Read The Dream Life of Sukhanov Online

Authors: Olga Grushin

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

The Dream Life of Sukhanov (4 page)

“He’s become quite unpresentable, our Lev Borisovich has. Aged, unshaved, dressed in God knows what—some unimaginable bow-tie affair ... I think he drinks. Of course, I would too if my life were such a dismal failure. But naturally, it was bound to come to this. Even his wife—”

“Do you want anything else?” she interrupted. “If you are done, I’ll put everything away.”

“Please,” he said, and set down his last, unfinished, éclair. “Even his wife left him. Remember Alla? Frankly, I’m surprised she lasted as long as she did.”

Nina continued to open and close cupboards in silence. Pleasantly full, he leaned back in his chair, delicately muffled a chocolate burp in his napkin, and hummed the duel aria from
Evgeny
Onegin. The tablecloth had a fetching pattern of wildflowers on it, he noticed absently. He was already beginning to feel a welcome advent of drowsiness when Nina sharply slammed the strawberry jar in its place. Startled, he glanced up, and found her looking at him. Her gray eyes were cold.

“His name is Vadim,” she said.

“What was that, my love?”

“Our chauffeur. Our chauffeur’s name is Vadim. Not Volodya. Not Vladislav. Not Vyacheslav. It’s Vadim. He’s worked for us for almost three years, and in all this time you haven’t made an effort to remember his name.”

Sukhanov sat up straight.

“So I did it again, didn’t I?” he said amicably. “But my love, he has one of these names I always get wrong. You know how I am with names.”

“Oh, it’s not just names, Tolya, it’s everything,” she said, turning away. “In all my life, I’ve never met anyone with such a capacity to ignore and to forget.”

The renewed kitchen silence ceased being comfortable. Frowning slightly, he rose to go.

“A courier came by while we were away,” she said without looking in his direction, and dropped an avalanche of porcelain into the sink. “I put the envelope on your desk.”

“I’ll go and see,” he said, and hesitated for a moment, then added with a somewhat ingratiating smile, “I simply don’t know how I’m going to work without your portrait hovering over me, my love. I’m so used to its happy presence.”

“I’m relieved it’s gone,” said Nina dryly. “It felt like a constant reproach to me.”

“How do you mean?” he asked after a pause, but she said nothing else. The water was running noisily. With a suppressed sigh, he left the kitchen.

T
he large brown envelope contained three pages—two sheets of proofs, each in two pale columns of minuscule print, and a letter penned in sprawling handwriting, an intimate sign of particular respect. He skimmed it.
Dear Anatoly Pavlovich, would you be so kind as to check the enclosed for any possible additions or corrections....

The text, he already saw, was his own biography, to be included in an updated edition of
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia,
scheduled to appear early the next year. Feeling inexplicably nervous, he pulled closer his desk lamp, with its yellow shade perched on an elaborate bronze stand in the shape of a rearing Pegasus (a gift from his father-in-law), lifted a silver-handled magnifying glass from its embossed leather case (“To our highly esteemed Anatoly Pavlovich from his loyal colleagues, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday”), and bent over the busy rows of facts.

“Born January 13, 1929, in Moscow. Demonstrated inordinate critical abilities early on. From 1947 to 1952, attended the Surikov Art Institute in order to acquire practical grounding for his theoretical studies. From 1952 to 1967, taught at the Moscow Higher Artistic and Technical Institute, during which period began to write his critically acclaimed works. In 1963, published his first article of major importance, ‘Surrealism and Other Western “Isms” as Manifestations of Capitalist Insolvency’ (reissued in monograph form in 1965), followed in 1964 by the equally significant
Contemporary Applications of the Socialist Realism Method to Landscape and Still Life.
Member of the Communist Party from 1964. Member of the USSR Union of Artists from 1965. In 1967, left his teaching job to head the Art Criticism Division of—”

