Russians in July: Olga Grushin

You will find it hard to believe that Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov is not a translated Russian novel. It has all the vicious satire mixed with wistful yearning, surreal dreamscapes mixed with realistic vignettes of life in the Soviet Union on the brink of change (in 1985) that you might expect from a Russian writer. That is because Grushin is a Russian writer, who grew up mostly in Moscow (with a short stint in Prague in her childhood). However, she now lives in the US and writes in English, so we have here an interesting hybrid: a Russian sensibility which can express itself directly in English, thereby avoiding that awkward ‘approximation’ that can sometimes occur in translation. (Not a slur on translators at all, but something we all know and struggle with.)

I may be the target audience for this kind of novel: interested in Eastern Europe and post-Communist states, passionate about political satire, remembering 1985 quite clearly. But let me try to be objective. After devouring this novel in less than three days, and covering it with little sticky bookmarks (always a good sign when it comes to my reading), I can sit back and say: ‘Darn, these Russians are such good writers!’

This is the story of the personal breakdown of a man, Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, mirroring (or anticipating) the breakdown of the Soviet Empire. Ostensibly successful and well-respected, Sukhanov has reached the top of the tree in his profession as an art critic: he is editor-in-chief of the leading Soviet art magazine, Art of the World, he has written the definitive books decrying the decadence of Western art, he is married to the daughter of one of the most recognised painters of the school of social realism, he has a chauffeured limo to take him where he wants and a luxurious apartment. The author captures his self-congratulatory moment of contentment and dream life very well:

… At this instant… on a chilly August night in the year 1985, just after the rain had washed over the roofs of the city, the familiar and delightful world of Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov existed quite independently of the world outside. The éclair melted deliciously on his tongue, his tea was strong, just as he liked it. Row upon row of little jars containing concentrated tastes of the waning summer glittered evenly in cupboards all around him, and the air whispered of apples and cinammon… A seemingly endless expanse of rooms unfolded behind his back, their comfortable dusk scintillating with the honeyed lustre of the parquet floors, damask wall upholstering, golden-flecked book bindings, crystal chandeliers opening like flowers in the high ceilings… Somewhere in the recesses of his home, his two children were falling asleep, one a future diplomat, the other a future journalist, both equally gifted, and next to him, enclosed in the glowing circle of light, sat Nina, pale, dishevelled and so beautiful… This was his world , and it was safe.

But of course, it is not safe. A small change to his schedule and a chance meeting as he walks home alone after the opening of his father-in-law’s retrospective exhibition sets a series of events in motion which make, him call into question his entire life and the choices he made. He abandoned his own artistic aspirations for the safety and comfort of his current lifestyle but within just a couple of days, all that neatness and comfort is shown to be a sham built on false premises and lies which he told himself and others. His children despise him, his wife is disappointed by his cowardice and lack of artistic integrity, and professionally he is floundering, as political certainties and propaganda turn into shifting sands. He can no longer keep pace with the change but, above all, he is disturbed to find himself assaulted by memories from his childhood and youth.

Anatoly Pavlovich had always made a habit of gluing shut the pages of passing years, leaving at hand only some brief paragraphs for basic reference and a few heavily edited sunny patches for sentimental indulgence. Yet of late, memories were welling up in his soul, unbidden and relentless… bringing him closer and closer to the forbidden edge of a personal darkness he had not leaned over in decades.

The author achieves a rare feat. With her main protagonist, she creates a smug, self-satisfied party apparatchnik who demonstrates zero self-awareness and empathy with others, and gradually manages to make us feel sorry for him and understand the choices he made, even if we don’t agree with them. We see him as a man who has had to conceal his real self from his colleagues and friends for too long, who had believed in change before and been disappointed by false dawns and barely survived subsequent clamp-downs. His inner turmoil and his decision to compromise with the regime very much echoes the (fictionalised, speculative) portrait of Shostakovich that Julian Barnes presented recently in The Noise of Time. Unlike Shostakovich, Anatoly is less confident about his personal genius and whether that excuses anything:

Was I really so sure of my talent to risk everything for it – to turn my back defiantly on this chance, this last chance, of giving Nina the happiness she deserved, all in the vague hope that one day I would create, amidst the misery and disappointmment, something so unique, so beautiful, so great that it would fully justify our wasted lives?

Painting by Andrei Rublev, medieval icon painter. Little is known about the real artist and his life.

