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10 Questions with Olga Grushin
The Dream Life of Sukhanov is set in 1985 in the Soviet Union just as the cracks in the system are becoming impossible to ignore. Sukhanov, the prestigious, though not exactly powerful, editor of a state art magazine, is suddenly losing control over his work, his domestic life, and his own mind. Memories and dreams take over moments of his daily life, then blend with and even replace it, as he involuntarily relives decisions that diverted him from the course of an independent artist to that of an art critic enforcing the party line. Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life is both a metaphor for the Soviet state and a powerful portrait of an individual painfully facing what might have been. Laurie Greer interviewed Grushin about her luminous debut novel.
LG: One of the many outstanding qualities of Sukhanov is the language. Lyrical, blunt, shifting among tenses and voices—yet always clear; the novel reads so fluidly in English it’s hard to believe English isn’t your first language. Did you consider writing it in Russian? The book evokes a particularly Russian/Soviet moment—did you ever feel yourself straining for the right English to describe what Russian already has the words for? Some details worked perfectly in English, such as the ties Sukhanov loses. These are neckties he literally loses, but “ties” also conveys the way he’s becoming unmoored in so many ways. Would “tie” have these multiple meanings in Russian?
OG: When I started writing this novel, English had been my daily language for over ten years, and I had written many short stories in English, so it seemed a natural choice. When I write in English, I think in English. As a result, the verbal underpinnings of The Dream Life—wordplays, double meanings, alliterations, and so on—tend to be rooted in English, and would not easily translate into Russian (such as, for instance, the ties theme or an allusion to there being only a two-letter difference between "art" and "craft"). That said, I did attempt to imbue my English with a Russian feel, since I wanted the novel to convey a very Russian sensibility overall. I often retained Russian cadences in my sentences (hopefully while staying within bounds of English grammar), made stylistic allusions to the Russian classics, and in general tried to portray through my language the way of thinking of the entire generation of Russian intelligentsia of the sixties—a somewhat exalted, earnest way of relating to the world, when lofty words like "soul," "beauty," and "truth" were filled with everyday meaning.
LG: It can’t be easy to give up your native language. Does it feel as if you have lost access to the part of yourself shaped in that tongue? Do you ever write in your first language?
OG: Giving up Russian was indeed very traumatic. I am acutely aware of the fact that, no matter how comfortable I am with English, I will never hear it with the inner hearing of a native speaker; and I can't help wondering what my writing would be like today had I continued working in the language of my childhood and youth rather than starting from scratch at the age of twenty. I do not, however, feel that my decision to switch to English has come at the expense of my "Russian half.” I often find myself thinking of a saying of Charlemagne: to know another language is to have a second soul. I live with a sense of belonging to two cultures, of existing simultaneously in two vastly different and fascinating worlds, both of which inform my style in equal measure; and in my work I hope to arrive at an original blend of the two. And Russian has remained my private language, reserved for letters to my family and for my diary, which I have kept on and off since coming to America.
LG: Are there plans to release the novel in Russia and would you translate it? What kind of reception do you think it would get there?
OG: The book is being translated into eight languages (a prospect that never fails to astonish me), but there are as yet no plans for a Russian translation. My publisher is working on it, and I hope it will happen eventually. I’m not sure whether I would do the translation myself, but, of course, I would love to be involved. I would, though, be exceedingly nervous about the book’s reception. We Russians tend to bristle when outsiders pretend to a deep understanding of our culture, and I'm afraid there might be a tendency to regard me as a foreigner, a young American writer passing judgment on fifty years of Soviet history. I hope that Russian readers could look at my novel as a work very much within the Russian literary tradition, and perhaps find it interesting as such.
LG: You came to the United States in 1989, and before that spent a portion of your childhood in Prague. How long did you actually live in the Soviet Union? Have you been back to Russia since the fall of the Communist state? The novel doesn’t offer an entirely sunny picture of the next generation. Sukhanov’s son is obviously a survivor, and will do whatever it takes to get ahead. His daughter is independent and rebellious, but more of a groupie than an artist. What are your impressions of Russia now?
OG: I lived in the Soviet Union from 1971, the year of my birth, until 1976 (when my father found himself at odds with the regime and we had to move to Prague for five years), and again from 1981 to 1989—thirteen years all told. Since leaving for America, however, I have gone back virtually every year, for stays ranging from two weeks to three months; I am a citizen of both countries, and, with the exception of my American husband and our two-year-old son, my family still lives in Russia. I have never stopped thinking of Russia as my home; over the years I have simply started to think of America as another home. Of course, today’s Russia is in transition, and has been for years, and I often fail to recognize the familiar landscape of my youth in the chaotic bustle of modern Moscow: much of what was stagnant and oppressive is gone now, but so too is much of what was beautiful. Still, alongside the notorious New Russians (whose ranks Sukhanov’s son Vasily would likely have joined), and the youngsters mindlessly aping the worst of Western culture, I see many exciting signs of new life being created, or perhaps old life being restored: a flourishing of theaters, wonderful music, torn-down churches rising from the dust, interest in half-forgotten Russian writers…. There is, I fear, little hope for the likes of Vasily, but I do feel hopeful for Ksenya.