Satisfied that his beginnings were covered in just the right manner, with no unnecessary, one might even say harmful, details, Sukhanov exhaled and read the rest less attentively, lightly nodding at each new landmark in his soaring career: a flock of articles, a host of distinctions, a couple more dizzying leaps through the ranks; two definitive textbooks, on the history and theory of Soviet art, in 1968 and 1970 (currently in their fourth and sixth editions, respectively); a critical study of Western art movements, in 1972; and finally, and most victoriously, his appointment as editor of Art
of
the World in 1973. A long paragraph was devoted to the summary of his work: “A. P. Sukhanov’s studies achieve a brilliant synthesis of history and theory ... invaluable for their practical applications to current developments ... conclusive demonstration of impressionism, expressionism, and surrealism as movements in the service of capitalism ... in his capacity as editor responsible for steering the field of Soviet art away from corrupting Western influences and toward true artistic principles ...”

The last sentence, modestly rounding up the fireworks of praise, read simply: “At present lives in Moscow with his wife and two children.”

And this, neatly compressed into the three and a half columns of fine print, was his life in its entirety—one man’s conquering rise to prominence, with nothing to change and nothing to add, soon to be nestled side by side with greatness even greater than his in a massive compilation of Soviet accomplishment—the ultimate proof of having arrived.

At any other time, this brush with immortality would have engendered in Sukhanov a most contented glow of satisfaction, not unlike the delectably smooth warmth caused by a sip of the very best French cognac, and immediately he would have hurried to Nina, hoping for one of her rare smiles. But tonight she seemed in a strange, unapproachable mood, and his inability to share this triumph with her dampened his elation considerably. In addition, her accusation of forgetfulness bothered him, unfair though it was. Certainly, he was not very good at places, faces, names, for he did not care for the daily chaff of existence, and large numbers of people never became anything more to him than chance occupants of some random, briefly shared space—anonymous dwellers under the same roof, featureless crowds swimming past his car at red lights, blank-eyed students passing notes and peeling oranges in big auditoriums where he was occasionally asked to preside. It was likewise true that there were a number of things he had tried to forget on purpose, since he saw no reason to clutter his mind with facts and events that had long since outlived their usefulness. All the same, he was positive that everyone engaged in incidental editing of the past in order to survive—and that his memory, retaining everything vital, was just as good as the next man’s.

Take his biography, for instance. Born in 1929, more than half a century ago—and yet his earliest recollection dated from shortly thereafter, when he could not have been more than two years old. A dirty gray carpet, a barefoot child playing listlessly with its shedding fibers in front of a window, beyond which there is an equally gray sky. Then an unexpected shaft of sunlight breaks through the clouds and penetrates the dusty room, and simultaneously two major shifts occur in the world. First, I realize that this foot with its splayed toes is mine, that this hand drawing a circle on the floor is also mine, that this playing child is, in fact, me—and second, and somehow more important, the carpet suddenly reveals its true color, and it’s not gray at all, it’s green, the deepest, purest, greenest green, the overwhelming color of my happiness. Yes, that is what I remember best—the colors, the fleeting shifts of shadows, certain ephemeral combinations of light and darkness; and when I lift my face to the window, the sunlight plays on my skin, alive and warm, and when I close my eyes, there are flashing red circles swimming lustrously behind my eyelids, and when I open my eyes again ...

He opened his eyes, and was shocked to behold blackness instead of brightness behind the window and, reflected in the glass, the momentarily unrecognizable, vaguely unpleasant face of a middle-aged man with wide cheekbones, hair receding from a tall forehead, heavy jowls, small gray eyes swimming in two silver-rimmed holes of emptiness, and a thin mouth to which the lit windows in a building across the street imparted an illusory, horrible, golden-toothed smile.... Anatoly Pavlovich hastily took off his glasses. All at once it occurred to him that it was quite late, that it had been a very eventful day, that he was tired. Sighing, he slid the proofs neatly to the corner of his desk, pulled at a switch cord suspended between the bronze wings of Pegasus, and waded through familiar darkness to the bedroom where Nina was already sleeping, breathing in her soft, infinitely comforting way.

