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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Symmetry Teacher

Andrei Bitov

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To purchase The Symmetry Teacher

Title: The Symmetry Teacher
Author: Andrei Bitov
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 282 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Symmetry Teacher - US
The Symmetry Teacher - UK
The Symmetry Teacher - Canada
The Symmetry Teacher - India
Le Professeur de symétrie - France
Der Symmetrielehrer - Deutschland
El profesor de simetría - España
  • A Novel-Echo
  • Russian title: Преподаватель симметрии
  • Translated by Polly Gannon

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Our Assessment:

A- : inspiredly involuted

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 17/1/2013 Ilma Rakusa
The New Yorker . 6/10/2014 .
Publishers Weekly . 14/4/2014 .
The Washington Post A 11/9/2014 J.P. O'Malley

  From the Reviews:
  • "Überhaupt fällt auf, wie schonungslos direkt sich Andrei Bitow gerade durch die Maskierungen hindurch äussert: über eigene Verfehlungen, über Glauben und Unglauben, über Russland als den «Versuch Gottes, die Zeit durch den Raum zu ersetzen», über die Sujetlosigkeit der russischen Literatur, weil in Russland alles anfängt und nichts aufhört, weil «bei den Russen alles Schicksal ist». Bitow holt zu ebenso tiefgründigen wie ironischen Reflexionen aus, die sich zum Teil wie Mikroessays lesen." - Ilma Rakusa, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Bizarre and wonderful sequences await readers with a taste for vertiginous postmodern mayhem." - The New Yorker

  • "Each chapter echoes the others in both plot and theme (obsessions of various kinds abound), and one gets the sense, while following Bitov’s winding remembered translation, that we are in the presence of one of literature’s most formidable unreliable narrators. (...) Bitov, a pioneer postmodern writer, packs physics-defying deaths, mysterious doorbells, and space aliens into this lively literary feat." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The novel we are reading, other novels that the author has written within this novel, and various classics from the literary canon, all become the canvas that Bitov works from to build his magisterial story. Despite this chaotic format, the rhythm of Bitov’s prose is so consistently brilliant that readers will have no trouble moving through the narrative, even if they have no idea where the author is taking them." - J.P. O'Malley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Symmetry Teacher is presented as an 'echo-novel', and from the start resounds with myriad symmetries and echoes. The novel opens with 'A Note from Andrei Bitov', explaining that he once came across: "a book entitled The Teacher of Symmetry by an obscure English author", and how he came to make The Symmetry Teacher out of this material -- a translation, a rewriting, a reimagining. The Teacher of Symmetry is ascribed to one 'A. Tired-Boffin' -- its title-page reproduced here (and giving a publication date of 1937); 'A. Tired-Boffin' is, of course, an authorial anagram (Andrei Bitoff, as the transliteration of the author's name likely would have been at that time), the year of publication the one Bitov himself was born in .....
       Bitov's novel is one full of correspondences, its fictional counterpart both mirror and source. The novel includes pieces about the (other) author and sections from its counterpart -- with its own fictional author-character, Urbino Vanoski ("an obscure author from the 1930s" who "enjoyed a veritable boom at the end of the sixties"), who in turn also adopts an anagrammatic-alter-ego, styling himself poet Ris Vokonabi.
       All these chapters and story-bits refer to and play off each other, beginning with Bitov's doubling of their titles: he renames each of the original chapters, a chart in the opening section helpfully mapping out the correspondences. As he also explains:

     Each chapter of The Teacher may be read as a stand-alone piece. The reader is free to take the chapters on their own merits as individual stories; but if one manages to read all of them in sequence and hears an echo carrying over from each story to the next, from any one story to any other, one will have discovered the echo's source -- and will be reading instead a novel, not merely a collection of stories.
       Well into the 'novel', one of the character offers what can also be taken as Bitov's guiding principle (and not just here: compare Pushkin House or The Monkey Link):
A novel is nonlinear, too, like scientific discovery. Everything in it has to be revealed, uncovered anew, you see ? This is how I explain it to myself: in real scientific discovery, the interesting thing is the nonlinearity of becoming, and not the results, however astounding they might be.
       Indeed, for Bitov engagement with the material is an ongoing process: The Symmetry Teacher is essentially a text of the 1970s, but one that Bitov has revised and rewritten over the past four decades, shaping it into this -- which still has a very fragmentary feel to it. No wonder that one of the concerns articulated here is: "So what is a finished work of art ?" -- "the question that gripped the collective consciousness of our Club so tenaciously", in one of the sections, a chapter described as from one of Vanoski's novels, which features the 'Tristram Club', one of whose guiding principles is that: "Everyone is free not to write whatever they wish" and whose members conceive books, or ideas for them, but do not produce books with any finality to them. So, too, The Symmetry Teacher embraces the continuous engagement (and reëngagement) with the fragmentary; Eliot's: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins" could be Bitov's Leitsatz.
       The dictum: "The end of the sentence must be marked by a period" crops up several times, but here as elsewhere Bitov challenges prescription -- grammatical and otherwise. Typically, too, one (non-)ending to the novel, the antepenultimate chapter, concludes ambiguously mid-sentence:
     "Well, then, maybe it's still

