The painting shown above is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow.
As you can see, it’s a work of great depth and intricacy.
However, as you may have guessed, I’ve placed it here because it’s special in the context of this review.
References to The Hunters appear in translator Alexander Boguslawski’s notes for the first-ever English edition of the novel Between Dog and Wolf by Sasha Sokolov.
According to Boguslawski, Sokolov based certain descriptions in the book on Bruegel’s painting.
So before you complain that a Russian novel garnering comparisons to Finnegans Wake is sure to be insufferable, remember that it can’t possibly be too challenging…
After all, it comes with at least one picture.
Some Brief Background on Sokolov and Between Dog and Wolf
Sasha Sokolov’s greatest claim to fame may be having his first novel, Школа для дураков (School for Fools), praised by none other than the Russian-born author Vladimir Nabokov. As Nabokov did, Sokolov has lived a good deal of his life outside of Russia, having been born in Ottawa (his father was a Soviet spy) and spending a substantial amount of time in the U.S. after leaving the U.S.S.R. in the ’70s.
Regardless of what part The Hunters in the Snow played in the development of Sokolov’s second novel, Между собакой и волком (Between Dog and Wolf), the initial idea for it was planted by the author’s experience working as a game warden on the Volga (according to Boguslawski, who also translated School for Fools): The warden who had previously lived in Sokolov’s cabin had shot someone’s dogs and later drowned for reasons that were never made clear.
The resulting novel eventually featured two main characters: A hunter and whipper-in (I had to look it up) named Yakov Ilyich Palamakhertov, and a grinder (“sharpener”) named Ilya Petrikeich Zynzyrela, for whom my spell-checker does not care at all. Before Boguslawski’s translation, Between Dog and Wolf was considered potentially untranslatable by some due to its highly inventive language, hidden references, ambiguity and general complexity.
From here on in, unless otherwise stated, I’ll be referring to the English translation.
Between the Pages of Between Dog and Wolf
It’s difficult to summarize Between Dog and Wolf. Not so much because nothing “happens” as because reading it’s like being drunk and listening to someone else who’s also drunk tell a story that’s interesting and possibly even life-changing, only to wake up the next morning realizing there’s no way you can possibly re-tell it and in fact you may even feel a little ashamed for getting so excited about it.
It seems fitting, therefore, that the first epigraph at the beginning of the translated novel, a translation itself from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, evokes alcohol, conversation, translation and the title of the book (taken from Pushkin’s poem) in four short lines.
To peer down the rabbit hole for just a moment, the expression used by Pushkin in this work was an originally Latin, then French expression, “entre chien et loup.” It exists in other languages as well, but according to Boguslawski, it was probably translated into Russian for the first time in Pushkin’s work, and this probably would have been from French. It appears to have been kept that way as an epigraph for Sokolov’s original novel, but then translated back into French for the epigraph in the English translation.
“Entre chien et loup” refers idiomatically to that time of day when the light has begun to dim, the idea being that you can’t necessarily tell the difference between a dog and a wolf. This metaphor has also been extended to refer to other borderline states or ambiguities, such as the transition between the unknown and the familiar or between life and death, as it seems to do in this novel. While several facets of the expression, both idiomatic and literal, are explored in Between Dog and Wolf, this last concept may be the dominant one.
The 3 Voices
Sokolov’s novel is written in three distinct voices:
- The first-person voice of the character Ilya (though he occasionally refers to himself in the third and even second person), who’s prone to wildly casual and creative banter. His ramblings are ostensibly included in a letter he’s composing to a police inspector to explain his side of a conflict between himself and the local wardens.
- A narrative following the second main character, Yakov, the expression of whose thoughts and experiences is more “sophisticated” than Ilya’s but also more disparate.
- A set of poems ostensibly composed by Yakov.
The novel’s chapters alternate between these three modes of writing.
What Each Voice Adds
Between Dog and Wolf contains no strictly linear recounting of events, but there are several more or less cohesive storylines that inform one another even if they sometimes contradict one another as well.
In the following remarks, the “facts” stated can’t be taken entirely at face value when looking at the narrative as a whole, but they all “happen” at various points in the book.