LG: In a blurb on the cover of your book, James Lasdun puts you in the tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov (and Nabokov, another excellent Russian writer writing in English). Do you consider yourself in the absurdist line of these two writers? My own impression is that your novel is one of great realism—so much realism, in fact, that it overwhelms Sukhanov and he can only face it a little at a time. It reminded me of Eliot’s line that “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
OG: The fantastic and the realist traditions are both powerful in Russian literature, and I have drawn on both. Bulgakov and especially Gogol are among my favorite writers, and an element of the absurd—the nightmarish or fairy-tale underside of daily life—has always been present in my writing: I like to find the unusual, the disturbing, the magical amidst the ordinary. There is, of course, a heavy dose of realism in my depiction of Sukhanov's life—his poverty-ridden, communal childhood, his dark memories of the Stalinist purges and the war years, the drab colors and nauseating smells of his precarious existence as an underground painter. But Sukhanov's artistic nature is whimsical, fantastic, bright; and gradually, as this long-repressed side takes over his public persona, dreams and nightmares flood his solid, material existence, and a strong current of the surreal, of the unreal, of the mad, is injected into the novel.
LG: What were you reading while you were writing Sukhanov?
OG: I don’t let myself near contemporary fiction when I am writing, to avoid being influenced by someone else’s style. A few years ago I embarked on a long-term project: to study, in roughly chronological order, the literature of the ancient world. When I was working on The Dream Life, I made my way through Mesopotamia, Egypt, and all the surviving Greek drama and comedy. I felt fairly confident that echoes of The Book of the Dead would not find their way into my descriptions of Moscow in the 1980s, and spending a year or two with nothing but two-thousand-year-old masterpieces on my nightstand kept things nicely in perspective.
LG: Lisel Schillinger concluded her review in the New York Times “Book Review” by summing up the central theme of the novel as a political one. She said, “Sukhanov isn’t completely to blame for abandoning his gift…[the] book leaves two lingering questions: Who else is? And who should pay?” Was the issue of public reparation one you wanted to focus on? The political and personal are certainly interwoven throughout the novel, with political constraints dictating personal decisions. Do you feel the two strands can be separated, or that one overshadows the other?
OG: While I understand why some readers may find it interesting to view The Dream Life of Sukhanov through a political lens, I think of it as mostly outside the realm of politics. It is not a perestroika novel in my mind. It covers some ten days in August of 1985, mere months after Gorbachev came to power, when there was as yet no talk of glasnost and no earth-shattering changes, and it is not accidental that Gorbachev's name is never once mentioned in the book. Sukhanov is a man who chose to turn his back on a great gift, has lived seemingly content for decades, and now, at the slightest provocation, after a perfectly minor incident, finds his past breaking free and his whole universe crashing about him. His is a very human dilemma, a choice between following one's dreams and providing for one's family, between painful striving and comfortable living, between uncertainty and security. Of course, the specific political context of Soviet Russia does make Sukhanov's decision much more poignant, and in a certain sense, his story may be read as the tragedy of a whole country finding itself in an impossible situation. Yet the political background remains only a background throughout, just as the fifty years of Soviet history are seen only as personal memories and impressions. I intended this to be first and foremost a universal story of a man coming to terms with a terrible choice he once made, facing an abyss between a life that is and a life that could have been.
LG: Sukhanov the artist is quashed by the Soviet system; could you comment on the role of art in politics? Can art save a soul, let alone a state?
OG: I do believe that art can save a soul. As for a state, I would not presume to speak for every place and every time, but art has traditionally held a position of unique importance in Russia. For most of the last two centuries, the artist—whether painter, poet, or composer—was often seen as a figure of immense power, a prophet, a warrior, a savior, whose holy duty was to speak against injustice, to proclaim the truth, to give voice to the people. Works of art sustained thousands during times of terror and tragedy, and in the early days of glasnost, the state’s resurrection of many banned masterpieces—from the publication of Akhmatova’s poems about the Stalinist repressions to the restoration of Chagall’s paintings to museum walls—was a striking gesture of public atonement, an admission of guilt. Of course, this may not hold true for much longer, for as today’s Russia joins the rest of the modern world, art’s role in public life may well diminish, becoming more an entertaining pastime than a sacred trust.
