When I picked up Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov late last week I was suffering a little (or should I say a lot?) from Orange Prize-reading fatigue. For the 3 months previous I’d allowed my reading agenda to be (almost entirely) shaped by a bevy of judges, and Grushin’s novel was the last in a gruelling nine-book-stretch of shortlist reading. I hadn’t had the time to relieve myself with anything spontaneous and non-Orange related – except for Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way and John Banville’s The Sea, which were forced upon me by the library recall system. And since Esther and I had spent the last few days cataloguing my TBR pile (hidden away in 8 massive cardboard boxes) and because I’d been reminded of all the wildly tempting books I’d bought or had bought for me over the last 3 years and since I’d been making up my Summer Reading Challenge schedule, I had that itch for randomness, for an utterly impulsive read. But I persevered and was rewarded: The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a *good* first novel, even an *excellent* first novel. I finished it about 20 minutes before the New Writer’s Award was given to Naomi Alderman for Disobedience and when the judge admitted that two of the shortlisters had been head to head and that the runner-up would be on their conscience, I could sympathise. It must have been tough one to call.
The blurb on the dust-jacket pretty much gives away the necessaries of the novel’s plot: Anatoly Sukhanov, aged 56 and editor of the prestigious Art of the World magazine, is living a life of privilege and comfort in 1980s Soviet Russia. He has a beautiful wife, Nina, two talented children, Vasily and Ksenya, a spacious apartment in the best part of Moscow, a country house and a personal chauffeur; his father-in-law is one of Russia’s most vaunted artists and he is one of its most respected art critics. His monographs explicating the horrors of the “isms” of Western art – impressionism, cubism and, most particularly, surrealism – and lauding the stolidly realist and inspirational quality of Soviet art have brought him Party membership and a friendship with the Minister of Culture. In a world of uncertainty, poverty and anonymity Sukhanov is proud of his sureness, of his well-ordered life. Indeed he has just received the proofs for his own biographical short, due to appear in an updated edition of The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia:
“And this, neatly compressed into the three and a half columns of fine print, was his life in its entirety – one man’s conquering rise to prominence, with nothing to change and nothing to add, soon to be nestled side-by-side with greatness even greater than his in a massive compilation of Soviet accomplishment – the ultimate proof of having arrived.”
But on the opening night of an important retrospective exhibition dedicated to his father-in-law (and just as he is about to be invited to an exclusive Party resort) a ragged visitor from his past serves to shatter all certainties.
Lev Belkin, “an older slovenly man wearing a burgundy velveteen jacket”, accosts him as he is leaving and offers him a sad, soggy postcard advertising his own retrospective exhibition at a shoddy basement gallery. He hopes that “Tolya” will come for "old times sake", and will bring Nina too. At first Sukhanov is bubbling with confusion – he hasn’t seen Lev in a quarter of a century. What does he want with him? What is his motive in approaching him in such an abrupt, mentally disruptive way? Finally he decides that it had been for the sole purpose “of humiliating him – him, Sukhanov, who had achieved so much in life! He had come to fling his success in Sukhanov’s face – but in truth, there was no success, just a measly little show that had arrived a lifetime too late and meant nothing.” Laughing he rips up the postcard and tosses it into the Moskva river.
Still, the encounter is enough to send him into a spiral of personal deconstruction; he finds himself beset by reminiscences as vivid as visions, beginning with his earliest and happy childhood memories but quickly moving on to his first terrifying contact with Stalin’s secret police. Thence to his discovery of the wonder of art, his own burgeoning artistic abilities and to his father’s terrible death before finally culminating in the heady years he spent as an underground surrealist artist in the 1950s and 1960s. Just as his controversial past rushes forward to confront him his present happiness fractures: political adjustments at the Kremlin lead his magazine to commission an article on Chagall without his leave, his own daughter begins to associate with a group of musical dissidents and Nina leaves him for the country. Having chosen the perks of conformism above the honest brilliance of his art almost 25 years before, the full weight of his betrayal - against his talent, his principles and his passions - is quickly brought to bear.
