- The Dream Life of Sukhanov
Olga Grushin's debut novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, has drawn numerous comparisons to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, not only because the author is a Russian émigré living in America but because of similarities in the two authors' use of language. Both write in an elaborate style not often found in the work of American writers. Here is a description of Sukhanov's apartment building: "The stairwell split the gray monstrosity of the building in half, laying it open like an enormous, overripe fruit, with the imposing leather-padded, nail-studded doors, two on each floor, embedded in its yawning pulp like dark seeds, every one of them containing its own luxurious blossom of success."
Aside from the sentence-level affinities (toeing the line of purple prose and occasionally stepping over into it) Grushin is far more humane toward her characters, never treating them, as Nabokov once said of his own, as "galley-slaves." Despite his many moral failings, the eponymous Sukhanov is a vivid, complex character who deeply engages our sympathy and interest, and Grushin's novel is ultimately intimate, expansive, generous, unrelenting and beautiful.
The story follows the collapse of Sukhanov's life. Once an artist of promise, Sukhanov, when faced with the threatening realities of repressive Soviet politics, betrays the humanist, individualistic truths of art in order to make a career for himself and provide security for his family. He becomes, through his father-in-law, editor of an official art magazine that regurgitates Soviet rhetoric and attacks any art that dares transgress the party lines, including the work of the surrealists, who once inspired him. The conflict between art and security is tied deeply to the novel's central concern: the problematic relationship between our past and our present and the ways in which our lives always fall short of our ideals. This predicament is amplified in Sukhanov's consciousness: he grew up during the terror of the Stalinist state, in which men with "broad leather backs and polished black shoes" might easily come to your door in the night, and yet he is truly receptive to the power of art, which he describes in these words: "a long, ringing hush fills your hearing, the world stands still as if under a magic spell, and thoughts and feelings course freely through your being . . . so that . . . [End Page 146] you find yourself changed, changed irrevocably, and from then on, whether you want it or not, your life flows in a different direction."
The complexity of the character's crisis is deepened by the political and historical realities that surround it. The novel is set in 1985, the year Mikhail Gorbachev became premier and initiated social changes of glasnost that would play a role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These cultural shifts are felt only obliquely by Sukhanov at first, as he has built a high wall around himself to hold back the problematic past and this wall happens to block out a good deal of the present. Eventually, in what seems to him a wild confluence of events—but which the reader sees as an inevitable and overdue erosion of his delusions—he is confronted with the changing world and the mess his seemingly ordered life has become. His home is used as a stage for an underground concert, and he learns that his daughter is the musician's mistress. He is ousted from his editorial job, and his wife moves out to the country, wanting time alone. All this drives Sukhanov into his final, extended breakdown in which the past comes flooding back.
With increasing frequency as the novel progresses, the narrative moves fluidly between the present and the past, which Grushin manages to make equally compelling. In extended scenes from the past, during which Sukhanov's experiences as a young artist in the 1950s are explored—the way he was inspired by the surrealists and Chagall, and the birth of his love for Nina—the point of view changes from third to first person. One begins to see, as...