Dreams of My Russian Summers

Nostalgia, that bittersweet emotion long considered a mild form of depression, is gaining newfound respect. According to a recent article in The New York Times, new studies support the idea that nostalgia contributes to a reassuring sense of roots and continuity and is actually good for you.

This will come as no surprise to readers of Andreï Makine’s nostalgia-steeped Dreams of My Russian Summers, an evocative novel fueled by memories of a bygone world. Profoundly stirring and staggeringly beautiful, Makine’s autobiographical fourth novel, first published in French in 1995 and in English in 1997, easily ranks among the top ten keepers of my many years of reviewing.  (I’ve flagged a few others in this column, including Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.) It seems especially suited to this time of year, when long, languid days afford us a break in routine and a chance to reflect on summer memories that have shaped our own lives as Makine’s influenced his.

Dreams of My Russian Summers is about a boy growing up in the Soviet Union under the broadening influence of his French-born grandmother’s recollections of a richer, freer world. The book tells the life story of stalwart Charlotte Lemonnier, born in France in 1903 and trapped in Russia in 1921 during the chaos of the revolution — whose experiences encompass the harsh history of Russia in the twentieth century, with its political upheavals, wars, famines, repression, and unforgiving cold. At the same time, the novel is a sensitive coming-of-age tale about the narrator’s search for identity, complicated by the fact that he straddles two cultures.

The narrator, Alyosha, whose family resides in an unnamed industrial city on the Volga River, visits his maternal grandmother every summer in somnolent, tranquil Saranza, on the edge of the vast Russian steppe. Saranza is a “town where history, by decapitating churches and tearing down ‘architectural excesses,’ had banished all notion of time. A town where living meant endlessly reliving one’s past, even while at the same time mechanically performing routine tasks.” Charlotte has settled here because it is where her beloved husband, Fyodor, is buried, a place where one can live in a manner Makine characterizes as quintessentially Russian, “very mundanely on the edge of the abyss.”

Alyosha and his older sister — a character with a curiously minor role in the book — spend warm summer nights absorbing their grandmother’s stories, told in French, of Tsar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra’s visit to Cherbourg in 1896, the Paris flood of 1910, and the death of the French president Félix Faure in the arms of his mistress in the Elysée Palace.

These tales of Belle Époque France, reinforced by a suitcase of old photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings, “pierced the iron curtain, which was then almost impenetrable.” They also heighten the “duality” of the narrator’s life, the jarring sense of otherness Alyosha feels especially acutely when he recalls the lavish menu at the state dinner in Cherbourg while waiting in interminable lines to buy apples and other staples perpetually in scant supply in 1960s Soviet Russia.

Makine’s novel, whose French title is Le testament français (literally but less evocatively translated as The French Inheritance or The French Legacy), was the first book to win both the Prix Goncourt and Prix Médicis, France’s top two literary awards. It is no wonder the French loved it: Among other things, it is a love letter to their culture, language, and history. A book group could spend a whole session discussing various aspects of the “French implant grafted” in the narrator’s heart. This sense of being different and “torn asunder” is exhilarating — “I was seeing Russia in French! I was somewhere else. Outside my Russian life” — but also increasingly difficult as he hits adolescence and strives to fit in with his Soviet classmates.

Charlotte’s tales of France ignite her grandson’s imagination, but it is her dramatic life story that mesmerizes the reader. Her early childhood is spent traversing back and forth between Paris and Siberia, where her father, Norbert, goes to practice medicine but soon dies. Her distraught mother, Albertine, falls on hard times and becomes addicted to morphine, yet she can never quite bring herself to permanently leave “the snowy immensity of Russia.” Stranded by the First World War, Charlotte sets off from Paris to retrieve her mother as soon as she can after the Armistice, leaving behind a French lover for what she hopes will be just a brief separation. Braving “the country’s endlessness, its fleeting space in which days and years are swallowed up,” Charlotte suffers through civil war,  famine, hard labor, gang rape by bandits in the Central Asian desert, and the arrest and loss of her husband. After surviving so much, she becomes not just resigned to her Russian life, but oddly accepting of it, though she never loses her essential Frenchness.

Born in Siberia in 1957, Makine sought political asylum on a trip to Paris in 1987, just two years before the Iron Curtain lifted, as it turned out. He chose to write in his “grandmaternal tongue…the supreme language of amazement,” but when he at first encountered difficulties getting published in France, he gained acceptance by pretending his manuscripts had been translated from the Russian. Like Solzhenitsyn, he has dedicated himself fiercely to his work (even eschewing marriage and family for it) and is as critical of shallow Western materialism and the new Russia as he is of Stalinist abuses. Like Proust, whom Charlotte recalls having seen playing tennis in the Neuilly of her youth, Makine ponders the nature of language, literature, memory, and identity with an intense, lush interiority.

Geoffrey Strachan’s translation ably captures Makine’s incandescent descriptions and his rich musings on language, both worthy of discussion. An early childhood memory of “silvery lines crossing the blue density of the air” turns out to be barbed wire around a prison camp. The Russia depicted is a country that people feel doomed to love, despite, or perhaps because of, its “endlessness” and its “continual heartbreak.”

Following the success of Dreams of My Russian Summers, Makine’s other novels, including The Crime of Olga Arbelina and Music of a Life, have been translated into English. His twelfth book, The Life of an Unknown Man, published in English last year, is yet another pearl on a string of beautiful elegies to Russia’s tragic history. It’s about a disillusioned, washed-up Soviet-born writer living in a Parisian garret who rails against what he sees as the hollow poverty of contemporary culture. On a nostalgic pilgrimage to an utterly changed St. Petersburg, the one person he connects with is a fellow relic of the Soviet Union. The irony is that he stayed stuck in the Soviet era when he escaped to the West, while his country moved on — in much the way that Charlotte’s vision of France stayed stuck in the Belle Époque. As in Russian Summers, the older survivor relays a harrowing story about love in a time of hardship – which reminds the narrator-writer about what really matters: “the wisdom of simple happiness.”

For further reading in which “You can’t go home again” is a dominant theme, besides Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, books by emigrants are great bets (including Milan Kundera’s Ignorance, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, and Vladimir Nabokov’s incomparable Speak, Memory), but of course the mother of all nostalgia books — and of Makine’s masterpiece — is Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.