Sasha Sokolov encountered Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Hunters in the Snow” in Vienna, where the novelist saw it at the Kunst Historisches Museum following his emigration in 1975. His Austrian-born first wife had already smuggled his first novel out of the Soviet Union and the panel painting of three hunters and their dogs trudging through a snowy landscape proved instrumental in inspiring his second.
Ilya, the protagonist in “Between Dog and Wolf,” wanders through fictional lands based on both the Volga region and the Bruegel painting. Sokolov’s novel is a linguistic whirlwind that destabilizes time, characters, and even death. The one constant is the Russian landscape on the upper Volga River.
Vladimir Nabokov had welcomed Sokolov’s unconventional debut novel “A School for Fools” (1976), calling it “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book.” His second novel, written in 1980, takes the linguistic gymnastics further – it’s a sublime parody of numerous literary styles and traditions in which language trumps plot. The author himself coined the term “proeziia” for his work – in between prose and poetry.
Alexander Pushkin and “Eugene Onegin,” his novel-in-verse, were particularly influential in the creation of “Between Dog and Wolf.” The Latin phrase “inter canem et lupum” (between dog and wolf) is an idiomatic expression meaning twilight – the time of day when a shepherd cannot tell a wolf from a dog guarding his flock. Having arrived in Russia via France (“entre chien et loup”), the idiom first appeared in Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” and pops up in the first epigraph of Sokolov’s novel.
Although considered by many to be Sokolov’s best work, the novel’s puns, rhymes, and neologisms have prevented “Between Dog and Wolf” from reaching an English audience.
Now, translated and annotated by Alexander Boguslawski, “Between Dog and Wolf” can be enjoyed in English as part of the Russian Library Series by the Columbia University Press. Boguslawski is professor of Russian at Rollins College and the translator of Sokolov's “A School for Fools” (2015) and “In the House of the Hanged” (2011).