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Stephanie Burns on Matvei Yankelevich

Boris by the Sea by Matvei Yankelevich
Octopus Books
Review by Stephanie Burns

There is nothing particular about Boris.
He’s particular to nothing.

To read Boris by the Sea seems, at times, as though you are reading about the first human. Here is Boris, thrown into the world and struggling to unlock its secrets, to understand what surrounds him.  He stumbles into philosophical quandaries with no lofty ambitions, but with the certainty that answering them will immediately improve his life.

Matvei Yankelevich has created a Henri without Berryman’s pop culture, but trading on the same surrealism, the same conversational tone. Bouncing between prose and verse, Boris attempts to interact with the world―watering the sand when he is thirsty, watching a plant grow―and these interactions seem always to end in frustration, as though Boris may never learn how to successfully exist. The Author pauses to ask, “Is there anything real about Boris? / Better to wonder, is there anything abstract about Boris?”

In telling the story of Boris, Yankelevich investigates the line between prose and verse. At times, it is hard to tell if a poem is written in a verse form or if the prose form merely happened to fill out in a way that suggests separate lines. Still, many of Yankelevich’s experiments are explicit. Prose poems are broken by verse lines. Verse forms nestle between prose poems in the progress of the book. At times, Boris appears in the form of a play, and dialogue in this form appears as both broken into verse lines and as it might in a modern play―small paragraphs of prose. This experimentation in form underlines the unstable nature of Boris, his world and narrative. Page to page, nothing can be counted on to stay the same and Boris is chief among these things.

Boris has few companions by the sea, but he is not alone. First, there is Woman. Never named, she is at times Boris’s fascination, at times an authority figure to Boris. Boris hints that she is false, unreal.  When Boris tries to kiss her, his mouth becomes a cave and she walks into it, closing the door behind her. But Woman does not speak and seems to be an abstract notion to Boris. In the end, she leaves and Boris thinks better without her watching.

Ivan is the only other person with a name in Boris’s world. Is he more real than Woman? Certainly, he has more of a voice. Ivan appears first to have a talk with Boris about his novel with no words. Ivan seems to threaten Boris’s creative output with his contradictory opinions. Boris and Ivan debate about their philosophies and at times, Boris feels inferior to Ivan. But Ivan seems to disappear as the Author becomes more prominent in Boris’s narrative.

Boris’s relationship with the Author is integral to the progression of the book. In this, Yankelevich adds another layer of framing over Boris’s story. We wonder what Boris’s own novel without words would be like, but we see him here conversing with his author, and that author not only presumably narrating all of Boris’s actions and thoughts, but also explicitly interjecting his own voice in first-person. Perhaps the best way to characterize the Author as he intrudes on Boris’s narrative is anxious. In his fist direct address to the audience, he presents the problem of knowing who you are without relation to another person: “I hope that Boris will help me in this respect.” Indeed, when Boris is alone, he is constantly wondering about himself, his body, and the world around him. In their subsequent conversation with one another, Boris seems to be knowing and confident next to the neurotic approach of the Author.  And yet, as the book progresses, Boris and the Author as separate entities seem to slip and become confused with one another.  The Author interjects with thoughts that might belong to Boris. By the end of the book, the Author is referring to himself in the third person.

In this way, Boris and the Author share their difficult relation to the world―something that is never resolved and perhaps can never be resolved. In the end, all Boris can do is close the window on the world as he attempts to stop thinking about it, something we know (in our relations to the world) to be a futile evasion. 

Coming back to Boris, does Boris ever come back?
Does he stay away, instead?

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