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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 from some highly respected publications. 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 twig 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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on 10 August 2006
olga grushin's novel is a complete gem.

a fantastic portrayal of crumbling soviet society in the thaw of the 80s...the sacrifices that sukhanov made to fit in during the oppressive krushchev years coming back to haunt him in the twilight of his life... stunningly evocative dream sequences as the ageing art critic loses his grip on the privileged reality that he has known for the last 20 years...

i've been so utterly absorbed in this book that i really can't bear for it to end.

bring on grushin's next offering!! she's a brilliant author with a wonderful sense of story telling and an entrancing grasp of character portrayal.
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on 29 May 2007
Anatoly Sukhanov is a haughty middle aged man; a respected and well rewarded member of the Soviet Nomenklatura. He is arrogant and conceited, self satisfied and out of touch with his friends and family. His wife is growing increasingly frustrated by the intransigence of his Party line rhetoric and his children no longer respect him. He cannot remember the name of his chauffeur and sees fit to fire the maid when he suspects her of stealing his ties. He is so caught up in the status and position he has attained for himself that he has forgotten all that came before; he is suffering from the personal amnesia prevalent across society. But the year is 1985 and things are beginning to change, artists who were once persecuted now have public exhibitions. The climate is thaw and the man Sukhanov has become is being left behind.

Then, at a party one night he encounters a memory from his past, an alternate version of who he could have been had he made a different choice and followed his heart rather than his head all those years ago.

`The Dream Life of Sukhanov', Olga Grushin's debut novel, is a scintillating invocation of society on the brink of change, and a heartbreaking portrayal of a man about to lose everything. As Sukhanov's family scatters his sense of reality begins to be accosted by dreamlike memories of a person he has forgotten he ever was.

It is a great achievement to be able to recreate the half real, half imagined world of Sukhanov's unravelling mind. The prose is dense and inviting and wraps you inside itself like a comfy duvet. While reading it is easy to believe that you are reading one of the great novels of all time. And it is a very good, well conceived and brilliantly realised debut. There is something reminiscent of J.M. Coetzee's Booker winning `Disgrace' in the sense of untameable regret at a life wasted. It is a similar portrayal of a middle-aged man whom history has seen fit to leave behind.

The setting spans thirty years and two thaws in Soviet censorship which Grushin uses perfectly to bring out the artistic temperament of her characters. Khrushchev's thaw is one of the most fascinating periods in Soviet history, a time when all the aspects that made up that system were suddenly unmasked and those who wanted to see began to do so. There will be many more books which take this period as their central premise, but few will be as accomplished and powerful as `The Dream Life of Sukhanov'.
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on 10 February 2007
This lovely book describes so elegantly the journey of Sukhanov's mind forcibly awakening from years of self-denial and supression, as the consequences of his choices bear fruit in his middle age. Memory, dream and reality become increasingly entwined as the book progresses, drawing us to sympathise and move beyond Sukhanov's initially pompous, fatuous veneer. This character is utterly intriguing, and as his past emerges in fragments, there is something of the detective story; you look to piece the truth of his life through the haze of his self-obfuscation. I thoroughly enjoyed Grushin's descriptive flair in depicting Russia and the richness of the environment and social climate her characters inhabit. I read this book at an uncharacteristically leisurely pace, enjoying its pensive qualities and rich but gentle style. In my view, there is little to fault this accomplished first novel. Its vivid atmosphere and ethereal mood lingers with me past the completion of my reading.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 February 2007
The year is 1985: Gorbachev has just become leader of the Soviet Union, and the rigidities of art establishment are beginning to weaken. Anatoly Sukhanov has worked himself up from the most wretchedly poor conditions in the 1930s to the editorship of `Art of the World', the most prestigious Soviet art magazine. To get to this position, he has slavishly followed the official line, suppressing his early creativity and ruthlessly deserting art teachers and artist friends whose originality might have compromised his orthodoxy. He has also adopted the wealthy life-style and all the arrogance (towards servants, for instance) of the Soviet nomenklatura. His wife Nina has already become distant from him because of this behaviour (and because of something else that I must not reveal) and his awareness of her coldness has already started to make him feel uneasy.

And then there comes a hint from On High that it would be welcome if the magazine published articles recognizing the contribution of some avant-garde artists, initially of Salvador Dalì, then of Marc Chagall. Sukhanov had become particularly well known because had in his magazine ceaselessly denounced the Surrealists as decadent, disgusting, and bourgeois. Devastated, he sees that he has to revise his ideas; and he plunges into dreams which are mostly horrifying but sometimes blissful in their surrealism and which (as the best surrealist art does) throw a symbolic light on his life. With extraordinary virtuosity, dreams and long-suppressed memories of his past are made to alternate or meld, as do third person and first person narratives: memories of the fear-haunted Stalin years; of the brief Thaw in which Sukhanov participated, only to slip back (his motives not entirely unworthy) into orthodoxy after Khrushchev lashed out at modern art; of his betrayals of himself and of his own youthful artistic gifts, of his teachers and of his friends. Historic Russian themes emerge: the role of the artist (writers then, painters in this novel, with a brilliant little aperçu on page 303 about the difference ) to keep the imagination free under tyranny; discussions of artistic theory; questions about God in this process; the revolutionary rejection of existing norms by the young, who create a world of their own.

