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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Your young men shall see visions
And your old men shall dream dreams.

This biblical prophecy plays out with a vengeance in Olga Grushin's extraordinary first novel, "The Dream Life of Sukhanov".

"Sukhanov" has received glowing reviews in both the New York Times and on the cover of the Washington Post's Sunday Book Review. Such advance praise often leaves me with heightened...
Published on January 15, 2006 by Leonard Fleisig

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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 2 1/2 Stars--The metamorphosis of Sukhanov
On the surface, THE DREAM LIFE OF SUKHANOV is the story of a man whose past--which he thought he had successfully buried and forgotten--is resurrected by chance occurrence and through the social stirrings caused by the early effects of Gorbachev's policies in the former Soviet Union. That past, which he re-experiences through his 'dream life', suggests that years before,...
Published 5 months ago by Bryan Byrd


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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Your young men shall see visions, January 15, 2006
By 
Leonard Fleisig "Len" (Virginia Beach, Virginia) - See all my reviews
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And your old men shall dream dreams.

This biblical prophecy plays out with a vengeance in Olga Grushin's extraordinary first novel, "The Dream Life of Sukhanov".

"Sukhanov" has received glowing reviews in both the New York Times and on the cover of the Washington Post's Sunday Book Review. Such advance praise often leaves me with heightened expectations that almost invariably lead to disappointment. In this instance my expectations were not only met but exceeded. The book's publishers claim it is "steeped in the tradition of Gogol, Bulgakov, and Nabokov." To be sure, Grushin has not (yet) attained the mastery of a Bulgakov or Nabokov but it is no small achievement to have the comparison made with a straight face, even if one hasn't quite reached that stature. The fact that English is not Grushin's first language also calls Joseph Conrad to mind.

The protagonist of the novel is Anatoly Sukhanov, known as Tolya to his friends and family. It is 1985; Tolya is 56 and an apparatchik (a mid-level party-functionary entitled to many of the benefits of the ruling class) of the first rank. An artist in his youth, Tolya is now the editor in chief of the USSR's leading art magazine, "Art of the World." Tolya's career consists of writing articles praising `socialist realism' (paintings of heroes of labor working in factories and the like) and condemning Western art, be it cubism or surrealism and the like as decadent work of no value to a progressive society. He is seemingly content, has a nice Moscow apartment, a beautiful wife, two children, and a chauffeur to drive him to and from his job and to his dacha outside Moscow. The story opens with Tolya and his wife attending a state-sponsored birthday party for his father-in-law an artist of limited talent but high rank. It is at this party that Tolya's life begins to unravel.

Tolya runs into Lev, formerly his best friend back in the days when Tolya was still painting. This encounter sets off some long submerged memories for Tolya. Later, a casual remark by Tolya's mother serves as another pinprick that unleashes another submerged memory. In short order the floodgates have been opened and Tolya's past begins to overwhelm him. We see a childhood where Tolya's father was taken away, presumably a victim of Stalin's purges. We see Tolya develop his skills as an artist in his young adulthood, from 1957 until 1962. Those years are important because they were known in the USSR as "the Thaw", a time when Khrushchev lifted some of the strictures on Soviet art and literature. Solzhenitsyn and Yevtushenko, among others were published and the art world was abuzz with new activity. The thaw ended in 1962 and it was then that Tolya was forced to make the life choice that forms the central event of the novel.

Grushin does a tremendous job showing us Tolya's envelopment in dreams of his past. The transformation between his present (the dreams of a middle aged man) and his past (when he was a young man with the vision of an artist) evolve from jarring to seamless as Tolya descends into something approaching a hallucinatory state (It is here that the comparisons to Bulgakov become most apt.) Grushin makes a reference in the book to Dostoyevsky's story "The Double", in which a man's life is taken over by his own ghost and that synopsis sums up Tolya's current predicament.

