Monday, June 14, 2010

The Dream Life of Sukhanov

Recently I read 'The Dream life of Sukhanov' (2005) by Olga Grushin. Its the story of a man who possessing all the good things life can offer, a well-paid job as an art critic, a beautiful wife, loving children and perks such as a second home for the summer, a chauffeur-driven car and best tickets for the theatre, has to face the reality that he is neither loved, respected or valued as much as he imagines. The reader is obliged to pay close attention throughout the novel as almost imperceptibly the narrative slips between the present-day tragedy unfolding and Sukhanov's reminiscences of happier times.

Because Sukhanov has lived in Moscow throughout his life, certain places, doorways and streets, spark reminiscences. These reminiscences form a large part of the narrative, taking the reader back to earlier events in Sukhanov's life. However, there's a uncertain ambiguity writ large in the novel's title, for does Sukhanov's 'dream life' consist of the privileged, ideal life which is dissolving before his eyes, or his inability to desist from reminiscing about the past and happier times, his escapist 'dream life', when confronted with the crisis he faces .The plot drives onwards inexorably to a powerful, shocking and even slightly ambiguous denouement.

Sukhanov's great tragedy is that he takes everything for granted, toeing the party line in his art reviews by inserting commonplaces of communist aesthetics in his reviews, he has as modern parlance puts it, 'sold out'. However the novel is set in the year 1985, the year of Mikhail Gorbachov's policy of glasnost and perestroika and the dissolution of the communist old order.

There's much allusion in the novel to two 20th century painters, the exiled Russian painter Marc Chagall who died in the year the novel is set, 1985, and the surrealist painter Salvador Dali, representative of the 'decadent' art denounced by Shushkin as voice-piece of official Soviet party aesthetics. The surrealist art movement is also however representative of Shushkin's 'true' artistic creativity which he has abandoned for the trappings and prestige of official status. There's also significant allusion to Andrei Rubelev, the medieval Russian icon painter and the subject of a film by Andrei Tarkovsky.

'The Dream Life of Sukhanov' is extremely well-written in clear, concise and flowing prose. It is as the critics state, an astoundingly good first novel. Although written in English with its author now resident in America, it is utterly Russian in its theme of alienation and the role of the individual in society and history. I found it to be a deeply moving, at times funny, more often sad and ultimately challenging statement, on how the failure to face up to reality can destroy the individual's life.

Some highly recommended Russian novels

19th c.

Oblomov (1859) Ivan Goncharov
Fathers and sons (1862) Ivan Turgenev
The Idiot (1869) Fyodor Dostoevsky
Anna Karenina (1879) Leo Tolstoy
Brothers Karamazov (1881) Fyodor Dostoevsky

20th c.

The Fiery Angel (1908) Valery Bryusov
The strange life of Ivan Osokin (1915) P.D. Ouspensky
Petersburg (1916) Andre Bely
We (1921) Yevgeny Zamyatin
Heart of a dog (1925) Mikhail Bulgakov
Novel with cocaine (1934) M.A. Agev
The Master and Margarita (1940) Mikhail Bulgakov

21st century

A Hero's Daughter (1990 Eng. trans.2004) Andrei Makine
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