No sooner had he slipped into the night than he saw Belkin again, but this time there was nothing objectionable in his presence. Dressed in a tight maroon livery, Belkin stood immobile like a toy soldier in a corner of a hall set for a lavish dinner party but amusingly full of ribboned horses. The horses pranced about, having quiet, dignified conversations among themselves. One of them, covered with an embroidered red cloth with little golden bells around the edges, trotted toward Sukhanov and neighed solemnly, “My daughter is a very pretty girl,” and he was just about to laugh in the horse’s face, when Belkin jumped, grabbed hold of the tablecloth on the longest table, and pulled, and all the plates and silverware and goblets cascaded onto the floor with an earsplitting crash. Scandalized by such uncivilized behavior, Sukhanov sat up abruptly—and realized that Nina’s soft breathing had stopped, and that she too was awake, leaning on her elbow in the dark next to him, listening intently. Tinkles of broken glass were still falling somewhere overhead, and now came a woman’s muffled scream followed by a stampede of frantic footsteps. Then all was silent.

“What’s going on?” he whispered.

“The woman upstairs has a sick father,” Nina whispered back. “He must be having a bad night.”

They listened for a while longer, but all seemed quiet, and Nina laid her head back onto her pillow; soon her breathing grew even again. The phosphorescent clock by the bed showed a few minutes past four. Feeling a bit unsettled, Sukhanov closed his eyes as well, wishing he could return to his curious dream about the talking horse—and it was precisely then that the day played one last trick on Anatoly Pavlovich. His memory stirred, reshuffled itself—and he knew without the slightest doubt that at the moment when he had stopped paying attention, the Minister of Culture had been in the process of inviting him to one of his famed dacha gatherings, and that there had even been some hint of an incredible, celestial combination involving the Minister’s daughter and his own Vasily. Sukhanov moaned. Then, as if to console him, his memory obediently served up the image he had vainly sought to capture at the party—a fat, pompous hamster from a popular children’s cartoon, its cheeks swollen with stolen grain. The resemblance was indeed uncanny.

FOUR

On a brightly illuminated square, before gingerbread houses with red roofs and golden shutters, Swanilda and her friends threw their legs up in the air in a flurry of lace and enthusiasm. Sukhanov felt distracted. He was sitting so close he could hear the tentative creaks of the floorboards and the soft slaps of the dancers’ feet, could see that a braided wig on one of the women had slipped to the side, could almost guess at the multicogged machinery concealed in the wings, at any moment ready to set the silver foil of the moon gliding across a painted sky or wafts of smoke puffing cozily from two-dimensional chimneys. His box, draped in crimson velvet, sealed with an embroidered coat of arms, and almost hanging over the stage, was a clear mark of privilege, and yet, ironically, this very proximity revealed the dance to be replete with sweaty effort, robbing it of the magical illusion necessary for his enjoyment—so much so that he found himself envying the nobodies in the top gallery for whom the ballet must have seemed one blurry, whirling extravaganza of music, color, and light.

During the second intermission, Vasily roamed the sparkling cavity of the theater with his binoculars, announced that he saw an acquaintance, and slipped out. Sukhanov was left alone with his mother. He had meant for this to be a full family outing, but Nina still complained of a headache, and Ksenya had declared a particular dislike for
Coppelia.
“This is a perfect illustration of the difference between the French and the Germans,” she had said. “Delibes takes Hoffmann’s sinister tale of love and insanity and turns it into a story of a village Don Juan who is courting two women at once. Read it, and you’ll see what I mean.” She had then tossed a weighty volume onto his desk, upsetting his papers and causing a sheet of his biography to flutter to the floor; but before he had had time to scold her, Vasily had asked whether he could borrow his cuff links, Valya had come knocking on the door with an invitation to tea, the chauffeur had called from downstairs to report that the car was ready—and now here he was, confined in the mothball-permeated, cherry-colored plushness of the box with his mother, making polite little noises of attention in her direction.