Party functionaries such as the older Tolya are often the subject of withering scorn in Soviet fiction (Voinovich's Fur Hat comes to mind) but Grushin paints a portrait of Tolya that is both insightful and nuanced. He is not the subject of a parody but a human faced with choices in a society that did its best to make ones choices as predictable as possible. The contrast between the lives of Tolya and his old friend Lev creates a framework for the final third of the book and the final exposure of those lives is both compelling and emotionally charge. The reader cannot but help think of the choices they have made in their own lives and think about how those choices, once set in motion, become twigs and branches that when put together can change the course of the rivers of our lives.

Langston Hughes once wrote, "Hold on to dreams, for when dream go, life is like a barren field covered with snow." Grushin takes this concept and asks whether dreams, once dead, can be resurrected. It is a question that remains open long after the last page is read and the book is closed.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a treasure.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ars Longa, Vita Brevis, April 17, 2006
By 
G. Bestick (Dobbs Ferry, NY USA) - See all my reviews
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Russian emigre Olga Grushin has crafted a fine first novel about the wounds we inflict on ourselves whether we cling to our youthful dreams or turn away from them.

The setting is Moscow in the mid eighties. Fifty six year old Anatoly Sukhanov is a prominent art critic and the Editorial Director of a respected art journal. In return for being the Party's first line of defense against the decadence of western art, Sukhanov receives the perks of a mid-level party apparatchik: dacha, chauffeur, fashionable Moscow apartment. But change is blowing through the Soviet system, and it's becoming more difficult for Sukhanov to maintain his ideological footing. At home, his wife Nina seems distant and distracted. His two children have begun to unnerve him because their personalities reflect the split in his own. His son has become a cold-eyed careerist while his teenage daughter believes passionately in the transforming power of art, just as Sukhanov did back when he was a young artist of promise.

Sukhanov starts slipping into reveries about his past - the tragedy that befell his father during the Great Patriotic War, his first subversive exposure to Renaissance and modern art, his early days as a painter, when his soul burned with desire to capture what he saw in his mind. Sukhanov's passionate paintings are caught in a Khrushchev-era political crossfire, which gets him fired from his job as an art teacher. With a young family and an uncertain future in front of him, Sukhanov takes the lifeline offered by his father-in-law Malinin, a hack painter with good party connections. Sukhanov puts away his paints and becomes a successful art critic by attacking in the name of Soviet ideology the same surrealist and modernist art he revered as a painter.

The supporting characters are uniformly interesting. Sukhanov's wife Nina is both his muse and the reason he walks away from all that he values. She wants the material ease obtained by playing within the system but feels guilty over the lack of integrity this implies. Marrying the poor but talented Sukhanov was her way of rebelling against the type of life she and Sukhanov end up having. His old friend Belkin stayed true to his art and stayed poor and obscure while Sukhanov built his comfortable life. Now in his fifties, Belkin realizes that he lacks the skill and the stamina to make the final traverse from competence to mastery.

Past and present collide with increasing force in Sukhanov's mind. By the end of the novel he finally knows who he is, and how he got that way. What's in doubt is whether he'll be able to act on the knowledge. Soviet artists of Sukhanov's generation faced an impossible dilemma. If art's purpose is to serve the needs of the state, then spending your days giving form to insights mined from your subjective consciousness is inherently decadent and selfish. But it's also the process by which all art universally acknowledged as great has been created over the past several centuries. Sukhanov's tragedy is that he's talented, but not courageous enough to go where his talent takes him.

Inevitably, critics have compared Grushin to Nabokov, another Russian emigre writing novels in English. Grushin hasn't reached Nabokov's level of artistry - few have. For one thing, the book's pacing bogs down at times. Partly it's all the excursions into Sukhanov's past, partly it's the density of her descriptions. But she writes with wit, warmth and compassion, and this is a novel of many pleasures. A more apt comparison is to Anatolii Rybakov's brilliant novel of the Stalinist era, Children of the Arbat. Through the skill and particularity of their writing, Rybakov and Grushin reveal the real harm done by totalitarian governments. It's not what they do to their citizens, but what they make their citizens do to themselves.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't overlook this brilliant debut, February 17, 2006
By 
Joseph Schneider (Old Bridge, NJ, USA) - See all my reviews
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Despite having received some reviews from tough critics that are unreserved in their admiration, this thoroughly beautiful, original and deeply compassionate novel seems not to have caught the attention of many readers, and this is discouraging. I can only hope it catches on, and (possibly?) another positive review here may help get a few more copies into reader's hands. I find it hard to imagine a sympathetic reader being disappointed.

