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.

Weekly Summary 11th Feb 2018 (Part 2)

This is part 2 of what was threatening to become The Neverending Story in my last post.

The spectre of Communism is haunting Europe…

First of all, an enormous thank you to Kaggsy who wrote about the Red Star over Russia exhibition on her blog and convinced me that I should go to see it. I was initially sceptical, because the Socialist Realist art that I had witnessed in Romania during the Communist era was truly awful, a feast of nauseating kitsch. This exhibition, however, drawn primarily from the collection of British graphic designer David King, focuses on early Soviet art, 1905-1955. This was a period when it was still all about creating a new society and demonstrating that through a new type of art. New fonts, new designs, experimental work and techniques were all employed to show the modernity and success of the Soviet venture. I thought I knew the history behind it reasonably well, but I discovered many new things at this exhibition, for instance the multilingual posters to capture hearts and minds in the Soviet republics. Thank you, curators everywhere, and it always pays to stay humble and learn more!

Was the Soviet artistic enterprise all a lie? Yes, quite a bit of it: success was military rather than economic and came at a great price. Many of the artists were imprisoned or purged by Stalin at a later date. Their designs were imitated at knock-off standards in the decades that followed and by the other Soviet satellite states, cheapening their impact. Yet many avant-garde artists clearly believed at the time that art and architecture could bring out about a more democratic approach to art, render it less elitist, create a new environment where everyone felt empowered to create. All admirable goals (sound familiar to what we are discussing nowadays?). Plus, many of the designs still look fresh and beautiful today – and especially poignant, when you consider the tainted history behind them.

Another part of the exhibition which was painful to see: the self-censorship and mutilation of photographs. Ordinary citizens who had photographs of the Soviet leaders would then cross or cut out those who had fallen out of favour, for fear that someone would examine these photos in their own homes and accuse them of colluding with the traitors. Romania in the 1980s may have had many flaws, but at least we did not have quite this level of terror and paranoia.

Just by way of contrast, here is an example of the disgusting cult of personality and bad art that I grew up in.

The Emma Press is a charming independent press based in Birmingham, publishing mainly poetry (and some short fiction and children’s books). They don’t often organise events in London, so I was delighted to hear that they were launching their latest anthology of Love Poetry at an unusual café Coffee Cakes and Kisses not far from where I work. The café is designed to look like a kitchen (a working kitchen, where people can watch food being prepared), so people pull up chairs or stand around to chat like at the best parties. It was perhaps a bit too small for the large number of people who did turn up to watch the readings by 20 of the 56 poets featured in the anthology. I heard of Emma Press through Jacqueline Saphra, whose poetry I have admired ever since I returned to poetry in 2012, and she was there too. But I also got to meet and listen to new-to-me poets like Kitty Coles, Rachel Plummer, Jack Houston, Lenni Sanders, Paul Haworth, Maya Pieris and Ben Norris. The Emma Press Anthology of Love is a beautiful work of art: beautifully produced and illustrated, with a colourful cover that belies the anything but saccharine poetry inside.

Unsurprisingly, with so many cultural events happening, I did get a bit carried away and bought quite a few books. I was quite proud of myself for not buying all the tempting Russian novelists or books about Russian history at the Tate Modern, but then I lost control at the other events. In addition to the ones I bought to be signed at the Emma Press launch and the Literally Swiss event, there were also a couple I borrowed from the library and one I got gifted. Anyway, here is a selection.

I won the beautiful edition of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan in a Twitter giveaway and it came with a matching tote bag. Both so beautiful and turquoise that my younger son, who is not usually impressed with my book post, exclaimed out loud and kept the bag for himself.

By coincidence my friend gave me a dystopian novel about the consequences of China’s one child policy ‘An Excess Male’ by Maggie Shen King, which I am even more eager to read after speaking to Xiaolu Guo on Friday night.

Unrelated to any cultural events, but espied a while ago in the Waterstones Gower Street, I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying my fifth different translation of The Tale of Genji, this time by Dennis Washburn. I am hoping it will bridge the gap between Seidensticker’s user-friendly translation and Tyler’s rather too literal one.

