A School for Fools, Sokolov’s first novel, was written in the Soviet Union but published only after his emigration in 1975. Hailed by Vladimir Nabokov as “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book,” it was an immediate critical success. Sokolov’s subsequent novels, Mezhdu sobakoi i volkom (1980; between dog and wolf) and Palisandriya (1985; astrophobia), have established him as a major figure in Russian letters.
Socialist Realism, the simpleminded, didactic literary dogma imposed by Joseph Stalin in the 1930’s, had succeeded in all but destroying Russian literature by the time of the dictator’s death in 1953. Both the great nineteenth century tradition of critical realism, associated with Leo Tolstoy, and the glittering modernist tradition, associated with Andrey Bely, had nearly died out. With Stalin’s death, Russian literature began to resume its earlier traditions, particularly that of critical realism, typified by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The modernist tradition was reinaugurated by Andrei Sinyavsky (Abram Tertz), whose 1956 samizdat essay On Socialist Realism called for an avant-garde, “phantasmagoric art.” The revived modernist tradition, however, fared less well in the U.S.S.R. than its older rival, and almost all intellectually pro-vocative and stylistically innovative prose remained either underground oremigre. Sasha Sokolov’s A School for Fools is, along with his other writings, among the most brilliant responses to Sinyavsky’s modernist imperative.