Anatoly Sukhanov, the fifty-six year old protagonist of Olga Grushin’s first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, is a well-respected and affluent art critic and the editor of Russia’s premier art magazine, Art of the World. He is a major proponent of the Soviet artistic agenda, and his career has earned him a position of well-heeled stability and comfort, a ritzy apartment in Moscow with his beautiful wife and two grown children, a private chauffeur, a country house, and a surfeit of pastries and succulent, roasted chickens.
As the novel opens, Sukhanov and his wife, Nina, are attending a retrospective honoring Nina’s father’s paintings. For Sukhanov, it should be an enjoyable, maybe even a triumphant, celebration, given that much of his own career is built upon espousing the glory of artists like his father-in-law and the supremacy of the Soviet artistic endeavor. However, as the party commences the evening—and Sukhanov’s carefully constructed and well-furnished life—begin to unravel.
His wife, Nina, leaves early, taking the car. He botches a conversation with a powerful Soviet official, costing his son a weekend at a dacha with the influential man’s daughter, and on the steps of the museum an old acquaintance, Lev Belkin, steps out of the shadows, accosting Sukhanov with memories of his younger self buried so completely that their reemergence unsettles his entire life.
The Dream Life of Sukhanov is the second novel I’ve read this year about the life of artists in Soviet Russia. The first was Daphne Kalotoy’s debut, Russian Winter, a novel about a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi ballet and her husband, a poet. Like Russian Winter, The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a novel whose narrative grows through flashbacks, but in Grushin’s writing the lines between present and past, between memory and reality, are blurry, uncertain and entirely subjective. Everything is seen through Sukhanov, and Grushin really excels in creating a character who is at moments heartbreakingly sympathetic and at others, entirely contemptible. It’s fascinating to read a novel through the perspective of a character who is simultaneously so acutely perceptive of the sensual world and so alienated from the reality of his own feelings and the feelings of others.
Sukhanov is a complicated man, and this is a complicated novel, probably the best novel I’ve read yet this year.
After encountering his old friend, Lev, on the steps of the museum, Sukhanov’s dreams begin to haunt him, their images slipping in and out of his waking life, his fears and insecurities, some painfully new, others decades old, (re)awakening and rising to the surface. This book explores the consequences of the choices we make in our youth, the damages done by the betrayals that haunt us—betrayals of those we love, of the ideals we most prize, of the futures we imagine for ourselves and for the world.
As more and more of his past back to him, the seams of Sukhanov’s velvet-lined reality begin to come apart. Edges fray and rapidly the whole elaborate tableau begins to smear and melt away, revealing a darker, deeper world lurking in the recesses of Sukhanov’s memory. He remembers being a young boy, living in a communal apartment, learning about art in the middle of the night from an old man who was a student of Van Gogh. He remembers watching his father, who dedicated his life to the crazy but beautiful ambition of achieving human flight, step out the window of their apartment, smiling at his son while falling to his death. He remembers painting, covering canvas in opulent bursts of color, and then hiding his canvases from superiors and colleagues alike, eventually locking them away in his mother’s closet. He remembers falling in love with Nina, the daughter of Pyotr Alekseevich Malinin, the most renowned and influential of communist artists, a man whose artistic ideals directly opposed all of young Anatoly’s passionate beliefs about painting, beauty and truth. And he remembers giving up his Art—both the creation of and the belief in it—in order to secure a life for himself and his wife not dominated by poverty and fear.
And all of these memories, coming back to Sukhanov as if they’re dreams from someone else’s life, usher Anatoly into worlds of paranoia and suspicion, spur erratic and irrational fits of anger, and propel him slippingly into madness, a madness which Grushin shows to be frighteningly and inextricably linked to truth.
The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a novel steeped in myriad artistic and literary traditions: paintings, particularly those of cubism and surrealism, the works of Chagall, Dali, and Picasso, the novels of Gogol and Dostoevsky. And it is also a book as which employs the immortal landscape of myth—Icarus and Daedalus, Leda and the Swan—as a backdrop for the finitude and fragility of human existence. Grushin’s writing is beautiful: lush, imagistic and original. At one point she describes a character stepping into the light of a streetlamp as an insect, suddenly caught in amber. Her writing takes on the character of the paintings whose beauty her book extols, immersing the reader in a web of intricate and surreal language that brings Sukhanov’s haunting and heartbreaking hallucinations to life. And it really is Sukhanov who gives this novel its life. Often unforgivable in his callousness and cowardice, obnoxious in his willful misrepresentation of reality, but also capable of such remarkable sensitivity and perception, he is a really compelling character, and The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a really gorgeous and absorbing novel.