Sukhanov is certainly an "anti-hero", and his character and position, and the choices he has made, are easy to sneer at in the early pages of the book. But the reader very gradually gains a fuller and fuller understanding of the complexity of a man's life as shaped by history, family, and happenstance, and as Sukhanov's sufferings bring him self-knowledge, we are brought to an equally rich understanding. The reader and Sukhanov are gradually brought to full enlightenment at the same pace, and the final effect is deeply moving, as well as unexpectedly elating, at least to me.

As others have noted, dream, reality and potential madness are interwoven with an astonishing deftness - the reader is never lost or deliberately mystified. We are in a very concrete, sensuous world here, with a painterly precision that reflects some of the ideals of the artists in the novel. The novel is lavish in its appeal to all the senses, and recreates Moscow as well as some of the greatest novels that evoke "place" do. Grushin has said that Nabokov is an "unattainable" model, and this is apparent in the gorgeous language, and ambitious but clear structure. But she is not imitating anyone - this is an original voice.

There is much more to be said (richness of characterization, humor, insight into political realities) but I will just say that this rich and beautiful work needs more readers. An elderly artist notes near the end that it takes a lifetime to learn one's craft. Olga Grushin has gotten off to a great start with a work of full maturity, and if she grows in line with that dictum, she will write books with the strength and beauty of Sukhanov's final visions.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Art For Politic's Sake, March 30, 2007
By 
Bucherwurm "bucherwurm" (California United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Dream Life of Sukhanov (Paperback)
Anatoly Sukhanov had it made. He has a beautiful wife, a luxurious apartment, chauffer driven limousine, and is editor of Russia's premier art journal. But what was the status of art in 1985 Russia? Anatoly's job was to extol an art form that portrayed happy mine workers, smiling women holding their babies, gallant soldiers defending Mother Russia. How does a man who was an aspiring artist in his youth stomach the promotion of such dross?

As the novel progresses Anatoly experiences a series of small, quirky incidents that start him on a mental reverie of his life. When you are young, and poor and struggling you are faced with a decision. Do you as an artist stick to your artistic ideals which are contrary to the regime's dictates, and risk living in poverty or worse or do you take the road that provides a decent living for your wife and children? As the pages fly by the current reality of Anatoly's life begin to meld more and more with his dreams of the past. We wonder, as Anatoly examines his past, if he is going to have a spiritual reawakening. Can he finally cast off his self imposed blinders? There has to be the remains of an artistic soul in this man whose job it is to denounce Matisse, and Dali as decadent, corrupt artists.

This is an amazing book. It is truly a literary work of the highest order. The writing is superb. Here is a Russian born woman writing in what is her third language. One immediately begins to compare the writing with that of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, and the comparison is highly favorable. If you love art, as I do, you will find this book to be especially enjoyable. This is truly a "10 star" book.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of the (Soviet) Artist as an Old Man, March 9, 2006
By 
Steve Koss (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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At age 56, Anatoly ("Tolya") Sukhanov is a success by every measure of the old Soviet system, an apparatchik with a lovely wife and two grown children, comfortable income, nice apartment, chauffeured car, and a career as editor of the country's leading art criticism magazine. But a casual meeting one evening with an old acquaintance, the struggling and down-on-his-luck painter Lev Belkin, precipitates a crisis in Tolya's life. Strange recollections of his childhood emerge, his priceless collection of European ties disappears, his wife and children grow more and more emotionally unreachable, and distant family relations suddenly appear at his door and impose themselves on his staid and settled life. What begins as a few odd coincidences and random flashbacks slowly but steadily spirals out of control, creating a series of events that turn Tolya's cushy life upside down. As his flashbacks occur with increasing force, Tolya is in danger of losing his wife, his job, and even his home. He can barely separate the visions from reality as his suppressed memories surge over him like tidal waves, forcing him to confront the person he has become and the person he could have been.

