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by Andrei Bitov ; translated by Polly Gannon

Pub Date: July 8th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-374-27351-4
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A postmodern novel of dizzying intricacy.

Bitov plays mind games of all sorts with his readers—he includes puns, excerpts from made-up novels, false footnotes and comments on nonexistent manuscripts. The book's subtitle is “A Novel-Echo,” and from the title page, Bitov moves immediately into a second title page for The Teacher of Symmetry, a novel supposedly published in 1937 and written by A. Tired-Boffin. But wait…in an introductory note, Bitov talks about how this obscure novel had played an important role in his life and how he’d labored to translate it into Russian, so The Symmetry Teacher becomes an elaboration of Tired-Boffin’s novel…which is about an author named Urbino Vanoski, who’s written several books, excerpts of which appear in Bitov’s novel—with commentary by Tired-Boffin. Among the most amusing “excerpts” is “The End of the Sentence,” supposedly from Vanoski’s A Fly on a Ship. Here, we meet his narrator, Anton (are we not now at three or four removes from reality?), Tishkin (a “bombist” or terrorist), and Tishkin’s lover, Manya—and yes, the pun on “mania” is intended. Throughout the novel (Bitov’s? Tired-Boffin’s? Vanoski’s?), we find literary jokes such as the following epigraph: “The end of the sentence must be marked by a period.—A rule of punctuation.” In addition, one entire chapter is an excerpt from a poem by Ris Vokonabi, yet another fictional creation, and another chapter, “Posthumous Notes of the Tristram Club,” echoes both Dickens and Tristram Shandy.

While Bitov’s intelligence and gift for intellectual play are never in doubt, the novel hits the head rather than the heart.