José Vergara on Teaching One of the World’s Worst Detective Stories

Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf, delivered in Alexander Boguslawski’s masterful translation, comprises a daring act of immersion into the depths of language that results in semantic spasms of the great Russian literary body. The highly experimental novel, which unquestionably belongs to the highest literary ranks, announces the twilight of the novelistic tradition, but already eagerly awaits its imminent dawn.

~ Nariman Skakov, Stanford University

Our discussion of crime and deception through translated works continues today with a look at “one of the world’s worst detective stories.” In this National Translation Month, post literature scholar José Vergara introduces Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf. The linguistically complex and occasionally dreamlike novel is ostensibly about a crime that has been committed, but it takes quite a while to get around to any of the details. Vergara describes his students’ varied and complex reactions to this late-Soviet work of fiction, as well as to the difficult questions it generates, like whether a novel even needs to have a plot.

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One should not make the decision to teach a book by Sasha Sokolov lightly. This is especially true of his second novel, Between Dog and Wolf. Frequently (though misleadingly) called the “Russian Finnegans Wake,” it remained “untranslatable” for over thirty years due to its linguistic virtuosity and occasionally dreamlike logic. Fortunately, it’s white whale status was debunked a couple years ago by Alexander Bogulawski. But what makes it so tough?

Between Dog and Wolf takes its title from the Latin phrase “inter canem et lupum” meaning the time of day, the murky twilight, when a shepherd may confuse his dog for a wolf. The text is comprised of three interlocking narratives: dozens of poems under the heading of “Notes of a Drunken Huntsman,” a letter of complaint composed by the itinerant knife-grinder Ilya Zinzirella, and more lyrical prose sections attributed to Yakov Palakhmaterov, a gamekeeper. Beyond, or above, these points of view looms the author himself. The action, with the exception of numerous digressions, takes place on the banks of the upper Volga River in a space where—the reader gradually uncovers—the divide between life and death is flexible. Not only that, but characters blend into each other thanks to flexible spelling in their names and echoes between the narratives. As a result, contradictory events occur throughout the book. It’s clearly a demanding text, one that rewards an open imagination willing to question what a plot can be, what language can do, and how a book might be read.

The action, with the exception of numerous digressions, takes place on the banks of the upper Volga River in a space where—the reader gradually uncovers—the divide between life and death is flexible.

So why did I choose to teach it in a survey class devoted to the twentieth-century Russian novel? For a number of reasons. First, there’s the excitement of shared discovery. In comparison to Sokolov’s other books, A School for Fools (1976) and Palisandria (1985), Between Dog and Wolf has received relatively less attention. There have been some fascinating critical appraisals, to be sure, but it remains part of the late Soviet terra incognita. Its complexity and the fact that it took more than 35 years for a translation to come to fruition help explain this relative dearth, along with making Boguslawski’s effort that much more an immense achievement. This topsy-turvy, largely unknown work, I think, intrigues students. They’re alternately bemused, fascinated, and frustrated—in other words, everything one should feel when reading good experimental prose.

Beyond its cultural significance, Between Dog and Wolf also permitted me to challenge students’ conceptions of what fiction or a novel might be. In interviews Sokolov speaks of “proetry,” a style that emphasizes the texture of words over its content. As he puts it in a programmatic essay, “In the milieu from which I come […] the traditions of so-called art-for-art’s sake are still alive. Forgive me for being so insistent, but art should be beautiful. And prose should be refined and superior like poetry. […] Show me your how – a pass to truth – and take away what.” I therefore begin my introduction to Between Dog and Wolf  with a straightforward question: How are we to read this damn book? Certainly not like the classics. Take, for instance, some lines from the book’s opening chapter:

“But ain’t clickin, somebody suddenly said, ain’t smartin over there, in Ploski, that Fyodor, on the abacus of his? That is, not necessarily Fyodor but sorta Pyotr. And, in general—Yegor. His occupation was listed as an accounter, but even he, as it was revealed afterward, was a first-rate thief: That’s with whom Gury should have done his racin. Do You understand what happened?”

Well, do we? After the initial reading assignment, one of my students wondered whether we had even gotten to the point when Ilya accidentally kills Yakov’s dog (hence the title). His confusion is understandable. Between Dog and Wolf is one of the world’s worst detective stories; we know a crime has taken place, but its details remain shrouded in mystery for quite a while.

This leads me to one of the first points I raise with students: What exactly is plot? Does a book need a plot? Does it need a plot to be considered a novel? What about avant-garde fiction? Between Dog and Wolf’s complexity allows us to hold such weighty discussions, while also appreciating Sokolov’s humor and the oddities of the provincial life he depicts. If there is no traditional plot, what gives Between Dog and Wolf its shape? It’s all well and good to deconstruct the Novel as such, but something keeps it together. I provide my students with three options on which they might focus: the alternating narratorial voices, the seasonal rhythms that undergird the book, and numerous recurring themes and motifs. Here, I’ll focus on my approach to the latter. 

This topsy-turvy, largely unknown work, I think, intrigues students.

Lev Tolstoy once described his novel Anna Karenina as a “labyrinth of linkages.” He implied that readers might find meaning in the images he distributed across hundreds of pages. Borrowing this term, and taking a cue from one of my undergraduate professors who once had my class trace motifs throughout Tolstoy’s book, I require my students to do the same with Between Dog and Wolf. First, they select an individual motif or cluster: railroad; knives, skates, and sharp objects; animals; violence; crutches; human body and disfigurement; alcohol; and others. (If that catalogue of topics alone doesn’t compel you to pick up this book, I’m not sure what will.) Before each class, they all submit a list with their respective page numbers and the sentences featuring their linkage. I in turn compile a master document and bring copies to class. With each meeting, the list grows and grows. Some examples are literal (“Surrounded by the cotege and the dog pack”), others metaphoric (“She kept callin the obnoxious Ilya a poor fox”). Some linkages generate more citations than others. Then, I have students discuss in pairs which connections they notice between their selected linkages. After a few minutes, I ask them to share their thoughts with the entire class, and here, the results are even more thrilling, as they start noting further unexpected connections. The text’s architecture—dense, ambiguous, and deceptive—begins to reveal itself.

Many questions undoubtedly remain by the end of the book. For instance, how does Ilya lose a leg? Mutually exclusive plot points are never resolved. But that doesn’t matter. The student’s work, their exploration of the book’s structure, helps reveal Sokolov’s “how.” Between Dog and Wolf is emphatically not a puzzle whose pieces all fit nicely together. Instead, it underscores the pleasures of the process of discovery and recognition. It elevates language above all else, and as a result, students can learn how to appreciate atypical narratives, alternative modes of thought. 

It elevates language above all else, and as a result, students can learn how to appreciate atypical narratives, alternative modes of thought.

And, with time and effort, they get this. One, for example, went on to write a paper about train imagery and its connections to themes of death and impurity. Using the linkages exercise, he was able to navigate Sokolov’s highly metonymic language. In other words, he got into the spirit of the play with language, all to great results.

The process of excavating a relatively lesser-known work and of co-creating meaning pulls students in. Although some continued to express reservations about it when I polled them on their favorite books at the close of the semester, more than half opted to write about Between Dog and Wolf for their final paper. The contradictory nature of the text flowed out into the class.

Before teaching the novel, I very briefly corresponded with Sasha Sokolov himself. He joked that I should inform my students that reading Between Dog and Wolf might cause nightmares. Whether or not that actually happened, I don’t know. But we did make it through the labyrinth unscathed, more adventurous and collaborative readers for it.  

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