“I think the costumes and the sets are lovely,” she replied in answer to his question, glancing at him in her quick, habitually frightened manner. “Only I can’t quite figure out ... If Coppelia is the boy’s fiancée, then who is this other girl?”

“No, Mother, it’s Swanilda who is the fiancée,” he said, swallowing a sigh. “Swanilda is the village girl, and Coppelia ...” Ruffling the program, he read the mildly ridiculous synopsis to her once again. “‘And in the end,’ “he finished patiently, ”‘the village celebrates its new church bell, and Franz and Dr. Coppelius each get a bag of gold.’”

Nadezhda Sergeevna nervously readjusted her ill-fitting purple dress.

“But I thought Dr. Coppelius was a negative character,” she said with another frightened look at her son.

Before he could answer, the lights began to dim, the yellow tassels on the curtain quivered and started to slide, a burst of music erupted, and Vasily tiptoed back to his seat, stepping on his neighbors’ feet and murmuring apologies. Sukhanov resigned himself to another stretch of melodious boredom. A little girl directly behind him, the daughter of someone in the Bolshoi’s top administration, was unwrapping a lollipop, noisily, endlessly, infuriatingly, and her mother kept imploring her to stop, in a loud, tragic whisper; there were always too many children at matinees. Mercifully, the performance ended quickly.

As the three of them emerged from the shadowy forest of the Bolshoi’s columned lobby, his mother leaning heavily on his arm, the slanting afternoon sun that set fire to pools of yesterday’s rainwater disoriented Sukhanov for a moment. They had not yet descended the steps when Vasily said he had to meet some friends. It seemed to Sukhanov that his son’s eyes were cold and his parting abrupt; but of course, his perceptions might have been colored by the previous night’s realization that, through an accidental blunder on his part, he had deprived the boy of a potentially brilliant twist of fate. He had tried to forget that unlucky brush with august favor, but a faintly nauseating feeling, strangely akin to a feeling of guilt, kept stirring inside him, and it was almost with relief that he watched Vasily run down the staircase and vanish in the crowd of theatergoers. Most likely, it was the same feeling of guilt that prompted him, in the very next breath, to accept his mother’s offer of tea—for it had been her invitation to Malinin’s opening that he had given to Ksenya, thinking Nadezhda Sergeevna a bit unpresentable for an event of such importance.

In truth, Sukhanov rarely enjoyed his mother’s company. Apart from her grim button-down dresses, her long gray hair pulled back in a fastidious bun, her eternal air of watchful uncertainty accompanied by fluttering gestures and startled looks, and the cloyingly sweet smell of Krasnyi Oktyabr, a perfume she had used all her life—in short, apart from the things one gleaned within the first half-hour of being in her presence—there seemed to be nothing material about her. She used to work in one of those ubiquitous patriotic organizations with a conspiratorial acronym for a name that had mushroomed in the first days of the Revolution, but which had, unlike most others, survived the tossings of history and continued to exist in some forgotten corner of Moscow. She had spent thirty years there as an accountant, although she had no formal education and no particular acuity for numbers. Sukhanov had always found it difficult to imagine her bent for hours over some massive desk in a poorly lit office with a rain-stained view of a littered courtyard and a few dying plants on the windowsills, writing down columns of meaningless arithmetic; but at least her job, vapid as it had been, had offered her a peg on which to hang her days, her weeks, her years. Ever since her retirement two decades earlier, her life had lost what little shape it had. He had never seen her with a book, walking made her tired, and the arts left her indifferent; he had no doubt it was only her misplaced sense of duty that made her timorously, with neither enjoyment nor understanding, accompany him every few months on some cultural outing. She had no acquaintances that he knew of, and no living relatives except himself. Her two-room apartment, in an old Arbat building with no elevator, invariably made him feel that her private clock had stopped many years before, as if the very notions of past and future had long since lost their relevance here. Everything was spotless, precisely placed, and absolutely unchanged from his previous visit, all his previous visits—from the time, in fact, when she had first moved here, in 1964. Purple bouquets of artificial flowers bristled pompously in black vases on her bureaus, whose surfaces were covered with yellowing doilies; a small reproduction of Shishkin’s Pine Forest decorated the wall above her drab green couch with its primly arranged profusion of lacy pillows; the same aluminum-encased clock that showed a red-lettered date in the narrow slot in its base stood on top of the old-fashioned television set that she stubbornly refused to relinquish in favor of a newer model. Even the air in the apartment did not play or move but simply hung, and Sukhanov involuntarily began to breathe deeper and talk louder the moment he walked inside, as if trying to drown out a persistent feeling of sadness.

