The Dream Life of Sukhanov

The Dream Life of Sukhanov

by Olga Grushin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143038405
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/30/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 818,360
Product dimensions: 5.02(w) x 7.62(h) x 0.68(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Olga Grushin was born in Moscow in 1971. She studied at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow State University, and Emory University. Her short fiction has appeared in Partisan Review, Confrontation, The Massachusetts Review, and Art Times. This is her first novel. Grushin, who became an American citizen in 2002, lives in Washington, D.C.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Ironic, surreal, sometimes stunning and always chaotic . . . Gogolesque in its sardonic humor. (The New York Times)

The Dream Life of Sukhanov will tower over the majority of what publishers put out this year. (New York)

Steeped in the tradition of Gogol, Bulgakov, and Nabokov, Grushin is clearly a writer of large and original talent. (James Lasdun)

Grushin has imagined both Sukhanov’s carefully managed life and his richly troubling personal history with a detailed intensity that fruitfully echoes Solzhenitsyn’s best books, Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ and John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra. (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

The next big thing in American literary fiction . . . so accomplished are her skills—so hauntingly assured—that more than one US critic has greeted her as the next great American novelist. (Financial Times)

Harks back to the great Russian masters [and] breathes new life into American literary fiction. (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World)

Reading Group Guide


The Dream Life of Sukhanov

At fifty-six, Anatoly Sukhanov has wrapped himself in a cocoon of comfort, safety, and self-satisfaction. He's married to Nina, his own "perfect vision of beauty." His two children, one a future diplomat, the other a future journalist, are gifted and ambitious. He has a house in the country and his apartment in old Moscow is "a seemingly endless expanse of rooms . . . their comfortable dusk scintillating with the honeyed luster of parquet floors, damask wall upholstering, golden-flecked book bindings . . . and countless other precious possessions" (p. 33). He holds the enviable post of editor in chief of the country's most prestigious art journal, Art of the World, where he enforces the communist party line on questions of artistic taste.

But such safety and security seem, in this extraordinary first novel, to invite disaster, and disaster is what comes to Sukhanov, as all the unconscious contents he has worked so hard to repress begin to shatter the smooth surface of his life. His estranged friend Lev—who held onto his artistic dreams when Sukhanov betrayed his own talent for a secure position—appears out of the darkness one evening to invite him to a gallery opening. A long-forgotten cousin moves into his apartment to sleep in his bed and challenge his tepid, state-sanctioned views about the nature and purpose of art. His ties are mysteriously stolen, his wife grows more distant and his children begin to voice their contempt of the life he has chosen to live. More disturbingly, his dreams and reveries remind him of childhood pain, his father's lunacy and suicide, the teachers who opened the world of beauty to him, and the passionate idealism and fierce artistic independence he chose to abandon. In his own art he had been drawn to the wild freedom and irrational exuberance of surrealism; now, he must denounce it as a deformed child of capitalist decadence. In one of the novel's many lacerating ironies, Sukhanov's own life takes on the nightmare logic of a Dali painting, where familiar objects lose their solidity, and dream and reality, hallucination and revelation, trade places.

In prose that is at once extravagantly lyrical and psychologically precise, Olga Grushin traces Sukhanov's emotional unraveling—an unraveling that parallels the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Sukhanov stands at the intersection of personal and political history, and gets run down by forces beyond his reckoning. Having sold his soul to get ahead in the old regime, he cannot survive its disintegration. And while Grushin is unflinching in her portrait of Sukhanov's betrayals—and the consequences of those betrayals—she also reveals Sukhanov's suffering, all the pain and fear that made his choices seem wise when he made them.


Olga Grushin was born in Moscow in 1971. She studied at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow State University, and Emory University. Her short fiction has appeared in Partisan Review, Confrontation, The Massachusetts Review, and Art Times. This is her first novel. Grushin, who became an American citizen in 2002, lives in Washington, D.C.


