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The Dream Life of Sukhanov Hardcover – January 5, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Even for a man on "the very best terms with the very best people," the Soviet Union on the eve of glasnost is a precarious place. So it goes for bitterly compelling antihero Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, richly crafted in this debut novel by Russian émigré Grushin. After starting out as an avant-garde artist, Sukhanov marries the daughter of an iconic Soviet painter, becomes a critic and quickly rises to editor-in-chief of Art of the World, an influential journal devoted to disparaging the Western art that once inspired him. An enviable Moscow apartment, a dacha and a personal driver follow, but 12 years later, Sukhanov can no longer write, his wife and son know him for the sellout he is, and Gorbachev's ascension may mean the end of his sinecure. When a man claiming to be his long-lost cousin comes to visit, Sukhanov finds himself sleeping on his couch, where, as dreams of his former life haunt him, his past may catch up with him for real. Grushin, who has served as former President Carter's personal interpreter and as an editor at Harvard's Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, offers a powerful and richly detailed examination of late Soviet society's harsh confinements—even for those who have all the right connections. (Jan. 5)
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*Starred Review* Anatoly Sukhanov showed talent early, and his daring, brilliant art captured the hand of beautiful Nina Malinin, daughter of a famed Russian artist. But then he opted for prestige and comfort, hiding his controversial paintings and becoming critic rather than creator as editor ofArt of the World, Russia's leading art magazine, which condemns whole schools of Western art. Suddenly in 1985, at the age of 56, Sukhanov's life unravels and he loses everything he holds dear--job, son, daughter, possibly wife--but through the pain, in a series of dream sequences in which he confronts his past, he gains truth about his father's life and death and about young Nina's wrenching decision between art and love. In well-honed prose with vivid imagery, Grushin provides a portrait of a culture, interplaying art with politics in twentieth-century Russia, and dealing throughout with the universal subjects of love and truth. Sukhanov lingers in memory as a child stunned into silence by the beauty of Botticelli's paintings and as a middle-aged adult finding his way. Michele Leber
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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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.
Despite almost all the other critics' linking this to the glasnost period under Gorbachev when it is set, the book's themes are timeless and belong to no particular era or clime. Any artist, as Sukhanov has done, can "sell out" (Sukhanov's own phrase) his vision, whether it be to a repressive Soviet regime, a greedy Capitalist corporation or a ruthless Fascist dictator in order to gain comfort, security and prestige for him and his family.
I would only bother with this book if you are an artist or a passionate, lifelong devotee to art; for what happens in this book is that - due to a madness inherited on the paternal side - Sukhanov's artistic, epiphanic vision of art and the memories associated with it return to him with a vengeance, and there is no easy answer as to whether this is a "good" thing or no. The reader spirals along with Sukhanov (Is it upwards or downwards?) until the bitter, or is it enlightened, end.
After he leaves his wife in the dacha and begins hoofing it to the train station, stumbling, literally, into the small, dilapidated church to which he returns in the end (in his mind, anyway), Sukhanov has his most poignant moment of artistic vision/hallucination/ glimpse of the eternal:
"For here, in this stale backwater, on the outskirts of an insignificant village, in a church that now served as a warehouse for dim-witted dacha owners, on a wall ravaged by time and sun and frost, flowered a masterpiece created by an artist whom no one noticed, whom no one even knew - and yet, Sukhanov believed, as strongly as he had ever believed in anything, that by some miracle he had just been brought into the presence of the most original, most amazing mind ever to emerge from the dark ages of Russian art."
The sweeping prose of author Grushin who, thankfully, does not belong to the group of Russian writers to whom she's compared - Nabokov, Bulgakov etc. - but more to (if one must compare this book written in English to those written in Russian) Pasternak, Tolstoy and, particularly, the bittersweet lilts of Chekhov, leaves us with the tortured dilemma that if you choose your visions, or rather they choose you over sanity and comfort, that way lies a slow march to madness and death, with a redeeming few thunderbolts of god-like insight flashing across your via dolorosa.
A modern masterpiece.