The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin

Portrait of the artist as a Soviet sycophant
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The Independent Culture

Here's a contemporary novel so good, I felt like buying 10 copies and sending them to friends. It's also a first novel by a Russian woman living in the US, writing in her third language. Shame on us all. Olga Grushin reminds us of what makes the best of Russian culture soar to fantastic heights, and the subject of her novel is in some ways just that: the seriousness of talent.

Anatoly Sukhanov was a successful art historian until, a couple of days ago, he plunged into his mid-life crisis. He's in his mid-fifties, still in love with his beautiful Nina and proud of his two successful children. But then, in a series of strange meetings, his past comes back to haunt him, from early childhood and through the significant moments in his life. With the great dream he had, should he have given in to mediocrity for himself and security for his family? The dilemma is so powerfully universal that one might wonder why it bothers contemporary Western novelists less than it used to.

Sukhanov is a painter who put away his brushes. A nightmare retrospective suddenly puts three decades of excuses on display in his head. His income was poor, they wanted to have children. His wife was used to a better life. There wasn't enough space in the flat for a studio. And what in heaven's name is painting for? Can the artist's love-affair with beauty and colour really be justified, set against all the requirements of the comfortable life? If the painter is an experimentalist in a prosaic age, isn't it likely he's painting for a non-existent audience?

These are questions which apply to the realisation or abandonment not only of artistic dreams. They are the very substance of youth versus mid-life. But in the Russian context, they acquire a heartrending poignancy because of the extra shaping forces of history and tyranny.

In some ways this novel, whose muse is that wonderful colourist and fantasist Chagall, is the history of the dreadful mediocritising force of art criticism in Russia over the Soviet years. It shows what befell artists and their talent.

Chagall emigrated after the Revolution out of disdain for what the "dictatorship of the proletariat" had in mind for the arts. Painters - or anyone with talent or originality - fell silent in the Stalin period in an effort to stay alive. The 1950s and 1960s were equivocal, and Grushin's Sukhanov came of age just in time to have his hopes raised by the brief thaw and then dashed again. Aged 33, the age when Christ was crucified, Tolya Sukhanov gave up painting in his own style and became an official critic and Party hack.

What's disturbing about this novel is not the perfectly executed plot but the quality of the author's inspiration. To tell this story, Grushin takes us on an elegant romp through the magical realms of consciousness in a style so faultless that a single oxymoron stands out. The Dream of Sukhanov reminds her delighted publishers of Kundera and Garcia Marquez and J M Coetzee, but what any Russian reader would instantly recognise is the magic toybox of Russian literature out of which she pulls tricks reminiscent now of Nabokov, now of Bulgakov and others.

For that reason, this novel may be slightly less original than it seems once removed from its cultural origins. It remains a stunning fictional debut, and a book which reminds us of what a superb contribution the Russian tradition has made, and can still make, to the literary art, compared with our own fallen and humdrum literary world.

Lesley Chamberlain's 'The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the exile of the intelligentsia' appears next month from Atlantic