Any book which refers to Tarkovsky’s wonderful film Andrei Rublev is a winner for me. And this book certainly delves quite deeply into the role of the artist in society, their responsibility towards art and the future generations. Anatoly’s long-lost cousin comes to visit and they have one of those deeply Russian (i.e. profound, late-night, over several glasses of vodka) conversations about an artist’s mission. At first, as readers we are firmly on the cousin’s side: he loves Chagall and is seeking to rehabilitate him, while Sukhanov seems wedded to the Communist opprobium of surrealism and abstract art. But then Sukhanov surprises us:

[Cousin talking]…’your socialist realism and my religious painting have much in common… both have deep communal roots, and both serve a noble purpose – the good of the people, or the salvation of all mankind… In both too, the painter is an anonymous teacher of sorts, a compassionate man with a holy mission to educate, to enlighten, to show the way – a very Russian idea of the artist in general… so unlike the Western type of a solitary dreamer engaged in a private game of self-glorification. And, of course, both socialist realism and icon painting are concerned with an ideal, visionary future…’

‘What in the devil’s name does socialist realism have to do with it?’ interrupted Sukhanov. ‘I’m talking about art. Art is not about some common purpose or noble mission. It’s an expression of an artist’s soul, his individual, titanic struggle to rise above the ordinary, to speak a word unheard before, to extract an unexpected, mysterious, radiant nugget of beauty from the many obscure layers of our existence, to glimpse a bit of the infinite in everyday life – and truly great art comes to us like an ecstatic revelation, it sets our whole being on fire!’

If this makes the book sound very serious, full of philosophical discussions, then I am not doing a good job of conveying its compassionate humour and the lightness of touch of its satire. It’s a book that does not take itself too seriously, although it has serious messages to convey. Everybody struggles with the shifting sands of the collapse of an empire and its ideology. Yet there is also optimism in the air – could the promise of dawn be for real this time, could Sukhanov (and the younger generation) be about to be allowed to use their rainbow palette after all?

Well, we all know how that worked out… Better than in 1962 but still…

Panoramic view of Moscow, without the new skyscrapers.

One final note: Moscow is described with almost an elegiac lyricism: the city whose street names had undergone several transformations is about to undergo more change – change that will alter its structure, streets and buildings forever, far beyond a mere change of name. For more on the city on the cusp of change, see Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for a great review of We Are Building Capitalism! Moscow in Transition 1992-1997 by Robert Stephenson.

Also Read: Dept. of Speculation

OffillJenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was one of those books that I really expected to like. If I just quote the blurb, you will realise that it sounds exactly like my existentially angsty cup of tea or coffee:

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

And it is, indeed, beautifully written in parts, certainly thought-provoking, with glimpses of universal recognition. It’s the story of a nameless woman (initially narrating in the first person, then gradually distancing herself to become ‘she’ or ‘the wife’), who dreams of becoming a great writer, but becomes domesticated, married, a mother instead. Maternal love surprises her with its intensity, the pain of being a betrayed wife is ferocious (yet much more civilised and philosophical than the raw cry of abandonment of Elena Ferrante’s heroine). There is something of the tragicomic musings of Jewish introspection of the early Woody Allen movies – or is that just the New York style? A layer of wit to make the pain more bearable. It is a very personal and often funny story of how, little by little, we get snowed under by life’s demands. We compromise and dead-end. In the end, life is made up of these small everyday emergencies such as bedbugs, soul-destroying jobs that pay the rent, a colicky baby, trying to keep up with the organised mothers at school. At some point, however, we stop to ask ourselves: is this what I really want? How did I end up like this? So, in many ways, this book is an extended description of mid-life crisis

There are whole passages that I want to underline or keep in my quotations folders:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.

Enough already with the terrible hunted eyes of the married people. Did everyone always look this way but she is just now seeing it?

The wife reads about something called ‘the wayward fog’ on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream… It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. ‘What are you reading about?’ the husband asks her from across the room. ‘Weather,’ she tells him.

And yet… and yet…

Much as I admire the courage to experiment in literary fiction (and wish publishers would allow more of these books to reach us readers), I do wonder if a daisy chain or even a string of pearls makes for a satisfying book. I’m probably being too severe here, but, even though there is a narrative arc here, the apparent random clustering of one idea after another just feels slightly lazy to me.

Have you read this book? And what did you make of its style?

 

 

Art, Creativity, Poetry (and Prose)

Two quick reviews today of poetry and poetic prose, by two very different but equally gifted young writers. One born in England but living in Ireland. The other is Swiss, but writes (in this book) about China.

seaofink_0_220_330Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink (transl. by Jamie Bulloch)

The author is clearly attracted by exotic (i.e. Eastern) art – he has also written about the Indian woman painter Amrita Sher-Gil. This slim book is also about a real historical figure, the Chinese painter Bada Shanren, descendant of the Ming dynasty. Little is known about his life, however, although his work has been very influential, hugely admired and extensively analysed. So Weihe is free to weave the meagre details of his life into a slow-burning meditation into the meaning of art, where creativity fits into politics and everyday life, and how to capture the essence of nature and reality. The biographical details are perhaps the least interesting elements of the story, although they provide a certain structure upon which the author hangs his narrative: finding refuge in a temple, feigning madness (or perhaps being really mad for a period) to avoid confrontation with the new political rulers, reluctantly achieving fame. His artistic progress is marked through little vignettes describing his thoughts, emotions and brushstrokes as he creates ten of his most famous paintings. It’s like looking over the artist’s shoulder, watching his attempts to capture the spirit of nature, render it on paper and make it look effortless.

