It all fell together by the end. Like several recent favorite novels of mine, The Symmetry Teacher (translated from the Russian) is a series of linked short stories. They are set in different times, have different plots, and cover a wide range of literary styles. Over time, though, you gradually begin to piece together the links between the different tales. One story has an eager young journalist interviewing an elderly author; later on we read the story that the author wrote; a later story features the author as a contemporary in another's story, and so on.
Writing about authors writing is practically the definition of postmodernism, but this book feels distinct from the hallmarks of that school. The Symmetry Teacher doesn't seem to ultimately be about itself: it's about the story it's telling, and by merging author, narrator, and character, it's able to provide a full range of perspectives on the tale.
That said, it isn't the easiest book I've read... it doesn't get especially dense or use obscure language, but the division into short stories made it feel hard to get momentum. While Urbino is fairly constant, other characters appear, become memorable, and then vanish, leaving you to restart from scratch. Likewise, I felt like I needed to re-learn how to read each section since the voice changed so much. Some of them were fantastic and fun; my personal favorite was probably "Posthumous Notes of the Tristram Club", a semi-comical story that had the vibe of "Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)", but about a literary adventure rather than a physical one. But other sections contain a lot of poetry - good poetry, I'm sure, but that always slows me to a crawl. (To be fair, part of my difficulty may have been reading this via Kindle; I've had good luck with Kindle in the past for breezy tie-ins, but my brain may not yet be wired to consume literature electronically.)
Speaking of difficulty: one recurring theme of The Symmetry Teacher that really appealed to me was the difficulty of writing. We see characters attempt to write poems, then discard them as inadequate; start writing a story, only to get distracted and lose their train of thought; form a club devoted to their inability to finish any novel they start writing. In a way, even the novel's enveloping conceit illustrates this: Bitov is "translating", from memory, stories that he "read" long ago in a foreign language, and the novel is peppered with footnotes bemoaning the essence that was lost in translation. It's fun, and very relateable, to see characters in a novel struggle to stay focused and produce the great works that they desperately hope lie within themselves.
Random thoughts follow:
Poetry is one of my weakest areas, but I really enjoyed the poems in the middle section. My favorite stanza may be:
Whoever builds a house is not the one who lives there.
Whoever created life does not look for meaning there.
Thought from above does not understand itself.
Take the road, and on it, overtake yourself.
There's a lot to unpack there, and in most of the poetry to be found here. It reminded me a little of Roberto Bolaño - he doesn't drop much poetry into his novels, but when he does, it's fantastic.
It probably shouldn't be surprising for a Russian novel that was translated into English, but the story veers repeatedly between a focus on Russia and a focus on Britain. Interestingly, the Russian elements seem to be very focused on time: the lineage of the literary canon, the evolution of the state over centuries. In contrast, when Britain is invoked, he seems to be very focused on the culture of the moment: the manners, the trappings of imperialism, the economy. Other countries (America, Poland, Italy) are only very briefly mentioned and not explored.
One thing that has been nagging at me since I first encountered it is "The Plot". From the context in which it is raised, it seems like this is probably referring to "plot" as in "a plot of land" - we've just heard about Russia's vastness and the special character of the land, so that's the most likely connection. And yet, as it gets used more and more, it increasingly seems as though "plot" is probably referring to "story". The phrase fades away without the dilemma ever being resolved, and I had chalked it up to my own lack of understanding, only to have it float back in again near the end, at which point I realized that it was probably an intentional ambiguity. The story is the land, or perhaps the other way around. And this, in turn, finally gives a link to "O: Number or Letter?", the second story, about the man who fell from the moon. Gummi's plot entirely revolves around his plot, whether it is the moon or the monastery or the impression left below his body. I still don't understand how everything connects, but the link between space and story is repeated so many times that it seems like the key to deciphering this book.
So, there you go! I enjoyed this book, but I'm mostly glad to have finished it. I'll mull over it a bit longer and see if any other revelations pop out at me, but for the most part I'm just happy to remember it as an intriguing, often inscrutable little puzzle of a novel.