Ilya’s sections of the novel make up the bulk of it, covering a large cast of characters living along the Itil (a Khazar word for the Volga, as is helpfully pointed out in the annotations) that includes a certain Gury, who meets with unlucky circumstance, two Nikolays (one nicknamed “Helper”), and a man referred to, at various times, by the names Fyodor, Yegor and Pyotr (not so lucky himself). We learn quickly that Ilya is part of a collective of workers who grind or sharpen knives, skates, blades, etc., and also that he’s an amputee.
While the excuse for Ilya’s writing, and for setting the story in motion, is the theft of his crutches—an act of vengeance by the wardens for his having killed one of their dogs, thinking it was a wolf—the bulk of his obsessions and recollections center around his relationship with a woman named Orina. He expresses much jealousy and paranoia regarding the attention Orina lavishes upon other men, allows other men to lavish upon her and, most importantly, does not lavish upon him. It’s unclear what the nature of their relationship is or was, and whether his various interactions with her—which include sexual assault—actually occur as stated or are distorted by fantasy.
What does seem to be clear is that pretty much anything in the “past” or “present” can make Ilya go off on another tangent about Orina, or women in general and then Orina again—a twist to the writing that’s at times humorous and not so difficult to grasp as interruptions to a narration go.
While he rails against Orina and calls her any number of names throughout, Ilya sometimes seems to be speaking from a place of blithe indifference and acceptance. At times he adopts an attitude of complete non-judgment towards her and her other lovers, both in the way he presents himself in past recollections and the way he assesses the situation at the time of narration. In one chapter, he even takes on Orina’s own voice for a matter of pages, relating events as she supposedly told them.
As with many of Nabokov’s characters, the idea of liking or not liking Ilya as a character seems beside the point. The idea of whether or not he’s an honest narrator likewise goes right out the window. The reader must either make an active effort to share his language, becoming complicit in his invention of the world around him, or stop reading and put the book down.
This isn’t to say that the reader needs to take the initiative to work incomprehensible drivel into something palatable. The musical twists and turns in Ilya’s narration, his deep dives and glances at what shimmers on and underneath the surface of a story, a progression, a life, are a guiding force even as they stray into impossible thought.
For example, when introducing a phrase that is used multiple times, “Beyond the Wolf,” Ilya gives what sounds like a straightforward explanation, that being that Beyond the Wolf includes “places that lie across the Wolf River.” He follows up with “regardless from which side you look,” which immediately sets the meaning spinning on its head.
One sentence that set me laughing over and over again was Ilya’s portrayal of the response the “Gorodnishche shelter,” a community of deaf people, has when one of the Nikolays knocks on their door looking for lodging: “Our department’s exclusively for the deaf, and you, as you can see, are also blind, so you understand yourself.”
I don’t know how this translates from the Russian, and while it’s an interesting question, for the moment, I don’t care. However, I imagine that what occurred in the original Russian must have been a unique music, too. What was lost may have been replaced by something else, perhaps not completely—but the whole holds together.
The narrative voice that concerns Yakov is at times centered around his paintings, in the format of an artist being posthumously explained to an audience from an expert’s point of view. There are other clues and implications that many of the scenes in these sections are describing artwork, based on artwork or seen from the perspective of an artist (or the artist, Yakov).
When the authorial narrative opens in the second chapter, “The Trapper’s Tale,” it starts in on the description of a populated “landscape” anchored by occasional infinitives such as “to live,” “to be” and, shortly, “to draw.” It refers to “the watercolor wind,” to “the artist” and to the “portrait” and “image” of someone named Maria—some of whose actions and circumstances seem to correspond to those of Orina—all before mentioning Yakov by name.
Besides being wordy, the narration takes off on incredible tangents of descriptive flights of fancy, which involve Yakov’s great-grandfather as well as the police inspector to whom Ilya is writing. Having read Dead Souls in translation, I can recognize after the fact of having found it out that some of this is meant to parody Gogol’s writing, but I imagine that this is more striking in the Russian.
The poems may be the most difficult part of the novel to decipher, even while being the easiest to read. They follow predictable rhyming schemes and aren’t too wordy, but there may be a lot of hidden significance here that a wide span of “average” readers will be missing out on. Still, there are some themes and stories that stand out as more or less obvious: Seasons, life, death and key events involved in the escalated conflict between Ilya and the wardens.
