The Life of an Unknown Man

( 3 )


A deeply moving meditation on memory, history, love, and art by the author of Dreams of My Russian Summers


In The Life of an Unknown Man, Andreï Makine explores what truly matters in life through the prism of Russia's past and present.


Shutov, a disenchanted writer, revisits St. Petersburg after twenty years of exile in Paris, hoping to recapture his youth. Instead, he meets Volsky, an old man who tells him his extraordinary ...

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The Life of an Unknown Man: A Novel

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A deeply moving meditation on memory, history, love, and art by the author of Dreams of My Russian Summers


In The Life of an Unknown Man, Andreï Makine explores what truly matters in life through the prism of Russia's past and present.


Shutov, a disenchanted writer, revisits St. Petersburg after twenty years of exile in Paris, hoping to recapture his youth. Instead, he meets Volsky, an old man who tells him his extraordinary story: of surviving the siege of Leningrad, the march on Berlin, and Stalin's purges, and of a transcendent love affair. Volsky's life is an inspiration to Shutov — because for all that he suffered, he knew great happiness. This depth of feeling stands in sharp contrast to the empty lives Shutov encounters in the new Russia, and to his own life, that of just another unknown man . . .

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"It is impossible to exaggerate the power of this short, unbearably poignant novel. It is both brutal and lyrical. Makine consciously invokes Chekhov but his grasp of history is positively Tolstoy-like in scale. I can't think of a writer who would be a more deserving recipient of the Nobel literature prize." —Mail on Sunday


"Makine's laconic, sardonic portrait of the new Russia is laced with fury . . . a bold and eloquent novel." —The Guardian


"Like all his work, this novel has a wonderful flavor of a contemporary Chekhov with a splash of Proust. . . . What starts out an intimate account bursts out into something more ambitious and universal. Ultimately it's a haunting story, beautifully told." —The Observer


"Seamlessly translated by Geoffrey Strachan, Makine's novel explores the attempt of two 'ordinary' people to transcend suffering and find life's essential meaning. It is difficult to write without sentimentality about such a subject, but Makine's intelligence and truthfulness dismiss banality." —Pamela Norris, Literary Review


"Told with an intimacy made potent by Makine's lyrical, spare prose and Strachan's lucid translation. . . reconnects both the reader and the protagonist with Russia's blood soaked history, to startling effect." —The Financial Times


"Thrilling . . . Makine's most beautiful novel since [Dreams of My Russian Summers]." —Le Figaro

Library Journal
Shutov is a has-been Russian émigré writer living in Paris whose very name means "clown," as his much younger French girlfriend derisively points out before dumping him. To recover, he decides to return to Saint Petersburg for the city's 300th-anniversary celebration. Staying with newly rich Yana, a tenderly remembered friend too self-involved to have much time for him, Shutov comes across the elderly Volsky—a leftover tenant, soon to be evicted, living in one of the many rooms from which Yana's apartments has been fashioned. Volsky tells him a heartrending (and heartrendingly rendered) tale of Leningrad during and after the siege, when a young, hopeful Volsky falls in love with fellow singer Mila. Together they brave the awful years of the siege—in one riveting scene, a half-starved chorus sings the "Internationale" on the battlefield itself. What happens after the war is even worse. VERDICT The pointed contrast to our soulless times could have seemed too obviously drawn, but in his deceptively simple, suffused language (there's real iron underneath), Makine (Dreams of My Russian Summer) helps us relive an awful moment in the 20th century. A humbling read. [See Prepub Alert, 12/5/11.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Library Journal
Though Makine's novels always explore the burdens of Russian history, this one has a twist. A writer living in exile revisits St. Petersburg and strikes up a friendship with an old man named Volsky, who recalls the siege of Leningrad, Stalin's purges, and more. In the end, Makine shakes them up a bit by showing that the old man is clearly happier than the desperate go-getters of contemporary Russia. For your smart readers.
Kirkus Reviews
Makine presents a story within a story and thus winds up focusing on the lives of two "unknown men." Ivan Shutov has been living in Paris for 20 years but has had only desultory success as a writer. Three years after he wrote a novel about Afghanistan, tensions flared up again in the region, so he was flattered to be invited as a guest on a television show, but his performance there left much to be desired. Meanwhile, his personal life is in shambles, for his girlfriend Léa, half the age of the 50-year-old Shutov, is calling it quits. (As a parting, sarcastic shot she points out that his name in Russian means "clown," a move Shutov determines is not helpful for his self-esteem.) He had tried to capture some romance in the relationship by comparing their love to that found in Chekhov, but a nice irony is that the Chekhov story that he keeps alluding to is entitled "A Little Joke." Shutov decides to return to St. Petersburg, in part to find his former lover, Yana, in the hope of rekindling the old flame. Instead, he gets much more than he expected by meeting Georgy Volsky in the boardinghouse where he's staying. Volsky is an old man who lived through the siege of Leningrad and is now primarily known for being mute, but he opens up to Shutov, spinning out a tale of war, trauma, love and terrible beauty. He survived the siege both because of his devotion to his art (he's a singer) and to his love, Mila, though in the Stalinist era they were both arrested on trumped charges of crimes against the Soviet state. Volsky's quiet dignity ultimately helps Shutov see some of the superficiality of his own life. A lyrical little novel about hope triumphing over adversity.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555976149
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 6/5/2012
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 966,346
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Andreï Makine's fourth novel, Dreams of My Russian Summers, has sold over a million copies and has been translated into twenty-eight languages. Geoffrey Strachan is an award-winning translator.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2013

    Another excellent Makine novel. Not necessarily his best, but al

    Another excellent Makine novel. Not necessarily his best, but all must be read. Do not be discouraged by the slow start, focusing on the ennui of a Russian émigré in Paris. His return home is also a bit disheartening in that it is hard that one does not know what has been going on back home since the collapse of the Soviet Union... However, there, the main character the "Unknown Man" comes into the story. Beautifully written, almost like poetry... The issue is, how many these days would even know about the blockade of Leningrad and the horrid conditions the citizens of this brave city had to suffer under Hitler's siege... Get some background on the siege of Leningrad before reading this book...

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    Posted February 12, 2014

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    Posted November 26, 2012

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