Olga Grushin's haunting first novel, THE DREAM LIFE OF SUKHANOV, is a beautifully written tale of a creative man, perhaps a genius, who allows the oppressive Soviet system to sublimate his talents for the sake of conformity and personal comfort. As Sukhanov's earlier life unfolds through the recollections forcing themselves upon him, we learn his life's story through the small bits of memory each incident reveals. From Tolya's earliest (and, in his mind, shameful) fascination with art to his painterly experimentations and flights of creative fancy as a young man, Grushin reveals in her main character a young man of talent and inspiration. It is this brilliant young man with whom his wife Nina (the daughter of an untalented but conformist painter regaled by the State) falls in love. Events conspire against Tolya, as they so often did in Soviet Russia against anyone daring to operate outside the Socialist system, forcing him to make the fateful choice of the oppressive Socialist system over his own artistic visions.

Sprinkled throughout THE DREAM LIFE OF SUKHANOV are references to Salvatore Dali and surrealism, the latter being an apt description of life under the Soviet regime. Tolya experiments with surrealism as a young man, and the events that threaten his job begin with the mysterious demand that he write an article about surrealism. Grushin invests Tolya's emergent memories with increasing degrees of surrealism, bending reality into semi-hallucinatory states that leave her hero (and the reader) uncertain as to what is real and what is imagined. Her literary vehicle of switching voice from the omniscient third person to the intimate "I" during Tolya's recollections separates the objectively real from the subjectively recalled in the early stages of his decline, but by the end of the book, the line between the two is hazy and smudged. In the end, Tolya believes he has resolved the conflict between the freedom of art and the suppression of the State, but Grushin leaves us uncertain whether her protagonist is capable of knowing the difference any more.

More than just a novel about art and artists, this is a story about freedom and loss. Lev Belkin gives up the possibility of the good life for the sake of his artistic freedom, while Tolya chooses the opposite approach. Both suffer in different ways, but Tolya's early choices force him to watch his life fall apart. His losses are punishment for wasting his talent and choosing the safe but meaningless path. At the end, Grushin asks us to contemplate the nature of artistic vision: does it belong only to the rebellious and experimental young, or is it the province of those who bring deeper life experiences to their work? Curiously, she paints Tolya in the first half of the book as such a mundane character, it is difficult to imagine him ever having had a fiery, passionate talent. Then again, perhaps her message is that the oppressive machinery of the Soviet system was indeed capable of quenching the fire so completely that only a miraculous series of coincidences and visions could reawaken the faintest embers of a once brilliant talent, and even then, too late to do more than inspire a sort of madness for what was lost.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Expertise in art or Russia not required, September 26, 2006
By 
T. Burket "tburket" (Potomac, MD United States) - See all my reviews
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When I first heard of this novel through the Washington Post's review, I hesitated, because I am an expert neither in art nor in Russian history and culture. However, that was an unnecessary concern, as long as a potential reader understands the basics of 20th century Russia between the revolution and glasnost, and has a modest grasp of different styles of painting and the occasional famous name, and has an interest in this unusual and highly creative concept.

As a psychological study, the novel's premise was fairly straightforward, almost a variation on an American-style midlife crisis: young man of promise realizes in his fifties that he may have made the wrong choices and wasted that promise. At first I found the contrast between the cushy Tolya and the young, rebellious artist somewhat difficult to believe. As the author added detail and rationale in key scenes between Tolya and Nina, Tolya and Nina's father, and Tolya and Lev, the resistance faded. In the end, the residual uncertainty and ambiguity in the conclusions Tolya and Lev reach about their dreams and choices fit well with the theme. Presumably Ms. Grushin does not think highly of the dark years of Soviet control, but she is not so harsh as to make the characters one-dimensional or humiliated with an obvious judgmental or political tone.

The author's command of the language is superb. In the early chapters, what stood out was her highly descriptive phrasing, where almost no noun could be stated without one or more juicy adjectives along for the ride. Perhaps this came naturally to a student of art, where such colorful language is essential for any hope of describing paintings in text.

