Read The Dream Life of Sukhanov Online

Authors: Olga Grushin

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

The Dream Life of Sukhanov

Critics’ praise for
The Dream Life of Sukbanov
and Olga Grushin

“English is Grushin’s third language. Yet so accomplished are her skills—so hauntingly assured—that more than one U.S. critic has greeted her as the next great American novelist.... To write a novel as good as this you need to be very talented. And Grushin is.”—
Financial Times

“This magnificent novel celebrates surrealistic painting by being surrealistic itself and makes the moral point that artistic integrity, at any cost, is ultimately more rewarding than compromised celebrity. In the context of Soviet Russia, where insistence on the right to freedom of artistic expression could have fatal consequences, this theme is particularly dramatic. But freedom of expression is constantly threatened everywhere, by all kinds of forces, some overt and some subtle, so this specifically Russian story has universal resonance.... Grushin is a Russian writing in English—such astonishingly beautiful English that it is almost impossible to believe it is not her first language.... This is an outstanding novel. It’s a first one, too [and] with it, Grushin raises the bar for first novels. Like all excellent works ... it fills one with joy, because it works on every level.”—
The Irish Times

“Sophisticated, ironic and witty, multilayered, intricately constructed, deeply informed, elegantly written.... One of the many marks of Grushin’s wisdom and maturity is that Sukhanov, whom it would be easy to set up as a straw man, is a deeply complex, endlessly interesting and sympathetic figure. Nobody in
The Dream Life of Sukhanov
is fashioned out of cardboard. Every character evolves as the book progresses, turning into someone the reader had not quite expected ... all are viewed and portrayed with compassion, as fallible human beings caught in circumstances not conducive to true nobility or true villainy.... Make no mistake,
The Dream Life of Sukhanov
is the work of a true artist.... In its expansiveness, its refusal to dwell in the tiny palace of self, it harks back to the great Russian masters. In so doing it breathes new life into American literary fiction.”

—Jonathan Yardley,
The Washington Post Book World

“Ironic, surreal [and] Gogolesque in its sardonic humor.”

The New York Times

“Here’s a contemporary novel so good I felt like buying ten copies and sending them to friends.... Reminiscent now of Nabokov, now of Bulgakov [it‘s] a stunning fiction debut, and a book which reminds us of what a superb contribution the Russian tradition has made, and can still make, to literary art, compared with our own fallen and humdrum literary world.”

The Independent

a cognizant original v5 release october 08 2010

“Olga Grushin’s haunting dreamscape of her native land is a debut to be cheered here, there and everywhere.”

—Dan Cryer,
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Subtle and vertiginous.”

—The New York Times Book Review

“Sukhanov ends the novel as a species of holy fool. In mad times, madness is a perfectly authentic response. But he is true to his vision at last, and Grushin has been true to hers.”

The Observer

“Brilliant work from a newcomer who is already an estimable American writer.”—
Kirkus Reviews

“The Dream Life of Sukhanov
is Olga Grushin’s first novel, although you’d never guess it.... Evoking a time and place vivid in its particulars, Grushin draws universal lessons, an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that English isn’t her native language.”—

“Sinuous prose that shifts seamlessly from third to first person, between present and past, in and out of dreams and hallucinations ... in Grushin’s wonderful novel, the incandescent wealth of Russia’s literary heritage blazes.”

Daily Telegraph

“Olga Grushin’s hallucinatory tale of a member of the Soviet
discovering the price of his pact with the devil boldly collapses past into present, dream into reality, bitterness into sweetness, rising to heights of artful virtuosity rare in any book, let alone a first novel. Steeped in the tradition of Gogol, Bulgakov, and Nabokov, Grushin is clearly a writer of large and original talent.”—James Lasdun

“The Dream Life of Sukhanov
will tower over the majority of what publishers put out this year. Grushin’s beautifully constructed puzzle is a triumph of singular yet universal genius.”

New York Magazine


Born in 1971 in Moscow, Olga Grushin did her early schooling in Prague. She returned to Moscow in 1981 and later studied art history at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and journalism at Moscow State University. In 1989, she was given a full scholarship to Emory University.

She has been a researcher and an interpreter at the Carter Center and an editor at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Her short fiction has appeared in
Partisan Review, The Massachusetts Review, Confrontation,
Art Times.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov
is her first novel. It was a finalist for the
Los Angeles Times
First Fiction Award and for the U.K.’s Orange Award for New Writers.

Grushin, who became a U.S. citizen in 2002, lives outside Washington, D.C., with her husband and their son.


Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England

First published in the United States of America by G. P. Putnam’s Sons,
a member of the Penguin Group 2005
Published in Penguin Books 2007

Copyright © Olga Grushin, 2005

All rights reserved

The author is indebted to John E. Bowlt’s
Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory
and Criticism,
1902-1934 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988) for the quotation from
The Golden Fleece
(attributed here to
The World of Art),
and to Rimma Gerlovina’s
three-dimensional poems for the description of the cube-shaped artwork.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product
of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

eISBN : 978-1-101-07798-6

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means
without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only
authorized electronic editions, and do not participate In or encourage electronic piracy
of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

To my parents

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.



top here,” said Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov from the backseat, addressing the pair of suede gloves on the steering wheel.

The white-and-yellow columns outside his window ceased their tiresome flashing, began to slow down, and in another moment fell obediently into their assigned places. A pale orange tentacle of a nearby streetlamp pierced the plush darkness around him, and Nina, who had been silent the whole way, stirred as if waking.

“Already?” she said absently, glancing outside.

They were there. With a slight sigh, she searched for something in her purse, as she always did upon arrival. Sukhanov waited patiently while she flipped open a compact, balanced its small convex pool of glittering blackness on her palm, slid a peach-colored pillar of lipstick out of the golden coils of its case, and proceeded to bend her face this way and that, trying to chase her reflection out of the shadows. Unexpectedly he caught sight of a delicately painted eye as it flitted along the surface of the mirror, but she moved her hand, and the eye blinked and vanished. Humming tunelessly, he looked away; even after twenty-eight years of marriage, he still felt awkward in such moments, as if caught spying on some private ritual. Finally the elusive reflection became trapped in the ray of the streetlamp, and she traced the contours of her full mouth in two quick flicks of her wrist, pressed her lips together with a tiny pat, and dropped the lipstick back into her purse. He heard the lock shut with a rapacious snap, saw out of the corner of his eye a cold burst of fire as a diamond earring passed through the light—and then, with a sudden fluid rustle, she was gone, as usual without waiting for her door to be opened. Behind her lingered a smell—the elegant perfume of tonight, whatever it was, and underneath, numerous layers of other fading scents, which had accumulated over time in the backseat of their Volga like so many sweet, barely discernible ghosts of past outings.

With a slow heave Sukhanov followed her out.

At this hour of the evening, on a Saturday, Marx Avenue was starting to grow quiet. The lamps glowed like tangerine balloons let loose in the soft haze, and in their light the eighteenth-century façade of the old Moscow university shone brightly, as dramatic and familiar as the stage set of some stately, stale play Although it was early August, the air had already acquired that special, brittle and gentle, autumnal quality that made the world seem a breath deeper and a trifle less certain, as if seen through a sheet of crystal. Infrequent cars passed. A wide sweep of their headlights brought into sudden sharp relief vague shapes of passersby, for a solitary instant imparting volume and color to a youth in a drab suit darting recklessly across the street, an old man shuffling by with a crumpled newspaper under his arm, several ageless, heavy-faced women weighed down by bloated bags, and—strikingly, incongruously—a vision: a figure in a low-cut dress of shimmering green silk, standing tall and slender and long-legged by the curb.

“It’s chilly,” said Nina quietly.

Sukhanov nodded, turned back to the car, and rapped on the window. The tinted glass slid down without a sound, exposing the suede gloves inside, poised at the ready.

“Wait for us over there,” he said curtly. “I expect we’ll be a while.”

As they walked the few paces to the Manège, they tilted their heads up, to get a better view of an imposing banner unfurling above the portico of the grand exhibition hall. “THE FACE OF OUR MOTHERLAND,” read the enormous red letters, and, in the line below, “Pyotr Alekseevich Malinin, 1905—1985.”

“The dates make him sound dead,” observed Sukhanov with displeasure. “They should make it clear it’s his birthday celebration, don’t you think?”

She shrugged and said nothing, only quickened her steps, and the deserted square greedily received each precise click of her silvery high heels. A broad-shouldered man who stood smoking by the entrance saw her approach and instantly, diving forward with his whole body, swung the door wide open; a waft of well-lit stuffiness and a cascading burst of a woman’s artificial laughter escaped into the quiet darkness. As Nina passed inside, Sukhanov noticed the man follow her sheer silken legs with a speculative look. No one could ever guess her age, he thought, feeling pleasantly flattered. He was about to enter himself, when the man released the door and turned toward him, revealing a tentative wisp of a mustache in the middle of an insolent face.