It’s difficult to glean who Yakov is, exactly—excluding the roles of poet, painter and hunter—from the authorial narrative and the poems. The reader is left at more of a distance from him than Ilya, though elements of their stories echo one another and tie together.
This distance seems deliberate. The authorial sections themselves seem to take on the tone of an artist observing his subject, or perhaps more accurately, of a naturalist observing an animal in the wild. Yakov is compared and contrasted with animals, and animals and nature are a constant theme in his poems. This all results in Yakov’s presence feeling more intimate and momentous when he does hove into view like a rare species of bird being sighted through a pair of binoculars.
The Big Picture: What “Challenging” Means for Between Dog and Wolf
The way that the three modes examine different situations using different literary devices and points of view creates cohesion and provides logical resting points for the eyes and mind. For example, the poems are much sparser in nature than any of the prose, encouraging imaginative visualization through their negative space rather than the stuffed banquet of Ilya’s memories. So this variation, it seems to me, while unusual (though less so in the Russian-speaking world), is not one of the more “challenging” aspects of Sokolov’s novel.
Sokolov’s modes also encompass a different quality of difficulty than that experienced in denser works by English-language writers that automatically register for comparisons; Woolf, Joyce and Nabokov are obvious ones.
In other words, the prose in this novel is really a different beast altogether. The previously mentioned writers, when they have the stream-of-consciousness dial turned up to 11, tend to strike me as airy and ethereal. Sokolov, while just as expansive, is substantial and concerned with more primitive life forms—I don’t mean “primitive” in the pejorative sense of “inferior,” but his work is meatier. If you’re a vegetarian, it’s hearty falafel.
Russian to English: What a Difference a Language Makes
I can read a little Russian myself, but have not read any of Sokolov’s original text other than the title. I intended to write about this translation of Between Dog and Wolf with the idea of hopefully helping potential readers of the book in English to gauge whether they would be interested in reading it, regardless of any relationship or comparison to the original.
It’s hard not to notice, though, that some parts of the original must be stubbornly, distinctively Russian. Perhaps most notably, the fourth chapter contains an extended riff on the Cyrillic alphabet that can’t be fully appreciated in English without some knowledge of said alphabet.
In fact, since this section deals with the shapes and sounds of certain letters, the translator would have been placed in the dilemma of having to either render the Cyrillic letters in the text or use romanization. He opted for the latter, which has its advantages and disadvantages.
On the one hand, the letter Г (ge), which is compared to a gallows, just so happens to retain its basic shape when rendered into the Latin alphabet as “ge,” and the casual reader of English can understand what the basic sound of the letter is without checking the annotations. On the other hand, just knowing that the letter Ж (zhe in the text) looks a little like a (albeit broken and deformed) wheel could in itself be a big help to understanding something that happens here.
Allusions to Russian Literature, French Beverages and Other Things
An article by Josh Billings in the LA Review of Books covering this book and another “monster of translation” (Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream) points out that Boguslawski’s introduction to Between Dog and Wolf comes off a tad anxious. The translator does seem eager to take a tour-guide approach to the book. I can’t criticize him for this in itself, because I wouldn’t want the job of introducing this book to an English-language audience, and I’m inclined to praise any effort at accessibility. However, I still think this effort might have been better focused.
For example, the notes on the part above with the letters, which I would have loved to see discussed at length, are kept simply to showing what the sounds look like in Cyrillic—which, don’t get me wrong, is a big help—and explaining how the letter zhe enters into the spelling of some Russian words in the original text.
On the other hand, pains are taken in the annotations to clarify aspects of the text that go well beyond the Russian-English aspect, combining translator’s notes with general help for readers. For example, there’s one note explaining that Chartreuse is a French liqueur, a fact that I assume readers of the original text would have either known or had to look up.
It’s possible a note like this may be helpful for some. However, seeing as how the annotations appear after the text, it does seem a little silly to clarify proper names so eminently Google-able, whose Wikipedia entries can be brought up with a single touch on a Kindle and aren’t even exclusive to Russian culture, when this novel is in fact a monster and we could use that hand-holding in more treacherous areas.
