The Dream Life of Sukhanov
by Olga Grushin
Putnam, 354 pp., $24.95
OLGA GRUSHIN'S DEBUT NOVEL, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, about the undoing of an establishment art critic in Moscow during the 1980s, moves deftly back and forth between surrealism and a close-in third-person character study. The result is a riveting English-language story of a somewhat baffling type.
On the one hand Dream Life is a breakthrough novel whose story pivots neatly on the dreams and interior time-traveling of its central character, Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov. On the other hand, it's a classic 19th-century novel in which an individual's fate evokes his entire past and various mysteries of identity and history are explained while a whole string of narrative parallels are as meticulously balanced as a suspension bridge.
Grushin herself is also a bit of this and that. Born and partly raised in Moscow, this daughter of Soviet intellectuals received her college education in the United States at Emory and became a citizen in 2002. She cites her parents as a resource for learning about the Moscow art world before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but was herself a student of art history at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
At the novel's opening, Sukhanov is the pompous editor of the journal Art of the World--a position to which one does not ascend without the blessing of Communist party VIPs. His professional success depends on his being editorially circumspect: "Above all, Sukhanov was famous for his skillful omissions."
Indeed, "Western art of the present century wandered through the pages of the magazine like a mildly embarrassing hallucination--a mute befuddled miserable ghost who was ridiculed, kicked, and exorcised, but whose name was never pronounced and whose face was never revealed." For his politically correct art criticism, Sukhanov is awarded a handsome apartment, to which he returns after a long day to forget his worries with a cup of cognac-laced tea and a plate of chocolate éclairs (while, it goes without saying, millions of humbler Soviets feast on stale bread ends and meatless borscht).
As with apartments and liquors, so with beauty, which also becomes the private treasure of a few, while, in the name of progress and morale, kept safe from the masses. This is one of the novel's most intriguing themes: What happens to beauty under a regime that recognizes beauty only in the state's own mythological image? The resulting aesthetic approves countless pictures of farm tractors while actual masterpieces of surrealism or impressionism are relegated to the dusty basements of state-run museums, where only those collaborating with the regime's repression of beauty (curators, art journal editors) get to see them at all.
But the novel is no mere exposé of the intellectual corruption at the heart of the Soviet art establishment; it is also a journey into the private world of one of its victims, who happens to be one of its perpetrators. Beauty, here, too, becomes a private matter as Sukhanov's greatest reward for selling out is a lasting marriage to his gorgeous wife, herself the daughter of an officially approved (and much rewarded) artist.
Yet love and beauty come at the cost of love of beauty, as Sukhanov's own surrealist paintings disappear down the memory hole, while his homes become successively more luxurious, and his bourgeois family life fills the space once occupied by his passion for art.
A major part of the thrill of reading this novel comes from the games Grushin plays with the reader. Everyday actions--the sipping of a coffee, a train conductor's request for a passenger's ticket--swivel the narrative, without warning, into scenes taking place 20 years prior in different locales under different circumstances. One can't help but admire the consistent skill with which Grushin navigates these rapids--and in English, her second language, no less.
There is, however, something a little too studied, at times, about Grushin's method, possibly the side effect of a thoroughness that does not easily translate into English-language novels of such stylistic ambition. A cover blurb likens Grushin to Nabokov and Bulgakov and Gogol, but she is altogether less antic than these great Russians. Despite its clever games, there is strangely little silliness in The Dream Life of Sukhanov, though dreams make perfect soil for silly plants to take root.
Grushin's word choice, too, occasionally tends to fussy terms (lacunae, velveteen) one sees only in dictionaries and pretentious poetry. The upside of her writing style is a powerful intrusion of imagery into an idiom and form both energized by the sudden appearance of demanding word pictures and arresting visual details. Both qualities, the visual and the overdone, can be seen in a sentence such as this: "The sun, about to glide below the stubble of antennas on neighboring roofs, suffused the air, the trees, the peeling stucco facades, with a vespertine lucidity."
One feels grateful for the clarifying humor of stubble and put off by the heavyhanded vespertine.
But these are mere tics in a writing style one can imagine expanding in a hundred different ways. In the meantime, it proves perfectly effective for realizing the self-collapsing dream novel of a Soviet artist searching for the soul he traded in for a beautiful wife, a tony apartment, and a chauffeured car.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.