“Just a minute,” the man said in a bored tone. “This is by invitation only.”

Sukhanov measured the fatuous mustache with a contemptuous look and unhurriedly reached into his pocket.

He had barely stepped inside when an ample woman stuffed into a tight dress of crimson velvet flew at him, opening her arms and crying shrilly, “Anatoly Pavlovich, the very man I was dying to see! Ah, do I have just the story for you!”

She was the wife of a famous theater critic; he had dined with them the other week. Tapping his chest with her plump index finger, she plunged into some involved tale, melting into debilitating giggles at every few words. Nodding mechanically, Sukhanov surveyed the place over her swaying shoulders. He had not been here for a while—in fact, not since ... well, no need to be exact, he thought hastily, reining in his memory with the chilling sensation of the near-slip. Suffice it to say, it had been a long, a very long time, and everything looked quite different now.

The white-walled hall was welcomingly warm. A narrow red carpet ran across the shining floor in an appropriately solemn touch, unrolled, he was sure, just for the occasion, and the hum of manifold conversations splashed around long tables generously set with hors d‘oeuvres. The crowd looked befittingly festive, and light danced playfully off every gesture, transforming a lifted champagne flute into liquid gold, setting a flock of sparks aflutter over an extended hand, causing tiny explosions with every turn of a woman’s head. He saw countless dignitaries drifting about, and in the middle of the room he noticed Vasily, twirling a glass of wine and smiling his habitually thin smile as he bent toward an exceptionally bejeweled matron, whom Sukhanov recognized with a start as the Minister of Culture’s wife. Ah, indeed, that boy will go far, very far, he thought once again with approval. Ksenya, needless to say, was not here yet; she always made a point of flaunting her thorough disregard for his position. But she was still young, only eighteen, and he was certain that, given her brilliant mind, she would in time—

The critic’s wife leaned into him, oozing confidentiality.

“And so I say to him, ‘It’s all very well, Mark Abramovich, but your ending, my dear, your ending really doesn’t work.’ I mean, if you constantly hint at some terrible mystery, surely you should disclose it in the fifth act! And then, just imagine, he says to me, ‘I don’t think you understand my conception. By leaving things unexplained I’m trying to convey the general absurdity of our existence.’ Can you believe it? The general absurdity of our existence!”

As she collapsed in another outburst of helpless mirth, her breasts bounced up and down like two melons draped in taut crimson, her meaty earlobes flashed with amethysts the size of walnuts, and her second chin gave birth to a third. Muttering a halfhearted excuse, Sukhanov extricated himself from her voluminous grasp and quickly walked toward Vasily, and from halfway across the room her laughing shriek chased him still: “The absurdity of our existence, can you believe it, Anatoly Pavlovich?”

The Minister’s wife bared her small, crowded teeth.

“Maria Nikolaevna, you look glamorous as always,” said Sukhanov, and in a joking gesture of exaggerated politeness carried her hand to his lips.

“Like father, like son,” she said in a languid drawl. “Both such charmers!”

At his side, Vasily smiled silkily. He had certainly grown into a handsome young man.

All around them conversations, wound up earlier in the evening, were slowly unwinding, traveling their preordained course toward the main event of the night. Moscow’s artistic crème de la crème, ostensibly gathered to celebrate the eightieth birthday of one of their brightest stars, tacitly congratulated each other on their own success in life. Suddenly there was a rustle, a stir, glasses being raised first here, then there, as a chorus of
“Vashe zdorovie!”
spread across the hall, rolling through the crowd like exalted ripples originating somewhere at the heart of things and reaching wider and wider. Of course, the heart in question, the assembly’s nerve center, had been apparent to Sukhanov’s trained eye from the moment he had entered. In one of the more remote corners, casually surrounded by a few somberly clad youths with discreet bulges in their jackets, two men talked, interrupting each other amiably, laughing at each other’s jokes, slapping each other on the back, all the while secretly watched by several hundred eyes. They had just drunk a toast to each other’s health, these two—the guest of honor, the artist Pyotr Alekseevich Malinin, and the Minister of Culture. Anyone’s importance could be measured visibly tonight by the degree of proximity to this innermost of circles, and imperceptibly, excitedly, the guests shifted closer and closer in dark, respectful waves of tailored suits and gowns, their crisp shirtfronts and low décolletages flashing like brilliant white foam on the crests.

