Divided Loyalties

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, January 8, 2006


Olga Grushin

Putnam. 354 pp. $24.95

Olga Grushin's extraordinary first novel is so wise and mature that it is tempting to suspect the author's biography is a joke. The Dream Life of Sukharov is sophisticated, ironic and witty, multilayered, intricately constructed, deeply informed, elegantly written -- the work, one would think, of someone who has been writing and publishing fiction for years, not someone who is doing it for the first time, and doing it in what is not her native language.

But no, Grushin is the real thing. Now barely in her mid-thirties, Grushin already has lived in many places -- her native Moscow, Prague, Atlanta and, now, Washington -- and done much. She has studied art history and journalism in Moscow, become the first Russian citizen to complete an American undergraduate degree (summa cum laude, Emory University, 1993), mastered the English language, served as interpreter (for Jimmy Carter) and translator (at the World Bank) and, while she was at it, published short stories in distinguished American journals.

Now she has published The Dream Life of Sukhanov. Set two decades ago in Moscow, in what subsequently would be revealed as the dying hours of the discredited Soviet Union, it is the story of Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, 56 years old, editor in chief at the country's "leading art magazine, Art of the World," in which capacity he commissions and sometimes writes articles that parrot the party line, "going through other people's texts as through dirty laundry, deleting every avoidable reference to God and lowercasing all the unavoidable ones, ferreting out the names of all the blacklisted artists, always sticking these Lenin quotes everywhere." As a youth in the mid-1950s, he had been a promising young artist who, in the company of others of like mind, listened eagerly to jazz, "excitedly passed around reproductions of Western painters" and believed that liberation from the stultifying demands of the Soviet artistic bureaucracy was not merely possible but inevitable.

Then, a few years later, he and his friends were astonished and shattered when that bureaucracy clamped down on them. Some, like Sukhanov's friend Lev Belkin, chose to go on alone, more or less underground, threadbare but true to their artistic convictions. Sukhanov chose otherwise. By then he was married to Nina, "my own perfect vision of beauty," daughter of Pyotr Alekseevich Malinin, the most famous and influential of all those artists who had caved in to the communist orthodoxy and profited accordingly. Nina believes in her husband's art and wants him to pursue it, but her father presents him with a bitter choice: "Carry on with ... outlawed art" and pay the consequences, or sign on with the party and enjoy the benefits -- for him, for Nina, for the children yet to be.

Years later, Sukhanov muses about how "choices that sometimes ambush a man so unfairly, without a moment's warning, and wresting from him an almost instinctive reaction, in the space of a mere minute change the rest of his life." This is such a choice, and Sukhanov's instinct is for survival, safety, the easy way. He accepts his father-in-law's offer and begins his steady climb to the editorship of the Soviet Union's most prestigious art journal. Now he inhabits a "familiar and delightful world," in a large, elegant apartment "in the heart of old Moscow." A housekeeper comes in daily; wonderful food is served at every meal. He is content:

"A seemingly endless expanse of rooms unfolded behind his back, their comfortable dusk scintillating with the honeyed luster of parquet floors, damask wall upholstering, golden-flecked book bindings, crystal chandeliers opening like flowers in the high ceilings, many-antlered silver candelabra, and countless other precious possessions that the dim light hinted at tantalizingly, splendidly, as it seeped through the heavy velvet drapes. Somewhere in the recesses of his home, his two children were falling asleep, one a future diplomat, the other a future journalist, both equally gifted; and next to him, enclosed in the glowing circle of light, sat Nina, pale, disheveled, and so beautiful, her lips lightly traced with a glistening chocolate line. This was his world, and it was safe."

Gradually, though, it becomes plain that it is not safe. Strange, mysterious, unsettling things begin to happen, and "terrifying dreams" descend upon him without warning. He begins to feel "claustrophobic and helpless" as he is "assailed by his past." Lev Belkin, whom he has not seen for years, materializes one night out of the darkness; in a moment of pique, Sukhanov abruptly fires his housekeeper for an offense she did not commit; a cousin whom he does not remember and does not welcome descends upon him, commandeers his comfortable bed and troubles him with prattle about "true art"; his son, Vasily, proves willing "to go to lengths that [Sukhanov] himself would consider amoral" in order to curry the favor of apparatchiks; his daughter, Ksenya, reveals "a burning contempt for his own world, a world of the past, a world of acquiescence and accommodation for the sake of survival"; Nina abandons the Moscow apartment for their dacha outside the city, where, she makes plain, she wants to be alone; meantime a man whose name is hinted at but never mentioned -- Mikhail Gorbachev -- assumes office and takes the first steps toward ending the system to which Sukhanov has so comfortably accommodated himself.