I must admit to struggling at times in keeping straight the boundaries between the dream sequences and real-time events, or what was true and what was a mirage. A sharp delineation would have detracted from rendering the chaos Tolya endured, as his own mental state rapidly shifted.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This Novel Makes Me Want to Write, October 12, 2007
By 
This review is from: The Dream Life of Sukhanov (Paperback)
I am a pretty harsh critic, and this book was not without its flaws, although I would be hard-pressed to talk about them without seeming petty. Sukhanov's fate seems inevitable from the start, so much so that the reader hopes against it, not only for the protagonist's sake, but for the writer's lest the novel's predicability diminish it's greatness.

Because this is a book review, I think it would be best to give you a point of reference. The dust cover of the book says of Grushin "Steeped in the tradition of Gogol, Bulgakov, and Nabokov." I don't really see echoes of Gogol, or Nabokov (because it is coherently and intelligibly written). What I do see, as another Amazon reviewer recognized, is a mastery of poetic prose comparable to that of Pasternak. Which is dazzling considering this is her first work! What shines brightest is the special compassion and humanity that Bulgakov exemplified.

I would also give Grushin credit for using a technique that novelist William Golding was fond of, what I would call "impressionist" prose: the sense impressions that objects leave are described rather than the things themselves. This is an especially fitting technique to use in a novel about a painter, and works beautifully when art itself is the object of concern. This style challenges the reader quite a bit, but unlike Golding (think "Free Fall" or "Pincher Martin"), Grushin uses it delicately enough to bring a out a subtle beauty in the story without making the story altogether, well, blurry.

I cannot be objective about this work because it very much conforms to the aesthetic I ascribe to as a writer. I have struggled, and this novel has truly reinvigorated me. For this reason, I reackon that I am Ms. Grushin's biggest fan right now.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Literary Gem, October 18, 2007
This review is from: The Dream Life of Sukhanov (Paperback)
A heavy read that is best enjoyed in small doses, like a rich chocolate truffle, the author writes beautifully - transporting the reader in and out of different time periods (1940s to 1980s) in Russia while weaving a tale of how the events of Sukhanov's childhood impacted his adulthood and his legacy. The relentless assault of memories on Sukhanov is a lesson that a difficult past is never put to rest until it is faced and dealt with. Sukhanov's journey is painful and exhausting but ultimately liberating.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reality, dreaming and back again..., December 1, 2007
Sukhanov, an aspiring young Russian painter marries above his class and "sells out" to become an art critic at the influential Art of the World journal where he toes the Soviet party line by disparaging Western art that once inspired him. He quickly rises to editor-in-chief and acquires all of the luxuries of life (a beautiful apartment, a personal driver, a summer home). He eventually loses the respect of his wife and his son and daughter - and ultimately his life unravels as his past begins to catch up to him and he comes full circle learning painfully about what is truly important in life - the truth, beauty, the daily miracles of living.

While it was challenging at times to follow the plot of Sukhanov's dreams then to reality and then back to dreams - you are sitting right in the driver's seat of Sukhanov's mind throughout this book. Loved it.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars not a middle-life crisis, October 25, 2007
By 
E. Mykoff (Jersey City, NJ) - See all my reviews
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The easiest thing is to dismiss the plot of this book as a middle life crisis. I grew up in the former Soviet Union, and, having lived for many years in this land as well,know that American reader tends to assume that what is true in this country is also true elsewhere.
There is a big gap between the USA and the former Soviet Union in terms of mortality age. In the eighties Russian men, in particular, died around Sukhanov's age, in their fifties. He is not dealing with the middle-life crisis, he is dealing with the meaning of life itself. This is not a question of youthful mistakes and "sell-outs'(which, as we all sadly know happen all very easily in every society); it is an attempt, in a very classic Russian tradition, to deal with our all too fleeting and painful existence on this Earth - under circumstances that offer us little choice. He is dealing with death.
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The Dream Life of Sukhanov
The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin (Paperback - January 30, 2007)
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