Grushin writes all this in what can only be described as meaty and muscular prose, beautifully detailed and fleshy. You certainly couldn’t call it dainty, but it is dreamy and even capricious. It is vibrant always, made up of broad and then flickering strokes, not unlike the surrealist painters it describes really. Certainly on occasion she has an overconfidence with adjectives and adverbs, but rarely to the point of overuse (I think this struck me forcefully only once, on the opening page). But what the novel does so well, better than anything else, is describe art. It describes art brilliantly. None of those drab text-book paraphrases that killed the canvas cold in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Instead, visceral responses to an image: how it draws you in, draws you up, draws you out and how it puts itself into you; how, in Sukhanov’s case, it literally possesses you.
Most of Sukhanov’s memories are stimulated by an experience or sensation associated with an image – either someone elses or one of his own – that haunts him and becomes flesh. In these delusional episodes he actually becomes the agent in the painting, stumbling through surrealist landscapes and confusing characters from art – men from Dali and Magritte - with family and acquaintances. In the end he cannot differentiate or choose the real world from the imagined world; he cannot separate the vision/the painting/the past from the reality of now, and certainly he cannot prioritise them. He is faced with a distressing dilemma: is he alive, or is he only a representation of living? What is real and what is not? What is then and what is now?
Grushin is also interested more widely in states of consciousness and how we experience our subjectivity, making it explicit in her title and implicit in the range of sleeping/drugged/drunken and fear-paralysed states Sukhanov experiences in the course of his 350 pages. She plays artfully with her narrative techniques, interweaving a kindly third person narration with Sukhanov’s increasingly frenzied and confused first person. The shifts are almost imperceptible and can even occur mid-sentence.Just as his dream world, his art world, seeps into his real world and reveals its hypocrisies, so his “I” voice obliterates his peaceful objectivity.
The thematic tissues seem ambitious and are thought-provoking. First, what makes art? Second, what is more important: art or life? Third, does materialism or political ideology have a place in artistic endeavour or does it rape it of real meaning and beauty? Is there such a thing as artistic integrity, and if there is to what extent are we duty bound to preserve it? For Sukhanov the questioning and the answering is bound up in with a family history of mental illness and fantasy, with the kind of madness of creativity that destroys men and women as soon as make them. The novel seems to end in suggesting that, yes, creative endeavour is a duty and, yes, squandering it is a betrayal but, no, it is never to late to change it: Grushin uses the perfect analogy of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, a film about Russia’s most renowned icon painter. Lev Belkin explains:
Here is Rublev, radiant as a god, capable of turning white walls into paradise at the lightest touch of his brush, yet refusing his calling because the world around him is mean and cruel and ignorant, because people kill each other, because the rulers are unworthy, because it seems there is no place for beauty under the sun. And so for many years he wanders the dark, demented Russia – the greatest artist our soil has ever formed, alone, silent, unrecognised – until one day, bent with age, he meets a boy, a mere boy, who is struggling to create the most glorious church bell in the land. And some changes in Rublev…he goes to Moscow to paint our Kremlin…”
The film is a clever parallel and Grushin's mention of it is just a light enough touch to be hommage. The Dream Life of Sukhanov, like the film, is about coming to terms with beauty despite the realities of political and cultural horror and stupidity. Indeed, it’s about honouring beauty because of the certain existence of its opposites. Rublev is horrified by the barbarities of the fifteenth century, Sukhanov by the wilful creative oppression of the Stalinist era: they’re both frightened away from creating beauty in the face of great ugliness.
True, the novel is over-forwardly didactic at some points:
“…there will never be a higher mission tan making the world richer and purer by adding more beauty to it…”
And at times Grushin has her characters overdo themselves with passionate tirades on the meaning and purposes of art. But hell, I want to believe and agree with every word of it, and vitally, Dream Life is brutally honest about the sacrifices that an artist must make and about the mental and physical toll that his or her creativity might eventually take. Sukhanov’s final liberating and revelatory return to art is triumphant…but it is also the knife in his back.
Our artistic gain is his loss: we can’t have everything.