Amid all these puzzling developments, Sukhanov is drawn ever deeper into a past the most difficult parts of which he only wants to forget. He remembers how, as a boy of 8, he was shown a reproduction of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" and how the next morning "I woke up with a smile of absolute happiness upon my lips, knowing that a new, different life lay before me." He remembers "a modest man named Oleg Romanov," a teacher who reawakened the love of art that Botticelli had inspired, who showed him that art "was not a private embarrassment or a wicked foreign enchantment" but something of surpassing beauty around which a life could be built. He remembers his beloved father, returning after an absence of many years, stepping out of an apartment window to his death, leaving the enigmatic warning note, "Don't let anyone clip your wings." He remembers the magical paintings of Marc Chagall, scorned and forbidden by the gurus of socialist realism but loved once by him, in his own youth.

As Grushin recounts all of this, her narrative moves back and forth, always seamlessly, between past and present, memory and dream, the known and the mysterious. At times the narrator is omniscient; at others it is Sukhanov himself. The reader does not always know whether events are "true" or "imagined," but this merely intensifies the novel's pleasures, taking the reader into what is at once a Moscow almost palpably faithful to historical fact and a place wholly inside the mind and heart of Sukhanov. Grushin knows both places well. As a small child, she was removed from Moscow by her father, a dissident at odds with the Kremlin, but she returned when she was 10 and studied there for nearly a decade. In a brief but exceptionally informative interview with Library Journal, she says:

"Sukhanov is not based on anyone I know, but, of course, in many ways he is born of my early experiences. I grew up surrounded by my parents' friends -- people of Sukhanov's generation, many of them artists, philosophers, writers, who had to make difficult choices in order to survive. Some of them, like my father and the artist Ernest Neizvestny (a close family friend), did things they believed in and faced harsh consequences. Others bargained with the authorities and enjoyed certain rewards, but always at a price. The questions of courage and weakness, perseverance and betrayal, daily comfort and artistic immortality were very real concerns from my earliest years. I suppose Sukhanov is the fruit of my living with these questions for a long time."

One of the many marks of Grushin's wisdom and maturity is that Sukhanov, whom it would be so easy to set up as a straw man, is a deeply complex, endlessly interesting and deeply sympathetic figure. Nobody in The Dream Life of Sukhanov is fashioned out of cardboard. Every character evolves as the book progresses, turning into someone the reader had not quite expected. Some change in ways that readers will find gratifying, while others betray their own shortcomings, but all are viewed and portrayed with compassion, as fallible human beings caught in circumstances not conducive to true nobility or true villainy. Even some of the apparatchiks show a measure of humanity, if chiefly in the form of the human propensity for opportunism and cowardice.

Moscow itself is one of the novel's most vivid and convincing characters. American readers will be familiar with Red Square and the dissidents and the party elite, but we tend to think of Moscow under the communists as unrelievedly bleak, so the lavish, comfortable world of Sukhanov will come as something of a surprise -- one that heightens our awareness of the sharp contrasts and plush hypocrisies of the people's state. There is a remarkable scene in which the young Sukhanov is taken by Nina into the bowels of one of Moscow's great museums, where she shows him in rooms not open to the public examples of the great art the communists had suppressed -- another side of the Moscow, and the Russia, few outsiders can know.

As to Grushin's prose, the passages quoted here should be evidence enough of its grace and descriptive power. She told Library Journal that she had been inspired by "the (unattainable) example of Nabokov," and she is right to insert the parenthetical disclaimer, but her command of English is far more confident than that of most who were born to it or, for that matter, most who write and publish in it. To be sure, she gets a bit carried away sometimes, and some of the intense conversations about art go on just a trifle too long, but make no mistake about it: The Dream Life of Sukhanov is the work of a true artist, a novel that many writers many years older than Grushin and far more renowned would happily, merrily claim as their own.

Grushin is now a naturalized American citizen, and The Dream Life of Sukharov clearly has been informed by her years in this country, but in its expansiveness, its refusal to dwell in the tiny palace of self, it harks back to the great Russian masters. In so doing, it breathes new life into American literary fiction, which for some time has been in dire need of just such an infusion.

Jonathan Yardley is The Washington Post's book critic. His e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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