Sukhanov's professional and famiy life disintegrate, and together with them, of course, his view of himself. He had been insufferable at the beginning of the book, but we feel compassion for him at the end. And although Sartre rightly insists that we should be authentic in our choices even under cruel regimes, we should, I think, not sit too harshly in judgment on those who fail the test. At the end (page 344) that, in half a dozen words, is also the absolution given to Sukhanov by his oldest friend. And his last surrealist dream is one of joy and liberation.

The author was born in Russia in 1971 but has lived in the United States since 1989. She has dual Russian and American citizenship, and this book was written in English. She has acquired an eloquent mastery of the language: sounds, smells, light, sights are sensuously described. A wonderful book.
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on 22 April 2007
I do not know what made me buy this browsing in Gatwick Books etc but it is an astonishing read - a look at a Russia that has already perhaps been and gone - the beginning of perestroika and the collapse of the old values and those who held them. Often when dreams are part of a novel, I find it all gets very woolly and unconvincing and tiresome because I get lost and bored as the author tries to be the most sensitive and clever person in the class 'Understanding Dreams for Dummies'. . But here the author's grip and sense of reality survives and somehow you end up feeling totally bound up in the fate of this Soviet man whose conscience and old values long buried and suppressed, flood up and drown him. Very hard to sum up the appeal - the novelty of the setting 80's Russia, the shock of the central character's disintegration and the skill of the author? Read it and see.
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on 17 January 2012
In the title I've called this "A proper Russian Novel" and by this I mean that Olga Grushin has invested in the character of Sukhanov, all the angst and pathos, all the weakness and hubris that I remember reading in all those great Russian novels. Sukhanov goes on an epic journey of rediscovery, he is constantly assailed by images from his past, haunted by all those ideals he repressed for the sake of a career in the USSR. Yet things change, and it's in this change, Sukhanov is left to question his choices....
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 September 2008
An unusual tale with an unusual choice of protagonist. Original and well written, this debut suggests there are great things to look forward to from Ms Grushin. Sukhanov is a prosperous art critic who has made his fortune and reputation by savaging Western art in the Soviet magazine he edits. Having successfully repressed his memories of his wild youth as a surrealist painter, following the very movement he has subsequently derided, a chance sequence of events triggers memories of his old life with disasterous consequences.

Sukhanov is a character that I started out disliking but ended up truly feeling sympathy for. His rapid descent from greatness is generally plausibly and heartbreakingly written. The other characters are rather more ambiguous and sketchy, and it would have been nicer to see more of them, but this was in keeping with Sukhanov's short sighted view of his world and the people in it.

Generally the writing is good though at times my attention wandered. The only really annoying feature was the sudden changes from third into first person when Sukhanov was having his flashbacks. This didn't seem to serve any literary purpose and left me wondering if this was intentional or the relic of an original, long discarded idea to write the novel in the first person.

On the whole though, Grushin can be applauded for making a novel in which the events are all more or less everyday, so interesting, gripping and sad. The innovative take on events, with the increasing blurring of past and present, lifted an otherwise fairly ordinary story into a higher league. A promising writer, and I will await her next novel with interest.
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on 13 July 2008
It's 1985 and Soviet Russia is just about to hit its long overdue mid-life crisis. So is Anatoly Sukhanov, ex-surrealist painter turned government approved art critic and son-in-law to the regime's favourite artist, Pyotr Alekseevitvh Malinin, a man who has made his reputation by painting sturdy peasant women gathering in the harvest and heroic young men holding banners decorated with the hammer and sickle.

Sukhanov's not a bad bloke - his major crime in life has been selling out his art in order to provide a decent standard of living for his wife and kids, a situation many of us with creative dreams have to face. The problem is that poor old Anatoly starts to experience horrible dreams and fantasies that force him to confront the reality of the talent he has wasted. Crueller still, these fantasies mimic those paintings that he has condemned as "corrupt" and "un-Russian" in his position as editor-in-chief- of "Art of the World", Russia's leading art magazine.

This is a compact and effective little book in the expanding "post iron curtain" genre, which uses its main character to explore the effect of repression on the creative arts. The writing is controlled enough to keep the dream and waking-nightmare sequences from descending into Lovecraft, an ever present danger and Grushin manages the transition from reality to fantasy deftly. Most impressively, although I think she's writing in English (I can't find a translation credit) the prose has a touch of Tolstoy's lyricism. It's a little too one-note and predictable to deserve the usual hype plastered on the cover, but it's a great start and I look forward to seeing how this writer develops.
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on 27 June 2007
This book has been the most successful one at my book group, we couldn't stop discussing it despite the fact everyone enjoyed it and some of us raved about it (usually you need widely varying views for a good discussion). We talked about the way the story unfolded with the time shifting, characterisation, snapshot of a fascinating time in history, discussion of madness, role of art, relationships, human failings, genius as a curse or blessing etc., I could go on! I don't understand why this book isn't more widely read and known or getting the exposure of e.g. Half of a Yellow Sun. The descriptions are fantastic - particularly the slide into madness. Read it!
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