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.