It occurred to Sukhanov that the whole scene was oddly like a parody of Malinin’s early work—one of those easily recognizable “Great Leader” paintings, with Lenin (or someone else, heavily mustachioed and currently unnameable) thundering from a far-off podium, on the unreachable horizon, and tides of workers and peasants spreading outward from it, initially shrunk by the perspective into mere symbols of class and righteous anger but presently growing larger, larger, until here they were, bigger than life, almost bursting out of the frame with their enraptured stares, half-opened mouths, clenched fists, ripped clothes. Understandably, such grim militant works had been tactfully omitted from the Soviet master’s retrospective. Other, milder creations hung under the spotlights, presenting to the audience so-called Socialism with a Human Face—a slogan that was perhaps more familiar to Sukhanov than to anyone else here. Allowing himself a knowing smile, he took his most regretful leave of his most captivating company (in any case, it was useful to let the boy work on the woman a bit more) and leisurely made his way along the walls.

Birch trees bathed in the sunlight, bright and fresh as if grown to order, and broad blue rivers streamed merrily along emerald shores dotted with cows and smoking with factories. Sturdy girls beamed as they strode through the fields, proudly carrying sacks of potatoes; miners bent in grimy enthusiastic groups over newspapers announcing new railroad openings; and parades of gold-trimmed banners passed before the shining eyes of toddlers who were still too young to march but who already, wordlessly, gratefully, understood the future happiness of their existence. There were portraits here too, mostly of seamstresses, sailors, and peasants—in a word, the People—as well as several colorful illustrations of folktales, produced in Malinin’s more whimsical moments and including the celebrated Firebird, displayed across the entrance, in the place of honor.

Sukhanov walked almost without pausing. The main quality uniting all these works, he felt privately, was the inherent ease with which they slid into oblivion the moment one’s back was turned, so nondescript were they, so similar to a thousand other paintings. Malinin’s genre scenes read like a page from a textbook, and Malinin’s faces were drawn so precisely, so airlessly, that they seemed to lack one of the two requisite dimensions. Still, the old man was not altogether without talent, and there were three or four pieces, perhaps, that stood out from the rest. This one, for instance.

A pale-haired young woman in light blue emerged dreamily from the darker blue of the sky or possibly a lake, its colors melting gently into the colors of her dress. Her soft gaze was directed not at the viewer, but through him, beyond him, at something truly happy that only she could see, something that brought a tender shadow of a smile to her face. A different work this was, without a doubt—an intimate work. Sukhanov bent to read the label underneath:
“A Future Mother,
1965. On loan from a private collection.” Once again, he could not help wincing, even though he understood the inevitability of such a name—after all, he himself had played a role in establishing the tradition whereby portraits of family members were mildly frowned upon, tainted as they were with the sin of being “slightly bourgeois.” Since the straightforward title
The Artist’s Daughter
was thus out of the question, Pyotr Alekseevich had given them a choice.

A Future Mother
A Russian Beauty,”
he had said. “Take your pick.”

Like most Soviet art, the painting shied away from needless physiological detail (Sukhanov’s mind automatically dealt out the term “sordid naturalism”), giving no obvious indications of its delicate subject: the woman’s body, neither thin nor full, discreetly faded into the background. All the same, Sukhanov had found the title inexcusably crude. Surprisingly, it was Nina who had insisted on this choice. “Apart from the fact that calling my own portrait ‘beauty’ is in bad taste, beauty is really not what it’s about,” she had said as the two of them stood arguing in Sukhanov’s study.

And indeed, she was right. Of course, the woman on the canvas was beautiful, for the likeness was considerable—and yet Sukhanov had always felt that the depiction failed to capture some vital quality of Nina‘s, some precious, elusive essence, uniquely hers, that imbued her with that cold, mysterious radiance he so admired. It was this quality that even in her awkward adolescence had earned her the nickname Mermaid, and made her eyes appear to change so unpredictably from gray to green to blue and her half-smile so hard to describe—the very same quality, perhaps, that, even now, made him look at her at times and wonder what her thoughts were. The thoughts of the painted Nina, on the other hand, were transparent. She had no obliqueness in her, no vagueness, no mystery as she sat there, young, healthy, content, listening to a new life, Vasily’s life, stirring inside her. And ironically, it was precisely this simplicity, this clarity, this lack of depth, so typical of Malinin, that had endeared the portrait to Sukhanov. He had hung it in the study across from his desk and frequently glanced at it as he worked, especially—especially in the first few years. The vision of the unequivocally happy, unquestionably blue-eyed Nina never failed to reassure him, affirming over and over that everything had been justified, that his life was proceeding according to plan, that his choice had not been one irreparable, terribie—

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