LG: The novel contains many beautiful passages about art, from Botticelli to Dali, and the narrative itself metamorphoses into a surrealistic image of Sukhanov’s life, as memories, dreams, and present reality merge and overwhelm him. Do you still paint?
OG: I no longer paint. I took art classes for years, but my best efforts were probably the illustrations to my own fairy-tales about dragons and donkeys, dating from the time when I was seven or eight; my later works consist primarily of ink drawings of streets I wanted to remember before I owned a camera, oil paintings of churches that look oddly like matchboxes, and still lifes that my parents politely kept on the walls while I was growing up but which disappeared immediately upon my departure for America. (I only hope I can be this understanding if my son decides to dabble in painting.) But I love art passionately, and I have retained an artist’s habit of involuntarily framing everything around me and of breaking each “frame” into colors and shapes. To me, one of the more interesting challenges of the novel was trying to depict the art of painting through the art of writing, to present the world as a brilliant artist might see it. Art and artists are mentioned throughout the book, but I have also scattered many oblique references to various paintings in Sukhanov’s daily life and, of course, in his dreams and visions; and several colors—green, blue, and gray, for instance—play such an important descriptive role in the novel that they almost rise to the level of characters in my mind.
LG: What do you think of the book’s cover art? It’s highly suggestive of Sukhanov’s predicament. The black-and-white photo shows a man up to his shoulder blades in water, water he could either drown in or be baptized in. He’s standing between rocks and a ladder, as if these represent his two choices.
OG: I love the cover. I was presented with three different options, and this one grabbed me immediately. The rocks, the water, the look of defeat and exhaustion in the man’s drooping shoulders, the stark black and white colors, all create an impression of a man placed in an impossible situation; on the other hand, the image is quite enigmatic, which conveys perfectly the general theme of dreams and the surreal nature of Sukhanov’s art. The ladder to the skies, with one rung missing, seems a particularly strong image to me, illustrating the choice between artistic flight and the harsh, stolid reality of the rocks at Sukhanov’s back, and bringing to mind the symbolism of Jacob’s Ladder, so pervasive in Russian iconography.
Then again, there is my grandmother’s reaction. She looked at the book and said, “Oh my goodness, you have a naked man on the cover!”
LG: The novel has a very rich and indeterminate ending. We don’t know if Sukhanov can become the painter he once set out to be, or if it’s too late for him. We don’t know if he’s lost Nina, his wife, for good, or even if the hallucinatory odyssey of the final scenes takes place in the city or only in his head. Do you think there’s hope for Sukhanov or is he, and perhaps his entire generation, lost?
OG: I’d rather not say anything definitive about Sukhanov’s fate, as I want the readers to draw their own conclusions about the novel’s ending. As for Sukhanov’s generation, I do think many of them might have crawled for so long that they have lost the ability to walk freely—which is not to say that individual redemption is impossible. The idea of a second chance has always held a great attraction for me.
LG: Perhaps because we go so deeply into Sukhanov’s mind and heart, he’s an exceptionally powerful figure. Yet the supporting cast also contains well-rounded, vivid characters. Nina, Sukhanov’s wife, plays an interesting muse role. She’s beautiful, smart, and inspires painters to do their best work. Yet she also, because of her father—the anointed state socialist realist painter—is instrumental in Sukhanov’s decision to sell out. How aware is she of her good muse/bad muse role? The material comforts of the privileged life seem to pale for her toward the novel’s end, and she’s preoccupied with that painting of the boxes, with its question of whether the soul inside would be lost if one opened the box, or whether it would be freed. When she mentions this to her husband, is it her own soul she’s thinking of, as well as Sukhanov’s?
OG: Almost every character in the novel has to face a difficult choice along the way, and the decisions are invariably complex and two-sided. There are no villains or heroes in my story. While we see everyone through Sukhanov’s eyes, the reader has enough glimpses of Nina’s thoughts and actions to suspect that she is very much aware of her ambiguous role in Sukhanov’s abandonment of his art, and that she is tormented in her own resentful, restrained way. In their last conversation she says to him, “We both made our choices back then, and mine was probably much less admirable than yours.” While at the time Sukhanov does not understand the precise meaning of her words, he will eventually realize that “they all, in the end, had their own betrayals to live with.” When Nina speaks to her husband of a trapped soul, she doubtlessly thinks both of him and of herself—and perhaps of a few others as well.
LG: Do you foresee writing more about post-Soviet matters, or is it time to move on, perhaps to life in the United States?OG: The novel I am working on now concerns Russia once again, but this time some of it takes place in America, and my main characters are both Russian and American. Perhaps this is my way of transitioning from Russian to American themes, as I suspect it will be the last Russian novel I will write for some time. I have ideas for the next three books I’d like to attempt after this one, and none of them involves Russia.