The Dream Life of Sukhanov

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

At the opening of Olga Grushin’s novel, Anatoly Sukhanov is a content and self-absorbed member of the Soviet bureaucratic ruling class. As editor of the art magazine Art of the World, Anatoly primarily oversees the publication of articles routinely condemning Western art and maintains useful social contacts. This comfortable life begins to fall apart after a reception and gallery opening for Anatoly’s father-in-law, the celebrated but untalented artist Pyotr Malinin. After a disturbing evening, Anatoly walks out in the rain and meets a friend from his youth, Lev Belkin. Belkin has continued to follow his own efforts at painting, ending up as a shabby figure on the margins of the Soviet art world. The contrast between Anatoly, the successful conformist, and Belkin, the aging bohemian, are stark. After this encounter, though, his own life begins to dissolve and visions from his past intrude increasingly on his awareness.

A growing distance between Anatoly and his beloved wife, Nina, begins to become evident when Nina puts a painting by Belkin on the wall where her father’s portrait of her, loaned for display at the opening, had hung. Anatoly begins to be haunted by questions about Nina’s relationship with Belkin many years earlier and, insensitive as Anatoly has become, he starts to notice that he and Nina are drifting apart.

Anatoly’s problems begin in earnest, however, when a forgotten relative, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dalevich, shows up at the door of the Sukhanov family’s apartment, expecting to stay with them for a week or two. Having arrived in Moscow to research a book on Russian Orthodox icons, Dalevich had been directed to the Sukhanov household by Anatoly’s mother. Anatoly himself had inspired Dalevich to begin a career in art while staying with the Dalevich family many years earlier. The protagonist has forgotten this episode in his life, though, as he has forgotten many things left behind him. Still, the contact with the unremembered cousin is the second meeting, after the meeting with Belkin, that send Anatoly into his visions of his past life.

Anatoly relives incidents from a childhood dominated by the longing for a mysteriously absent father. He again sees the crowded apartment where he had lived with his mother and other families and envisions the childhood influence of an aging professor who had first introduced him to art. He is introduced to the dangers of the reflective life when the professor is ridiculed and taunted by the other boys in the household and when the authorities come to arrest the professor, the prerevolutionary owner of the house in which all the families lived.

The beginning of the critic’s gradual downfall becomes evident when the staff at his magazine, where he had ruled imperiously, inform him that higher-ups have decided he should take a leave of absence. As Anatoly’s professional and family life disintegrate, the dream sequences from his past intrude with increasing frequency. These sequences also move forward through his life, creating a narrative parallel to that of his breakdown. At the same time, it is never completely certain that this is a breakdown. It often seems that Anatoly’s dreams are leading him toward an epiphany as much as they are leading him toward a psychological crack-up. It may also be that the epiphany and the crack-up are the same thing, because coming face to face with the truth involves looking into the chaos beneath the apparent order of late Soviet bureaucratic life.

Anatoly becomes aware of the bohemian life of Ksenya, his daughter, who is involved with a popularand marriedmusician. This plunges Anatoly back into his own youth in the 1950’s, when he and his social circle listened avidly to jazz and studied reproductions of artworks smuggled in from the West. It was at this heady time that Anatoly’s friend and fellow artist Lev Belkin introduced him to the beautiful Nina Malinina. Although her father is...

(The entire section is 1616 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 6 (November 15, 2005): 22.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 20 (October 15, 2005): 1101.

New Statesman 135 (March 20, 2006): 57.

New York 39 (January 16, 2006): 56-57.

The New York Times 155 (January 5, 2006): E8.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (January 29, 2006): 8.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 41 (October 17, 2005): 41-42.

The Times Literary Supplement, February 17, 2006, pp. 23-24.

The Washington Post, January 8, 2006, p. BW02.

Weekly Standard 11, no. 38 (June 19, 2006) : 35-36.