Q. I couldn't help thinking of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illych—another story about a man who tries to live in a cocoon—as I read The Dream Life of Sukhanov. Has Tolstoy been an important influence on your writing?

A. The Russian classics were my entry to the world of literature, and my novel, while sheathed in an English-language skin, is set firmly within the Russian literary tradition. Indeed, references and hidden tributes to Gogol, Chekhov, Nabokov, and Bulgakov, among others, are scattered throughout the book. That said, I did not consciously think of Tolstoy as I was writing it. He is arguably the greatest Russian novelist—Nabokov once proclaimed him the "greatest Russian writer of prose fiction"—but the early impression his works made on me was one of such monolithic magnificence, such overwhelming awe, that of all the Russian giants, he is the only one I have yet to approach as an adult reader. Whatever influence there is—and I have no doubt of its existence—it must lie in a misty realm of adolescent wonder.

Q. You've said that Nabokov is your favorite writer. What aspects of his work do you find especially engaging?

A. Of course, there are all the obvious things—the dizzying linguistic somersaults, the beauty of images, the astonishing riches of erudition always at Nabokov's fingertips, the subtle jokes and riddles, the pleasure of a chill one gets upon making a sudden connection or glimpsing for the first time the unexpected whole as another piece of a puzzle finds its intended place. For me, though, there is a Russian Nabokov and an American Nabokov; and while I admire Nabokov's elaborately constructed, technically dazzling American novels, it is the earlier, more traditional, Russian novels, such as Luzhin's Defense, Glory, Mary, and especially The Gift, that I truly love. They display all of Nabokov's trademark virtuoso magic, but they also have this heartbreaking warmth, this piercing humanness, this longing for a disappearing world, a dying culture, all conveyed in the most classic and yet most recognizably unique Russian language—a perfect end piece, in my mind, to the whole grand tradition of Russian classic literature, and very dear to me as a writer, a reader, and a Russian.

Q. Did you or your family experience firsthand the kind of political repression you write about in The Dream Life of Sukhanov?

A. I myself was too young to experience fully the exigencies of life under an oppressive regime, but my family did have its share of troubles. My father, Boris Grushin, who is considered one of the founders of Soviet sociology, pioneered public opinion studies in the country. Since for decades his area was a taboo subject—the whole enterprise was, after all, based on the highly questionable premise that regular citizens could have differing opinions about life, or even (gasp!) government—he constantly found himself at odds with those in power. In the mid-1970s, he dared to propose a revolutionary sociological approach and witnessed a full-scale attack mounted against him in the press. Branded as "anti-Marxist," he lost his job and became virtually blacklisted—a persona non grata in his field. At one point he was so desperate he seriously considered a position at the Institute of Entomology, which some friends had procured for him, even though his knowledge of insects was limited to swatting flies and helping me pin my summer catches under glass. (I was then four years old.) In the end, another influential friend offered him a job as a journalist at a magazine in Prague, and we lived there for five years, until such time as my father could return to Moscow and resume his work. We were luckier than many in my parents' circle. Among others, the artist Ernst Neizvestny, a close family friend whose wonderful illustrations to Dante's Inferno lined the walls of our Moscow apartment, famously stood up to Khrushchev during the Manege exhibition (a central behind-the-scenes event in my novel), and was eventually forced to leave the country for good.

Q. Much of The Dream Life of Sukhanov revolves around the purpose of art and the relationship between free creative expression and what the Soviet Union saw as the social function of art. How do you see your own writing in relation to these tensions?

A. The dichotomy between art as free creation and art in service of the state is particularly dramatic in totalitarian societies like Soviet Russia; it acquires additional moral, political, historical depths, which I attempt to explore in the book. But of course it also reflects a universal, and millennia-old, conflict between art as a means of untethered self-expression, of creating an inner world, in other words, "art for art's sake" (epitomized by Chagall's "upside-down green face," as one of my characters puts it) and art as a means of presenting a noble social message, of changing the outside world, in other words, "useful" art. As a young writer in search of an audience—and one raised on the Russian notion that an artist is a sort of tribune whose sacred trust is to give voice to the people—I find the debate fascinating, and far from black and white. Ultimately, though, I fall squarely on the "green face" side of the controversy. I believe that "pure" art, when powerful enough, has a much greater capacity to change the world than any "topical" art of the moment—which, I suppose, is simply a wordy way of saying that I think one should write or paint what one wants.

