The Dream LIfe of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin raises the question of whether any book should be called a “first novel.” This fanciful, lyrical, and somewhat odd book is the work of an accomplished writer who surely had written many more pages than were finally included in The Dream Life of Sukhanov when it was published
Our hero, if we may call him that, is Anatoly Sukhanov, a Soviet bureaucrat of the arts who gave up painting for criticism and has become, at the novel’s beginning, editor of an important arts journal that struggles mightily to ignore Russian painters like Chagall and celebrate lesser talents who focus on art as a manifestation of class struggle.
We’re not meant to like Sukhanov, though he isn’t a mean man. He’s a narrow-minded, unimaginative fellow who outclimbed his talent and has alienated his wife, son and daughter with his relentless self-preoccupation and sense of personal importance.
Grushin moderates this negative effect with prose that dances along, sometimes overwritten, in the manner of her great Russian predecessors. Gogol and Nabokov come to mind. Beyond that, Grushin embeds her narrative in a series of dream sequences that let Sukhanov wander in the first person (sometimes remembering the poignant disappointments of his earlier life, his father’s suicide, his mother’s impoverishment), and provide a more full picture of the soul he left behind when he signed on as a Party arbiter, more committed to truth than beauty.
In the fifties and early sixties, Sukhanov succumbed to fear of the State, fear of life as a poor painter, and fear that he couldn’t get along without ultimately garnering a fine apartment, a staff, a car and driver, and a dacha outside Moscow.
So this is a story about his life falling apart almost from the first page. Bit by bit he loses his family, his job, his stature, and his illusions. He’s crushed the way so many characters in Russian literature are crushed; it’s what we have come to expect, isn’t it? The hero of our times is no hero at all; he’s a schmuck; he needs to wake up.
His son, daughter, and wife, Nina, are critical to Sukhanov’s awakening, but none plays a greater role than his long-abandoned best friend, Lev Belkin, who didn’t have Grushin’s talents as a painter but had more persistence--a nobody of a painter, but one who remained true to his earliest visions and aspirations.
Grushin deftly moves from the reality of Sukhanov’s demise to the possibilities of a revival still smoldering somewhere in his much neglected Russian soul. Here we are in a realm of dreamy magic realism, perhaps not entirely persuasive, but inspired by the colors and phantasmagoria of Chagall, who lurks in the background of the entire novel.
The question I personally would ask is whether a man who has been locked up within the “system” for decades can emerge as a free spirit in his fifties. Grushin wants us to believe in this possibility. I’m not so sure.
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