A beautiful, hypnotic book, full of the apparent contradictions of Taoist philosophy (exhaustively researched by the author). A book to reread for inspiration, and not just for painters, full of very quotable pages:

When you paint, you do not speak. But when you have painted, your brush should have said everything.

When you dip your paintbrush into the ink, you are dipping it into your soul. And when you guide your paintbrush, it is your spirit guiding it.

When you paint, do not think about painting, but let your wrist dance.

Originality? I am as I am, I paint as I paint. I have no method… I am just me.

You cannot hang onto the beards of the ancients. You must try to be your own life and not the death of another.

How can it be that, from a dismal sky, this bitter world can suddenly show us that we love it, in spite of everything, and that in spite of everything it will be hard to take our leave of it?

He had set himself one final goal. He wanted to paint flowing water.

www.chinapage.com
http://www.chinapage.com

silentmusicAdam Wyeth: Silent Music

A fine blend between English realism and Irish romanticism, Wyeth’s poetry starts with a small observation of daily life, which is then suddenly subverted and lets you take a deeper dive into something far more profound. Gathering and cooking globe artichokes becomes a moment of intimacy and exploration, a cinema trip with his mother becomes a heartbreaking revelation of a boy’s helplessness when face with the end of his parents’ marriage, a lost umbrella becomes the metaphor for bad memories of which we try to rid ourselves. Divorce, love, lost friendships, a father’s tumour, trips abroad, childhood pranks, child labour, pigs: there is no subject too big or too small for poetry, but there is no bathos here. Just clear-eyed and very precise recollection and wording.

There is plenty of humour and experimentation amidst more serious poems: this is the debut collection of a young, exuberant writer after all.  ‘Bubbly’ is a poem designed to be read from bottom to top, rising like the bubbles in a glass of champagne – yet it works equally well when read from top to bottom.  The poet makes of fun of fake intellectual pretensions (in the title poem ‘Silent Music’), wannabe poets who lament their lives provide them with nothing interesting to write about, naughty schoolchildren with their secret jargon, even the Danish language ‘that is why there are no famous Danish poets’.

poetryinternationalweb.net
poetryinternationalweb.net

Here’s a short poem in its entirety – the title is longer than the poem, almost, yet so much irony and ambiguity is condensed into those three lines. It’s based on the miracle observed in the summer of 1985 at Ballinspittle Grotto, when the statue of the Virgin Mary moved spontaneously, receiving much national and international publicity.

Waiting for the Miracle at Ballinspittle Grotto

Nothing moves but cars.

First one passes, then I see

a second coming.

 

By way of contrast, however, these romantic, inspirational lines at sunrise:

Some say to witness the break of day

is to witness the hand of God

pull back his black mantle

to touch fingers

with our ancestors

and know something of Adam

as the land was revealed fresh,

like seeing a lover undress for the first time.

 

Inspired by a Picture

you-can-fly-mary-by-judith-clay
you-can-fly-mary-by-judith-clay

Claudia from dVerse Poets has introduced us to a wonderful German artist, Judith Clay, whose dream-like paintings are our poetic inspiration this week.  For more pictures and details, please visit Judith’s website http://society6.com/judithclay.

Blue Moon

Please take just this once my hand

and lead me to the terrace

to bathe in silken moonrays

drink in the shush of trees

laugh softly at the mewl of plaintive cats

and trace that whimper within us

eyes sinking in each other’s.

 

For once switch off reason

indulge in full moon madness

dance among the giants of Poesy

and leave

algorithms, measurements

to tremble just a little

at fear of your neglect,

your newfound magic powers.

And if you can’t lead, follow,

join me in this folly,

savour every twinkle

of fairy-silver dust.

As I ascend, so fly me

with eyes open to wonder

and planetary music our only constant guides.

Just be

Just feel

Oh sweetness

of stolen blue

moon incantation.

Chasing Your Dreams

When Theo got off the train in Arles,

the stink and noise hit his nostrils and ears,

in cacophonous attack on Boulevard des Lices.VanGoghCafe

‘Of course with a name like Vince you have to paint,’

He told his brother,

‘And all summer you’ve been squiggling caricatures  in the square,

when tourists come to oogle at the little that is left

of that greater misunderstood one, the one with just one ear.

But now it is November, nights are closing in.

The city is deserted, fuel costs going up.

Come home to the Midwest, brother,

forget your midlife crisis!’

 

Yellow House Van GoghBut Vince turned eyes on him which saw beyond alimony payments,

eyes that had wandered amongst stars,

made accomplice by the wind,

protected by history.

‘You have a duty to follow your dream,

your passion,

and mediocrity has nothing to do with it.’