Q. Could you talk about the mode of narration in the novel? Why do you sometimes switch from an omniscient narrator to Sukhanov narrating his own story?

A. The somewhat unusual approach—the switches between the two voices, the two tenses, the two realities—seemed to me the only way to convey the full extent of Sukhanov's tragedy. After I finished the first draft, I experimented with converting the first-person segments into third person, and I felt that the novel lost its natural intonation. There is no omniscient point of view as opposed to the character's own point of view in the book, as absolutely everything is perceived through Sukhanov's eyes and heard through Sukhanov's ears (even if not necessarily registered by Sukhanov's mind); rather, the two different voices, while both belonging to Sukhanov, underscore the rift between his present and his past, his life as it is and his life as it could have been, his tormented double nature—the conventional, staid, remote, soulless "third-person" bureaucrat he has become and the urgent, brilliant, alive "first-person" (and occasionally present-tense) child and artist that he was. The eventual blurring of the two narrative modes reflects Sukhanov's disintegrating sense of self as his two lives collide.

Q. What is life like for artists and writers in Russia now? How different is the literary situation here in the United States?

A. Traditionally, art held a position of unique importance in Russia. For most of the last two centuries, the artist—whether writer, painter, or composer—was often seen as a figure of immense power, a prophet, a warrior, a savior, whose holy duty was to proclaim the Truth in times of trials and tribulations. In today's Russia, the landscape is staggeringly different: as market forces have replaced political repression, the public increasingly favors entertainers over prophets, and the new generation of writers and artists must master the craft of promoting and selling instead of the once-vital craft of writing between the lines or painting between the cracks—a different brand of survival skills altogether. The transition has not been easy, and I have heard many say that their freedom of expression has come at a price, and a steep one at that. I myself do not have any firsthand experience of the Russian literary world, but I suspect that at this stage, with Russian publishing still breaking in its new commercial shoes, it is much harder for one to publish noncommercial fiction in Russia than in the United States. On the other hand, the fact that blacklists and gulags are things of the past must surely count for something.

Q. How have readers and critics in Russia responded to your book? And what about those here in the United States?

A. There is no Russian translation of the novel as of yet, and while the few reviews that have appeared in the Russian press have been quite favorable, my book has so far reached only English-speaking Russians. Of course, I very much hope that the novel will be published in Russia someday. As for the reception in the United States, it has been an ongoing, deepening, pleasant surprise: I never expected to find so many wonderful, perceptive readers who could see beyond the seemingly exotic trappings of the story and relate, often on a very emotional level, to the universal nature of my character's dilemma.

Q. Could you describe the creative process involved in imagining the consciousness of someone like Sukhanov, someone quite different from yourself—a middle-aged art magazine editor in the Soviet Union whose life is unraveling? How do you get so convincingly inside the minds and hearts of your characters?

A. For me, one of the more enchanting aspects of writing is the flight of fancy, if you will, that comes with the freedom to inhabit absolutely anyone's life for a span of some pages. In my short stories, I have written from the perspective of a little boy who collects stamps, a Greek policeman on a remote island, an old photographer, a drunk ballet dancer, even a pair of shoelaces—but only once or twice from the viewpoint of a young woman. On the other hand, while none of the characters in my novel is autobiographical, many carry a little piece of myself, a familiar emotion, a possible choice, a chance thought—rooted mainly in the shared happenstance of being human, I suspect, rather than any gender, age, or factual similarity between me and the figments of my imagination. Sukhanov's predicament is very human—a choice between his dreams and his family, between uncertainty and security, between a nebulous notion of future accomplishment and a simple, everyday happiness. Picturing myself in his shoes did not stretch my imagination as wildly as one might think.