“Just one more, Tolya, eat one more,” she pleaded, pushing at him a plate piled with sugarcoated confections he abhorred. “Are you sure? Well, at least take a few home to the kids, I have plenty. Here, why don’t I wrap them up for you, come to the kitchen.”

“Mother, please,” he protested, “the kids are no longer kids, they don’t need—”

But her mincing steps were already pattering down the corridor. Sighing, he followed her from the living room, where she always served him tea out of some dim notion of good manners. She was waiting for him on the threshold of her tiny kitchen, looking back with an unexpected sly smile.

“Come on in,” she said, beckoning. “I want to show you something.”

Mildly surprised by this departure from routine, he stepped inside, dipping his head under a low arch—and saw it right away. On top of a squatting cupboard by the window, next to a tower of boxes containing the unpalatable sugared treats, stood a round cage. A small yellow bird on a miniature swing cheerfully moved its short tail up and down, and neatly deposited a compact white drop on a crumpled newspaper below.

“You’ve got yourself a canary,” he said, trying to keep the disgust out of his voice.

“Yes, isn’t she sweet,” said Nadezhda Sergeevna, pressing her hands together. “I’ve named her Malvina.”

“How nice. Where did you get it?”

“Oh, from an acquaintance. You do think the name suits her, don’t you?”

“What acquaintance?” he asked, his surprise deepening.

She mumbled vaguely about someone’s cousin staying with relatives on a visit, and then, clearly considering the matter closed, began to sigh over her acquisition, imploring him to look, just look at this dainty beak, the color of these feathers, these bright beady eyes, so pretty, so intelligent.... Growing bored, Sukhanov stared outside. An old man was hobbling along the pavement, once in a while bending to pick something up, a cigarette butt most likely; a homeless dog darted from one courtyard to another; and over at the corner he saw—with another inexplicable tremor of guilt, though weaker this time—Vadim dozing over a newspaper, behind a lowered window of the Volga. His mother kept talking. For some reason the bird did not sing, although she was sure it would in time, it just needed to feel welcome.... A new smell, a slightly acrid smell of fowl droppings, was stealthily seeping into the familiar smells of shortbread cookies and
tvorog.

Stifling a yawn, Sukhanov began to take his leave.

“But Tolya, you do like her, don’t you?” Nadezhda Sergeevna asked from the doorway, smiling anxiously.

“As long as it makes you happy,” he said absently, as always searching for an elevator button, as always remembering a moment later. “Frankly, I don’t really care for birds myself.”

“Well, I don’t know why you wouldn‘t,” she said in a petulant voice. “You did when you were a child.”

He looked at her with immediate interest. She had never told him any stories about his childhood, even on those rare occasions when he had pleaded with her for a word, a family anecdote, a particular gesture or expression he might have used when he was little—anything at all to imbue with life a few black-and-white prewar snapshots of a skinny boy posing expressionlessly, unnaturally, between the gray covers of her photo album.