       The different stories that make up the novel are not so much unfinished or incomplete, but rather part of an overlapping continuity that probably can best be compared to an Escher loop (or loops of Escher loops ...): not neatly nested, à la Calvino, or adhering to some similar determined Oulipian schemes, but rather capriciously folding back on themselves across time and space, the author's guiding hand in the frame but handing off responsibility in his layers of authorial invention, attributing a great deal to A. Tired-Boffin, who in turn credits Urbino Vanoski. etc.
       Urbino is the most straightforward in expressing the conundrum Tired-Boffin and Bitov constantly face in their work, his summing-up pretty much exactly what Bitov means to convey in his much more roundabout (and 282-page) way:
     My writing was good, but my ideas were even better. Take Disappearing Objects, for example, I never got past the title ... There may have been an epigraph, I recall...I'm not sure. Can't remember. Perhaps lines from Edgar Poe: "All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream."
       Of course Bitov doesn't leave it at that: there's more to Disappearing Objects than this passage taken out of its context suggests: it's a book that was already an unseen presence near the very beginning of the novel, when Vanoski mentions he is unable to find it and tantalizingly and cruelly suggests: "It's about -- well, no, I won't try to retell it."
       Arguably, then, The Symmetry Teacher is entirely context, with nothing standing in isolation. It makes for a heady mix, of course -- all the more so because Bitov doesn't work with simple cross-references: the interplay of stories, character, and themes is considerably more complex (and, often, overwhelming).
       Throughout, Bitov tries to realize his ideas -- to make fiction of them. One of his solutions is to revisit them in different guises, approaching them from different perspectives; another, simply to illustrate by example -- the abounding variations on unfinished sentences/stories/texts, to take the most obvious example(s).
       The Symmetry Teacher is about books and reading and writing that transcend the actual set text -- literary echoes that arise and exist separately from what is in a fixed, written state. This is a novel where, typically, a character enthuses about his vivid memory of a particular scene -- but admits he no longer can find it:
And the passage that follows is so strong that I always make a singular effort to grasp the transition, but I just can't manage -- I can no longer find the passage in the book, however much I leaf through it.
       The individual 'stories' branch out from the central stem to varying degrees, some closer to Vanoski's life-story, some stories within stories (or others novels, etc.). There are some plots to some of these, an arc of actual story and even occasional adventure, but threads are easily lost (resurfacing elsewhere), and little is neatly tied up in some conclusive end. Bitov (and his imagined writers') concerns aren't so much with actual story; he's more interested in everything around it -- language, sensations, memory.
       Early on Vanoski articulates what is obviously also one of the points of greatest interest to Bitov, and one explored throughout and, especially, with this novel:
     I'm curious why figures of speech -- an image, a metaphor -- while distancing themselves from their object, seem to approach the truth, whereas the reality surrounding us seems to be senseless, littered with trivia, as though insufficiently generalized an abstract, and therefore untrue.
       The beautifully conceived tale, 'O: Number or Letter ?' suggests in its title already the most basic ambiguities in meaning; it also features a simpleton-character who absurdly yet convincingly claims to have been to the Moon.
       These are narratives of the metaphysical -- the physical and real often not so much neglected as simply not bothered with. So also these are stories where the narrator can suddenly realize:
Ah, yes, I completely forgot. I forgot about our protagonist. So the plot fell through.
       Plots are always falling through, and novels, worked on for a lifetime, remain incomplete. The Symmetry Teacher is a novel of Russia, too -- despite its supposed origins in Tired-Boffin's English work -- and imbued, through and through, with both the Russian language and soul. (The language aspects -- which extend beyond wordplay to grammatical considerations, especially of tense, since sense of time is something Bitov is particularly interested in -- don't entirely come across in translation, but seem to be fairly well re-presented.) And, returning to the lost plot(s): yet another aspect of this Russianness reflected in the work comes from the claim: "Russia has no plot -- only space".
       True, Bitov admits:
Narration without the slightest nod to a plot is impossible, however -- the text would have neither end nor beginning.
       Bitov admits to plot, and admits it, reluctantly it often seems, to his narrative, but it isn't allowed to take firm hold: Bitov's texts fray repeatedly in supposed beginnings or ends. Yet there are quite proper stories here, too: 'The Battle of Alphabetica', the saga of king Bartholomew, framed in near mythical terms; the tale of the unusual not-quite-writers' club (an episode whose original title was: 'The inevitability of the Unwritten'); or 'O: Number or Letter ?'
       Bitov-as-A. Tired-Boffin admires Vanoski's work, describing it as:
a book so remarkable that only I could have written it, if I could have ...
       The Symmetry Teacher has much of that feel, the wish to be not the book proper, but the echo and memory of a book, the book-that-could-have-been, or book-we-want-it-to-be. Bitov doesn't want a set in stone finality; indeed, part of the purpose of this loose, many-pieced presentation is surely to make the novel essentially ungraspable in some physical-metaphorical sense. The novel is not its own end, but rather remains a point (or a cluster of many points) of inspiration for both writer and reader.
       It's an impressive and successful effort -- on its own, unusual terms.

       Note: The copyright page of the US edition notes the original Russian edition was published: "in slightly different form". While usually disappointed by revised-in-translation editions and editorial interference when a book is re-presented in another language, in this particular case, given the nature of this text, it seems almost appropriate or even inevitable.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 July 2014

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The Symmetry Teacher: Reviews: Andrei Bitov: Other books by Andrei Bitov under review: Other books under review of interest:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Andrei Bitov (Андрей Георгиевич Битов) was born in Leningrad in 1937.

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© 2014 the complete review

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