Monday, August 28, 2006

Beyond Shostakovich

'No, I dreamt of a holy mission in life.' Her words were again well practised and cold. 'Living in close proximity to art, religously watching over its creation, assisting at its birth with a thousand details that were in themselves mundane and yet would add up to a great, sacred trust, a short footnote next to my name for all eternity: 'Nina Sukhanova, born Malinina, the daughter of a hack, the wife of a genius". Pathetic, isn't it - all those young Russian girls raised on nineteenth-century novels, searching for an idol at whose plaster feet they might sacrifice their own aspirations, only to wake up decades later, aged and bitter, to find their visions of vicarious greatness shattered, their husbands average, talented nobodies ... Only that's not exactly how it turned out with us, is it, Tolya - and to tell you the truth, I sometimes think I'd prefer such a trite, unambiguous ending to ... to ...'

From Olga Grushin's brilliant first novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov. It tells the story of Anatoly Sukhanov, who at the age of fifty-six has everything a man could want: a glittering career, a beautiful wife and two talented children, a grand partment in the smartest part of Moscow, a dacha with a fireplace, and a personal chauffeur. He thinks he has achieved his dream - 'to carve from the world around him a small, secure happiness, all his own'. Then, as political alignments shift in the Kremlin and the rigid structures of the world in which Sukhanov has thrived start to crumble, he suddenly finds himself beset by heartbreaking visions from his past: nearly twenty-five years ago, he chose the perks and comforts of a high-ranking Soviet apparatchik over his precarious existence as a brilliant underground artist. Now the shadows of his youth plunge him into a terrifying state of uncertainty, as he begins to realise that when when he compromised his dreams to live a better, safer life, he ended up hardly living at all. A brilliant study, both of the collapse of a cultural system and of an individual human being. A quite exhilirating and remarkable literary tour de force - essential reading.


Born in 1971 in Moscow, Olga Grushin's father is Boris Grushin, the pioneering Soviet sociologist. She spent her early childhood in Prague. After returning to Moscow in 1981, she studied art history at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and journalism at Moscow State University. In 1989, Olga Grushin (below) was given a full scholarship to Emory University, and became the first Russian citizen to enroll in and complete a four-year American college program, graduating summa cum laude in 1993. Since moving to the United States, she has been an interpreter for President Jimmy Carter, a cocktail waitress in a jazz bar, a translator at the World Bank, a research analyst at a leading Washington law firm, and, most recently, an editor at Harvard University's Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. A citizen of both Russia and the United States, Grushin lives near Washington, DC.

* For an interesting take on the novel read the Moscow Times review here, New York Times review here, and the Washington Post here.

* Illustrations The Death of the Soviets and 10 Pentacles by David Caitens and reproduced with the kind permision of the artist. Do visit his website to see more of his work.

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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to The Year is '42

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