“I used to like birds?” he asked in amusement.

A frightened shadow flitted across her face, as if she had said more than she should have.

“You and every other child your age,” she muttered with that little grimace of nervousness he knew so well. “Good night, Tolya.”

“Good night, Mother,” he said with a sigh. “The tea was delicious.”

Pressing the shapeless package of sweets to his chest, he descended the stairs. For the duration of all six flights he could hear her fumbling tremulously with the lock; then the heavy front door slid closed behind him with a muted bang, and he was pushed into the softly glowing evening.

It was warm, warmer than the day before, and the sun, about to glide below the stubble of antennas on the neighboring roofs, suffused the air, the trees, the peeling stucco façades with a vespertine lucidity, imparting to the old quarter of Moscow that precious quality of rosy precision occasionally found in faintly colored nineteenth-century photographs of city vistas. Sukhanov walked past the houses with yawning gateways, which, in their depths, after one’s gaze had traveled through a sour-smelling, graffiti-covered, slightly menacing dusk, miraculously revealed flashes of cool green leafiness swaying on a light breeze in small, secret gardens. A couple of buildings down, the swift movement of a hairy hand pushed open a window. As its frame swung out, the sun shot through the glass in a fiery orange zigzag, and out into the street spilled the zesty smell of roasted chicken and the rich honey of some classic romance; the performer’s old-fashioned tenor sang caressingly of a solitary sail gliding through the blue mist of the sea. And suddenly Anatoly Pavlovich felt an odd, poignant tug at his heart, as if at that moment all these colors, smells, and sounds of a Moscow evening came together in just this way solely in order to re-create some long-forgotten combination—that of another quiet Arbat street lit by another nearing sunset, seen by a child peering out of the open window of a cramped kitchen where another chicken, a remote ancestor of this one, had been roasting in an oven, while somewhere in the dim heart of the apartment a phonograph had whined soulfully, swelling with the very same romance by Varlamov....

He slowed down, looked around him again, with different eyes this time, and thought how strange it was that he came here so rarely, only a few times a year, on these reluctant, vaguely embarrassing tea-drinking visits—and yet it had been just a few crooked, rambling, wonderful streets from this very spot that he had spent so much of his life; and all these courtyards, all these boarded-up churches, the stucco decorations of the façades, the darkening alleys he was now passing with the mild apprehension of a middle-aged man—all of this he must have once known with the most intimate knowledge of scraped knees and cut-up palms, the knowledge of a lively, inquisitive, troublesome boy. Former street names, learned from an old neighbor, rose to his lips like a charming tune from the past—Filippovsky Lane, Malyi Afanasievsky, Bolshoi Afanasievsky ... And when, at the corner, the houses finally fell apart, revealing the wide beginnings of Gogolevsky Boulevard, and Vadim appeared from under the newspaper, yawning as he scrambled to wakefulness, Sukhanov surprised himself.

“Drive down the boulevard and meet me at its lower end, by the metro, will you?” he said airily. “The evening is so nice, I’d like to take a little walk.”

Aware of his Volga pulling out into the street immediately behind him, he crossed with an unaccustomed recklessness, at a yellow light, and entered the shade of the trees surrounding a statue of Gogol. The author of
Dead Souls
was, as usual, stiffly striding forward with a sarcastic half-smile on his lips. Sukhanov hesitated; but the reddening sun dappled the ground so alluringly and the leaves rustled so lightly that he shrugged and sat down on the nearest bench—only for a minute, he told himself as he gazed about him, pleasantly stirred by the proximity of his earliest years. All the other benches were occupied, mostly by embracing couples, with a sprinkle of solitary women here and there; one of them, with the prim face of a provincial schoolteacher, was tossing crumbs at an undulating sea of pigeons. A bit farther down the boulevard, a pack of small children played noisily, climbing over a wooden mushroom, falling off, laughing, climbing again. I might have come here as a toddler, he thought sentimentally.

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