I’m having a bit of fun at the considerate translator’s expense here, but that’s all it is. Ultimately, I applaud the decision to err on the side of accessibility, and it’s not a big deal to see more frivolous notes in the annotations. I would, however, be interested in seeing or hearing any other specific information that could be made available about the translation itself.
The language of the translation inspires confidence and trust. While I’m not doing a side-by-side comparison and so can only say so much, the English version of Between Dog and Wolf has none of the choppiness that betrays bunched linguistic fabric and uneven stitching. I have no way of knowing what kind of major surgery Boguslawski had to do on this text, but if those who have read it in Russian are also to be trusted—and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be—it would have had to be both major and holistic.
Some translations have the aforementioned choppiness, and others seem like the text had a linguistically universal quality and was made to be translated. The English version of Between Dog and Wolf, whatever else it is, is an accomplishment in preserving or at least rendering three entirely distinct voices that stay convincing and consistent throughout.
Between Dog and Wolf maintains a foreignness apparent not just in the culture depicted, but in the language itself. To say that this makes it “untranslatable,” though, or makes the translation a failure, would in a sense imply that any translation is a complete transference, culturally or linguistically, or that a translation is meant to trick the audience into thinking a text was written in their native language.
Aside from the translation itself, there’s that world of culture to be confronted. Others who have written about the text have warned that it’s stuffed full of references to other Russian literature and cultural allusions that most readers simply will not understand. However, while I assume this is true, I also gather this is true for plenty of Russians, as Boguslawski has acknowledged.
It Is Challenging, but Maybe Not Like You’d Think
If you require all of your prose surface-minimalist, you’ll probably loathe this book. However, I would hate for a potential reader to miss out on it simply from being battered down by the Finnegans Wake comparison and the belief that Pushkin and Gogol are pre-requisites. They’re not.
While, unfortunately, the appeal of a text like this may be considered reserved for a demographic who has read Pushkin and Gogol and Finnegans Wake (but did they do it while guzzling Entre-Deux-Mers and Chartreuse?), there’s no reason why that has to be the case.
In the English-language world, Between Dog and Wolf may make the rounds disproportionately in the academic and scholarly world. Boguslawski’s deep attempts at accessibility seem a bit undercut by this assumption. But this could just as well be a popular book among stoners vibing off the narrator’s persistent and elegant flow, an agitated soul seeking spiritual strength through exploring questions of life and death, or even fan-nerds misguidedly arguing about what really happened to Ilya.
It’s especially a shame to think that this book might go largely unnoticed in the English-reading world outside the doors of academia when so much of it is written from the perspective of mixed education: Ilya’s vocabulary is robust, full of the type of clever ambiguity and wit prized as a sign of “culture,” but served up in a vulgar, entertaining style. Yakov is a poet and painter who left the city to live in the wild, bringing his refined sensibilities to the residents on the Itil.
Beyond the Wolf, the Sun Also Rises
Between Dog and Wolf is a book that defies categories and certainties, making it difficult to understand what it’s “about,” or what “happened.” This doesn’t in any way make it unreadable. Any person who can read in English can read this translation.
The hardest parts to make full sense of are Yakov’s poems, but they’re limited in length and easy to take in. The most engaging and easy-to-follow parts are those written by Ilya, which are linguistically much more dense. This is yet another way Sokolov’s novel blurs labels and expectations.
This translation is certainly not as difficult as Finnegans Wake. I don’t think it’s even as difficult, on the whole, as Ulysses. It’s inarguably shorter. Directly after reading Sokolov’s novel, I started a certain 600-something page book that shall remain nameless. It was very simply written, and full of comprehensible drama. “Oh,” I thought, “After Between Dog and Wolf, I’ll just fly right through this.” I still haven’t finished it, but I’ve found time to reread Between Dog and Wolf twice.
Each time I’ve reread Sokolov’s novel, I’ve been surprised at how much more of it becomes intelligible to me. The second time I read Ilya’s narration I found that I had learned much of his language and become familiar with a certain number of clarifying events. Consequently, things that had gone right over my head the first time seemed simple and obvious. For example, while expounding upon the glories of skating on one leg, Ilya says, “…lately there ain’t nothing to push off with.”
