related and a poem that is not revised. Yet lurking behind it is (he would have us believe) in pentimento the misunderstood novel he left in Siberia.

The first story is the rambling confession of the author’s protagonist, Urbino Vanoski (the devil in disguise), who has himself written a novel that has been discovered only after the author died. But he hasn’t died. The news of his death was premature.

The interviewer has little to say. The author, on the other hand, can’t stop talking. After a lifelong ménage a trois that includes his soul mate, in a kind of “Master and Margarita” relationship, and the illusory, fleeting image of Helen of Troy that he seeks in everyday life, he comes to regret – Faust-like – that he has wasted his life pretending to write when he could have simply lived. He’s got my vote.

But that’s only the first part. There are, in fact, eight seemingly unrelated stories that the author claims are echoes of the missing work – palimpsests that the author says when laid on top of one another, like sheets of Mylar – equal what was lost.

What did we do to deserve this? When novelists first refused to join a tradition that had been perfected for 100 years, there was a temporary gush of creativity. Vonnegut’s narrators refusing to do what the novel form demands was fun for a while. The silence in Pinter’s plays was welcomed after Shaw’s endless stage essays. Philip Roth’s toilet training manual made ours seem a breeze by comparison. But now the postmodernist novelist refuses to do so many things it’s impossible for a reader to find a peg to hang his hat on.

This is why Borges kept his postmodernist stories short: if you drag them out the way Bitov does, there’s so much back-story the front one doesn’t work.

Even the translator can’t stand Bitov’s writing at times. Once she writes (Bah! – Trans.) after a phrase that she finds particularly obnoxious.

One of the stories, however, has possibilities. A group of bad writers form an anti-writing league where they celebrate their lack of progress. They set stern rules and invite bad writers to come and comment on their lack of progress. Bitov should have abandoned his palimpsest idea and made this story the container for all the others. But that would have meant revising (See above.)

Eventually these frustrated writers whose only commonality is their inability to finish anything give into the temptation of talking about what dilettantes always talk about – in Russia at least – Mozart and Salieri (See Osip Mandelstam about same).

That brings us back to the original scene where several bored men in Siberia listen to a man explain a book written in a language none of them understands. This is the state to which we have fallen – perfection found only in its most imperfect form.

But the perfect novel is still out there waiting to be written. Sometimes you get close like “The Great Gatsby.” Sometimes you get far away like this book, but it’s still out there shimmering in the distance.

William L. Morris was the co-creator of the News poetry pages and is a lifelong student of Russian literature. He now lives and writes in Florida.