Finally, I had a good old rummage in the Senate House Library, based upon feedback from my older son’s Parents Evening. They are reading Jekyll and Hyde for GCSE and the teacher suggested that he read other Victorian novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray. So I borrowed that for him, but of course I can never stop at just one. I thought that HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau and Bram Stoker’s Dracula also described scientific experimentation and human monsters rather well, reflecting the darker side of the British Empire. A few years ago he would have run a mile from any book that I recommended to him, but now  I hope he will read them and want to discuss them with me.

Last but not least, I got James Baldwin because the February read for the David Bowie Book Club is James Baldwin’s essay The Fire Next Time.

Next week or fortnight will be much quieter, although I will be taking my older son to a theatre performance at RADA – a great opportunity to see some of the nation’s future stars.

‘Ha! This is what you abandon me for?!’ Zoe is unimpressed with my book haul.

 

Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies

Yasmina Khadra’s Algeria

KhadraSingesThis is the work of an Algerian writer disillusioned with his country. Disguised as a crime novel and a murder investigation, it is actually an indictment of the corruption of Algerian politics, law, police force and journalism.

A young girl is found dead in a forest outside Alger and Nora Bilal, one of the few female officers in the Algerian police, is entrusted with the investigation. Her methods are questioned and she is personally disrespected at every turn, especially when it turns out that some political figures may be involved in a complicated story of prostitution and thirst for power. Brutal, with a high body count and utterly merciless protagonists, as well as some very brave (or foolhardy) police officers, this is not a pleasant story. Khadra can come across as preachy sometimes, but he can also weave an exciting story, which ends in a very unexpected and dramatic fashion.

Other powerful fictional (more or less) representations of Algeria: Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night; Assia Djebar’s Algerian White; Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.

Dan Fesperman’s Sarajevo

fespermanThe war in Yugoslavia: it’s about 1994/95 and Sarajevo has been under siege for about 2 years now. Vlado Petric has escaped army conscription by being a police officer, but even he has to admit that his job is utter nonsense: what does a domestic murder matter in a city where so many die daily in mortar attacks or shot by snipers?

Yet one night, when he stumbles in the dark upon a victim of shooting, close inspection reveals that this is no sniper incident, but a deliberate murder at close range. The victim is a head of security in the newly formed Bosnian Ministry of Interior, and it appears he trod on many toes: smugglers, black marketeers, local militia and so on. However, Vlado soon becomes convinced that something much bigger was at stake.

How is it possible to investigate in a city ravaged by hunger, corruption and desperation? How is it possible to keep your head and your integrity when all about you there is nothing but darkness and greed? This is an outstanding portrayal of a city and society driven to the utter limits, and you can forgive any plot inconsistencies or the rushed ending for the atmosphere it evokes.

Other books about Sarajevo which have stuck in my mind: Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art and Zlata Filipovic: Zlata’s Diary, for a child’s perspective on war.

barnesJulian Barnes’ Soviet Union

Barnes is a keen Francophile and has lived in France, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has adopted the French habit of a mélange between biography and fiction for his latest novel, an imagining of three key moments in the life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

In the first instance, we see a young, anxious Shostakovich waiting with his suitcase beside the lift in his block of flats, fully expecting to be taken in by the KGB for questioning during Stalin’s worst purges in the 1930s. His recent opera was denounced as bourgeois and unpalatable, and he wants to spare his family the pain of being carted away in front of their eyes. The second moment occurs ten years later, when he has survived the war and even emerged as a leading composer, reliable enough to be sent to a congress in the US, but nevertheless very fearful of saying or thinking the wrong thing. Finally, we see him old, resigned and somewhat complicit with the arguably more liberal regime under Khrushchev.

Although the biographical detail is fascinating and probably quite accurate, it’s the human and individual reaction to an oppressive regime, the attempt to create something of lasting artistic value within the constraints of prescribed Communist values, which makes this book really interesting. The daily fears and gradual compromises are described with great insight, candour and compassion. I will be writing a full review of this remarkable (and quite short) work for the next issue of Shiny New Books.

Other unforgettable books about the Soviet regime: Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park; Tom Rob Smith: Child 44; Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago; Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle.