Russian in exile courts fame with La Vie Boheme

This is the first of a weekly series of articles on people you have probably never heard of: rising stars in their own countries - artists, businessmen, entertainers, politicians, criminals - who have yet to attract the world's attention
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The Independent Online
Paris - Until last November, Andrei Makine was living quietly in the ground-floor equivalent of an artist's garret in Montmartre and teaching courses at the prestigious Polytechnique to pay his bills. The rest of the time he spent writing, by hand, on single sheets of paper perched on his knee.

He is still living in his garret, teaching courses and writing on single sheets of paper on his knee. Now, however, he has to share his moderate- sized room with more than 40,000 letters, some running into dozens of pages, and his writing is more in the way of acknowledgments to his ecstatic and fascinated correspondents. If he chose, he could spend the next year travelling France to address admiring audiences.

The reason for the change is Makine's Proustian autobiographical novel, A French Testament, the acclaimed winner of France's top literary prize, the Goncourt, which has caught the country's imagination in a spectacular way. More than 450,000 copies have been sold; the book's stylised French (his adopted tongue) has drawn envious comment from cognoscenti, and only the inside story of President Francois Mitterrand's illness threatened, before it was banned, to topple it from the best-seller list.

Makine, 38, is a Russian citizen, or rather was a Soviet citizen whose papers were cancelled after he was given political asylum in France in 1987.

He still has no Russian passport, as the paperwork has not been sorted out, but also because he did not really want one. He wanted a French passport, but the authorities refused. If national popularity qualified someone for citizenship, Makine would have his passport tomorrow. As it is, his lack of citizenship has the perverse effect of confining him to France, something he minds not a bit.

While Russian by birth and by his burly, bearded appearance, Makine is a devoted Francophile. One reason for his popularity, and that of his novel, is that he makes the French feel good about themselves. Save for the small matter of bureaucracy (that passport), he sees France as the acme of refinement and cultivation.

For nostalgics, he embodies several traditions that seemed in danger, if not lost: France's place as a haven for artists in exile; a classical, some say archaic, French writing style; and the special relationship that existed between France and Russia for centuries, when education and status in Russia entailed immersion in all things French.

Makine acquired French from his French-born grandmother, who helped to bring him up in eastern Siberia. He was smitten by her tales, language and elegance, and his childhood dreams were all of France, a France, it turned out when he arrived in 1987, that did not exist. But the reality, he says, proved almost as enchanting. The colours, light, food and people, "everything and everyone as though out of a novel".

However much French friends try to persuade him he needs a country house, or a bigger flat, his new dream is to live like a 19th-century artist: "I'd love to live in a hotel, with no possessions to speak of. But it's too expensive." On reflection he has second thoughts. "How, in this day and age, can you guarantee the person upstairs, or next door won't switch on their hi-fi and ruin your peace?' He is staying in his garret.