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 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 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 there.
One portrait — A Future Mother, 1965, on loan from a private collection — has particular meaning for Sukhanov. The private collection is his, the portrait is of his wife and it has hung in his study since it was painted. A difficult conversation with his father-in-law at about that time had led to Sukhanov’s own life decision and, as the Minister of Culture opens his salute to aging artist, Sukhanov becomes reflective:
Feigning rapt attention, Sukhanov let himself drift away, basking in a wonderfully warm, mindless feeling of overall well-being. Everything in his life was well-arranged, yes, everything was perfect, and most deservedly so — and thus he took it almost as his due when, after the important people had said all the necessary words and while the unimportant people were still holding forth, hopelessly trying to engage the attention of the merrily disintegrating room, the Minister emerged from the swiftly parting crowd and placed his hand on Sukhanov’s shoulder.
“So, Tolya, how are things? Going well, I trust,” he said jovially. “Lucky bastard, married to the most gorgeous woman in Moscow!”
As a youth, Sukhanov had shown promises of artistic talent — he was intrigued by the modernist efforts of Russian artists like Chagall and Kandinsky, even though work of that sort was discouraged by the state. After his marriage, he turned to painting full-time, experimenting with a number of styles, while his wife, an art curator, earned enough to feed them. Canvasses were stacked, unsold, around their apartment which led to that conversation with his father-in-law. A starving single artist was one thing, Malinin said, but a husband and putative father had to recognize that others were now dependent on him for their well-being and realistic, as opposed to selfish, choices had to be made.
So Sukhanov became a critic, a highly successful one. For the past twelve years he “had occupied the most influential, most enviable post of editor in chief at the country’s leading art magazine, Art of the World.” In that role, he has been the most influential supporter of realistic state art and chief denunciator of artists like Chagall and Kandinsky as traitors of the state. Indeed, it has been suggested that the magazine publish yet another critical attack on the surrealist Salvador Dali, whom Sukhanov once admired but whose school he has spent the last 25 years disparaging. He has decided to write the article himself, even though he is aware he will merely be recycling phrases and opinions that he has already used countless times.
Grushin never actually leans on it, but readers are fully aware that 1985 marked the year that Michael Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. While there had been glimmers of possible change before in the USSR when new leaders took control, we all know that this time it will be for real — the comfortable autocratic world that Sukhanov had chosen to enter would dissolve in 1991.
It is against that unstated, but completely understood, global background that Grushin constructs Sukhanov’s personal deconstruction. The retrospective for his father-in-law, his misplaced feelings of a “perfect life” and a series of apparently minor events will all collude to produce the “dream life” — entered into as an idyll but now a nightmare — of the novel.
The first of those events takes place as he departs the exhibition hall and runs into “an older, slovenly man wearing a burgundy velveteen blazer”. It is Lev Belkin, whom Sukhanov had known as an art student — the two had risked offical expulsion by showing works as young artists that Khrushchev himself had found subversive on a quick tour of the exhibition. While Sukhanov opted to abandon painting for the comfortable life, Belkin has continued to paint and, most definitely, not prosper as can readily be seen. Belkin won’t be able to enter the retrospective until it opens to the public, but running into Sukhanov has its own reward for him — he has his own exhibition (Moscow Through A Rainbow) opening next week, a concrete symbol of the changing Moscow art world, and he hands our hero an invitation to it.
That chance meeting sets the tension of Sukhanov’s personal contradiction between the life chosen and the life not lived. The perfect life is already crumbling just as the state is — his son seems determined to enter the world of the collapsing autocrats while his daughter is hanging out with new-age hippie musicians who would have been shipped to Siberia only a decade or so earlier. Things are not going well at the magazine either and it isn’t just his inability to complete the Dali essay — a new order seems to be moving into place. And his beautiful wife seems to have become increasingly distracted; could she be having an affair?
Those are the elements of the real world Grushin introduces and each of them brings on dreams/nightmares of the past, choices made and what might have been. Those dreams become ever more predominant as the novel progresses — Grushin starts her work with the high realism that is a trait of detail in Dali’s paintings but increasingly develops a broader surrealist literary canvas as the dreams blur with the reality.
As a reader with a minimal knowledge of Soviet artistic and political history, I was always aware of that broader context but it is to the author’s credit that she treats that as necessary background, not something to be routinely exploited. The Dream Life of Sukhanov is an exploration of an artist who had potential but chose not to explore it — and the price that he personally pays as a consequence. It is a story that could have been set in any number of cultures under threat but Grushin adroitly draws from her own background. Born in Moscow in 1971, her father was at odds with the Soviet regime and the family moved to Prague. She later studied art history in Moscow before moving to the United States (she was the first Russian citizen to complete a four-year American college degree). Her background, in all its aspects, serves her well in this first novel. Her second, The Line (published as The Concert Ticket in the UK), was equally well-received.
I am indebted to Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations for putting me on to this intriguing novel. My positive review of Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty provoked a discussion in comments about novels set in the art world — The Dream Life of Sukhanov, along with Michael Frayn’s Headlong (see Trevor Berrett’s review of that one here) and the Steve Martin book make for an interesting “art world” trilogy. All three involve central characters who want to be artists but instead find themselves on the periphery as academics, dealers or critics. Taken together the three explore the art world in the USSR, UK and US in a highly readable fashion — all are very good reads.