Matvei Yankelevich’s Boris by the Sea is, as Rosemarie Waldrop says in her blurb on the book’s back cover, not so much a collection of poems and dramatic sketches (although they are these, formally) but rather an amalgam of various literary modes ranging from children’s-story allegory to theatre of the absurd to philosophical reflections.
The central character (or literary device) integrating these modes is “Boris,” an entity that is described in such a manner as to leave us uncertain as to the nature of its form or substance (“Boris got a crazy idea in his head to build something and he began with himself. He said to his right foot, build yourself. And it did. The left foot followed suit.”), its gender (“Enter Boris [form of a woman].”), its distinctness (“At this time all the other Borises in the form of women gather around the first ones.”), and even as to its actuality (“Boris looked at himself over and realised there were many parts of him that he could not see.”). This is more explicitly addressed as follows:
Is there anything real about Boris? Better to wonder, is there anything abstract about Boris?
It is this indeterminacy of the entity’s material nature which forms the basis for the book’s philosophical and existential ruminations. As a literary device, cast in such a way as to suggest a problematical relationship to existence and the phenomena, Boris is well placed to act as a cipher, for the book’s engagement with aspects of existential angst and with questions of beingness and nothingness. Boris’s anxiety about his innate solipsism is well expressed:
The world was reflected inside him, somewhere inside his skull. And it hurt. It hurt something awful. Boris lay in bed and thought: is it my skull that is hurting, or is it the world around me that has fallen ill. […] if you don’t look at the world then your headache will go away, thought Boris. And everything vanished in the room.
Boris felt that he could not grasp reality. It glimmered outside the window in questions' broken branches.
The book’s concerns relating to beingness and nothingness are most marked when it engages with concepts of identity (“Without a role a person is as good as dead”) and otherness:
People want someone to lie beside them. When there's someone else under the blanket, in the dark, then you know who you are in relation to this someone who lies beside you.
It is this desire to assuage the psychological discomfort born of such existential concerns that motivate the necessity for the self-definition in the presence of others, which the book partially addresses:
People need each other, thought Boris, to check each other for ticks. People need each other for solving the problem of what is inside.
Consequently, this reassurance enables a moral empathy with those others that define you.
Other aspects of the book include neo-philosophical musings:
And then for the first time in his life Boris said aloud: There is a limit to everything everywhere.
And he began to bite his fingers. He started with his nails, first his pinkie. He had bitten through all his nails. Only there traces were left. And he proceeded to rid himself of the traces. He bit off the top of his pinkie and thought: But it will stick in my stomach! What sort of thing is this. In this manner I will never rid myself of the traces of chewed-off finger nails.
That was not what Woman was to Boris. To Boris she was neither rain nor shine. She was fake as wooden sheep, false as snowflakes, fraudulent as kitten sneezes.
But people need each other to open each other up and see what is inside. And to scratch their backs.
It took a while to get going. But once he got going, he was pretty much gone.
Whenever time went by, Boris felt it going by, much the way a rock feels the river going by, changing him a little at a time.
Perhaps a weakness of the book is its actual mixing of literary styles, in that I found the constant need to change reading expectations distracting and ultimately unnecessary for conveying the book’s philosophical and absurdist aspects. But this is a minor point. On the whole, it is an interesting book with some unique observations on the nature of reality and our creation of it.
About the Reviewer
Jeffrey Side studied English at Liverpool University and Leeds University and has had poetry published in Poetry Salzburg Review, Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, nthposition, eratio, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, and Jacket, among others. He has reviewed poetry for New Hope International, Stride, Acumen, and Shearsman. He edits The Argotist Online and is the author of two poetry collections, Carrier of the Seed (Blazevox) and Slimvol (cPress).