Viking £18.99 322pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Concert Ticket, By Olga Grushin
Friday 07 May 2010
Olga Grushin has a gift for conveying Russian imagination. Her first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, wowed readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Her characters dream, daydream, yearn, hallucinate like Russian 20th-century poets. They see colours and forms - Sukhanov was an art critic - and here in The Concert Ticket they long for music.
Grey Soviet Russian life both needed and enabled a transformative poetry. The daughter of an émigré family, Grushin uses magical imagery to evoke that old Russian life of the heart into which she was born.
People are queueing for something; no one knows quite what. The never entirely rational queue which was a feature of Soviet life here excites visions in all the characters who join it. When the kiosk with a closed window actually offers tickets to a concert by a great Russian composer who fled the Revolution, the lives of half-a-dozen hopefuls become closely entwined.
At their centre are Anna, a schoolteacher, her musician husband Sergei, and their 16-year-old son Alexander. Anna wants to breathe new life into her stalled marriage. But her mother, who lives with them and hasn't spoken for years, also wants to go to the concert, so her welfare becomes Anna's goal. Sergei, a violin prodigy as a child, forced to adopt the tuba, longs to be in the presence of great music rather than the state-imposed repertoire. Alexander fantasises about following the great émigré composer's example and leaving the country.
The queue lasts a year and when it ends the characters have learned to live with themselves, and each other, afresh. The portrait of a whole society in pain makes this novel a more demanding experience than Grushin's first. Where Sukhanov gave us lyricism and humour and a swiftly moving plot, here disappointment weighs heavy. Soviet life was about the waste of human talent, potential and happiness. The characters ache with what they are missing and the reader aches too.
Grushin takes her time-span and her theme from 1962, when an 84-year-old Igor Stravinsky was invited back to give a concert in then Leningrad. As rumours of "Selinsky"'s death send tremors through the queue, we hear echoes of Waiting for Godot. Towards the end the most famous queue in Russian literature comes to mind, in which the poet Anna Akhmatova, waiting to send her son imprisoned in the Gulag a parcel, is asked by a neighbour: can you describe this? And she answers: I can.
"O hateful city" cries young Alexander, "where time is communal and worthless, where seasons follow one another like obedient comrades shuffling forward in line, where age erases identical, meaningless lives before they are even written." Much of Grushin's counter-poetry, which invokes the symbolist heritage and its astonishing transformation into the lightning language of a new spirituality, dwells on the miracle of time and weather and subjective perspective to counter Soviet deadness.
Grushin makes things happen novelistically. People are always missing each other, leaving notes which go astray, losing things which turn up in other people's pockets. That made for lots of fun in Sukhanov. But the problem with this novel is that its emotional weight is too great for the slender structure of the queue. The poetry that generates hope gets in the way of a plot that needs to move faster. There's just too much imagery, in short. A (Russian) film treatment would do wonders.
Lesley Chamberlain is the author of a book of Russian stories, 'In a Place Like That'
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