It hadn’t occurred to me the first time that he was talking about not having his crutches because they had been stolen. This is an example of simple language that means something very plain, but is approached in a less-usual manner. Ilya, a skater with full use of only one leg, approaches not just the ice but language from the angle that most easily sustains him. Keeping up with him isn’t a matter of intelligence, bravado or speed, it’s about becoming habituated to his dialect and circumstances.
The narration and poems are less flexible, though they soften a bit as you trudge through them, too. I can easily admit to being certain of having missed a lot in the entire text. Hidden linguistic, cultural and historical references whiz by me, close enough to let me know they’re there but not for me to catch them. I have, on the other hand, seized some Biblical, literary and French language and liquor references by the throat, and can tell you that this doesn’t necessarily matter.
If I were to drop one blanket criticism on Between Dog and Wolf, it would be that so much of it does not seem essential—at least I don’t feel deprived by my lack of understanding, despite the fact that with each new read I’m eager to catch more. I feel I can grasp the summary point made by Billings in the previously mentioned LA Review of Books article, that being that something essential doesn’t exist in Sokolov’s text, but for me that statement takes on a half-full perspective: What’s missing can’t be essential, because I don’t miss it. What’s there may not be essential, but it’s extraordinary, a headlong dive, equal parts linguistic and philosophical, into the unseen.
The Big Takeaway
How does one make the unknown, impossible transition from life to death? How does one make a decision based on appearances, limited information? What really happens in that in-between state? Between Dog and Wolf doesn’t just tackle these questions, it makes them sing. The fact that it doesn’t commit to actually answering them gives it room to attack them, frothing and growling in the uncertain light.
Both main characters at one time or another reflect on their own deaths, which I don’t think is a spoiler because they may only be imagined. That these descriptions are rich with detail but factually uncertain gives less weight to the concept of mortality: The actual passage from life to death is what’s explored, rather than the suffering, grief or moral questions linked to the event.
At this time, there aren’t many reviews of this translation of Between Dog and Wolf by bigger publications or even serious bloggers out there. I have read some personal online reviews that would have you think it’s actually written in some unknown language or exists for academic scholars and no one else. While I’d be comfortable saying that it probably won’t immediately appeal to a large proportion of the English-speaking population, these ideas about who books are for are usually a matter of culture, class and marketing, not personal taste or intelligence.
So I do feel some responsibility to put things in perspective: I don’t like the term “experimental” because it sounds like an excuse (not to mention part of an extended process rather than an end result). I find ideas about literature and poetry just being “words that flow over you” while you work to invent the meanings to be so much b.s. Much of my favorite literature is quite sparse. Furthermore, I don’t have an advanced degree in literature. In fact, I don’t even have a college degree. I haven’t read any academic or scholarly essays on this work, which isn’t to say that there may not be some very interesting ones out there (Boguslawski names a handful in his introduction), but at this moment I’m mainly speaking from my own reading experience.
That said, I am an experienced and picky reader, and Between Dog and Wolf is my most enjoyable read of 2017 so far, unless it happens to be this tweet from Mira Gonzalez.
Judge for yourself: This excerpt from the Columbia University Press website is definitely readable, if a bit intricate and thorny. You can keep in mind that this is the more difficult of the two main prose voices in the novel, and that Ilya’s speedier, more slapdash style makes up more of the book.
You can get a sampling of Ilya’s voice by checking out the Kindle sample on Amazon, which allows you to read a few pages into the first chapter, “Discords Beyond the Itil.” Print copies can be purchased directly from the Columbia University Press website. For a further glimpse into the translation, listen to a short interview with both Sokolov and Boguslawski that was recently released by NPR.
My favorite part of Boguslawski’s introduction is the part where he states that Between Dog and Wolf proves the novel isn’t dead. A cynical person might scoff at this, but while I might not put it as assuredly, I sort of agree.
Between Dog and Wolf is a reminder that “the novel” isn’t built of any material in particular, and there aren’t any particular rules for how you interact with reality, either. Last year, for example, I managed to follow the Cubs to their World Series victory in real time through text-only formats.
Technology can change reality, but so can words.
I don’t necessarily intend for this post to be my last word on Between Dog and Wolf. I’m considering writing a closer study of it and may even get around to reading the Russian version at some point.
See you Beyond the Wolf.