The Dream Life of Sukhanov

Anatoly Sukhanov is the highly successful editor-in-chief of Russia’s premiere journal of art criticism and, it goes without saying, a member of the Communist Party.  But his current life is a far cry from his past as an underground experimental artist and the son of a persecuted inventor, and when political machinations and family troubles confront him suddenly, he begins having increasingly frequent—and increasingly bizarre—dreams in which past and present merge.  Where does reality end and illusion begin?  Who is the betrayer, and who is the betrayed?

The sympathetic characters in Olga Grushin’s extraordinary first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, embody the tortured history of art in Russia; they are colors sealed away in museum vaults, frescoes crumbling forgotten in the countryside, beauties reduced to pragmatism.  You don’t need to be familiar with this background, as a number of artists and their destinies come up in the course of the narrative.  But of all the artists to whom this story introduces us, none surpasses the author herself.  Grushin paints the world of surrealist art with surrealist language: luminous, languid, many-layered.

A favorite passage will illustrate her mastery of images:

…he saw that their bedroom was once again lit with a pink glow, Nina’s side of the bed was empty, the balcony door stood ajar, and from somewhere outside there flowed into the room a powerful voice singing, “Damnation, damnation to her for all of eternity!”

Unhappily, Sukhanov scrambled out of bed.  His slippers were nowhere to be found, and cursing inaudibly, he walked out on the balcony barefoot.  Nina was leaning over the railings.  The predawn breeze swelled her apricot-colored nightgown, filling it with gentle brightness, so that she appeared trapped in a glowing cocoon of orange air.  She barely glanced at him, but he saw that she looked worried.

The operatic chant clearly issued from the apartment directly below.

“What the hell is this?  Who’s making all that noise?” he asked in a whisper.

“Ivan Svechkin,” Nina whispered back.  “You know, the composer who lives downstairs.  He writes children’s songs.  ‘That Happy Day in April When Our Ilyich Was Born’ is one of his.”

“Well, this sounds like a church chant,” he said with irritation.  “I suppose he has a good reason for treating his neighbors to a nice bit of liturgy in the middle of the night?”

There were signs of sleepy stirrings on all four sides of the courtyard—windows lit, shadows peering from behind curtains, balcony doors slamming.

“I’ve heard he has a very unhappy marriage,” said Nina quietly.  “His wife is twenty years younger, and he gets jealous, can’t stand to have her out of his sight…. He might be having some kind of nervous breakdown.”

They fell into an uneasy silence, listening.  The rhythmical liturgy went on and on: “Damnation, damnation to her, damnation to her for all of eternity!”  And as the minutes passed, it began to seem to Sukhanov that their warily expectant courtyard was being gradually transformed into the interior of a great, roofless, solemn church.  The Big Dipper swung like an incense holder, spraying drops of stars into the skies above; gilded squares of lit windows all around them turned into jeweled icons, encircled by candle flames, glimmering with blackened lacquer on ancient stone walls—and for an instant he even imagined that the spirit of some fallen angel was truly being cast out by communal condemnation into the chilly August nothingness….

Breathtaking, isn’t it?  Perhaps now is a good time to point out that English is Grushin’s third language.  So now you’re with me in wanting to learn Russian for the sole purpose of seeing what this woman can do in her native tongue!

I can say no more about the plot for fear of spoiling it for you—which is a relief, since I still haven’t decided how to interpret the ending!  But this is worth reading not so much for the answers as for the questions—plus all the gorgeous prose, of course.  Grushin’s breadth of vision and depth of feeling put her squarely in the league of the classic Russian novelists who inspired her.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers, and is another of the books I read as a result of the Festival of Faith & Writing.

23. October 2008 by Mindy
Categories: Festival of Faith & Writing, Reviews | 10 comments

Comments (10)

  1. As a reader of history, this book is the best insight into the Soviet era I have seen, it is beautifully written, a book made to underline, and read over and over again.

  2. I agree, Brian! Welcome to my blog.

  3. I’m currently reading The Solzhenitsyn Reader and I can see my interest in Russian lit swelling. Thanks for the review and an addition to my GoodRead’s list.

  4. The Possessed almost completely ground down my interest in Russian literature (it’s bleakness is like trying to find one’s way through a forest, at night) but your review makes me hopeful.

  5. Thanks, Red-handed, for chiming in. I’ll have to look up the title that got you so down on Russian lit!

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