Q. Sukhanov is first fascinated by surrealism, later forced to denounce it, and finally seems to be subsumed by it in his own Daliesque hallucinations. Why did you choose to make surrealism such a central part of the novel?

A. The fantastic, the surreal, the nightmarish or fairy-tale underside of daily life, has always been present in my writing. I like to find the absurd, the disturbing, the magical amid the ordinary, and when I considered the kind of art Sukhanov was likely to create in his youth, surrealism seemed the natural choice. On the literal level, its dreamy, incomprehensible, whimsical nature is the ideological opposite of the state-enforced socialist realism, and Sukhanov would inevitably be required to denounce it in the line of duty as a Soviet critic; making him a devout surrealist thus added a necessary element of betrayal to his dilemma. On another level, surrealism, with its controversial theoretical underpinnings, its cult of the subconscious, suggested an interesting angle from which to explore the line between artistic genius and insanity, the nature of creation, the purpose of art. Most importantly, it offered a perfect metaphor for the sudden dissolution of Sukhanov's superficially perfect, solid world. As his existence begins to fold in on itself, his past self, his would-be life, his long-repressed artistic nature burst the dams of his public facade, and the surreal and the mad become the essential components of his story.

  • The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a deeply ironic novel. What painful ironies emerge as the life Sukhanov has so carefully constructed begins to crumble?
  • Sukhanov is fascinated and later frightened by surrealism, particularly the art of Chagall and Dali. In what ways does the novel itself at times employ the methods of surrealism? What passages blur the lines between past and present, reality and reverie, conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational?
  • Much of The Dream Life of Sukhanov concerns the choice between artistic freedom and financial and political security. Lev chooses artistic freedom and poverty while Sukhanov abandons his artistic dreams in favor of a life of comfort and security. Why do they each come to regret the choices they made as young men?
  • In many ways Sukhanov is difficult to like. He's selfish, judgmental, insensitive, arrogant, and quick to anger. He's sold out his artistic integrity in favor of comfort and safety. How does Olga Grushin manage to make him a character with whom we do sympathize?
  • Nina becomes exasperated that after three years Sukhanov still cannot remember their driver's name: "It's not just names, Tolya, it's everything. . . . In all my life, I've never met someone with such a capacity to ignore and to forget" (p. 35). What are the consequences of Sukhanov's narcissism, his capacity to ignore and to forget?
  • After reading "The Sandman," Sukhanov wonders: "Were all the strange occurrences in the story merely the result of the hero's unbalanced mind—his private hallucinations—or did he lose his mind as a result of strange occurrences that were indeed real but that, thanks to some dark gift of clairvoyance not unlike the artistic intuition of a genius, he alone of all his friends and family could perceive" (p. 135)? In what ways can this question be applied to Sukhanov himself?
  • Sukhanov's father-in-law, Pyotr Alekseevich Malinin, argues that his kind of art is what the people love. "It may not be as amusing as some fantasy by Chagall, but when millions of tired, unhappy men and women want to find a bit of light, hope, or encouragement at the end of their hard day, they would rather look at paintings of the heroic past and harmonious future than puzzle over some portrait of a man with an upside-down green face" (p. 298). Is he right in suggesting that the purpose of art is to offer encouragement and a bit of light and hope? What other purposes might art have? How would someone like Chagall or Dali respond to Manilin's conception of art?
  • The boundary between past and present becomes increasingly porous for Sukhanov as the novel progresses. What triggers his reveries? How do his reveries and dreams affect his perception of present reality?
  • At the end of the novel, after a series of hallucinatory revelations about his destiny as an artist, Sukhanov feels that everything is "perfect, absolutely perfect" (p. 354). Is he right—has he finally broken free of his need for safety over freedom—or is this simply the delusional culmination of a nervous breakdown?
  • How does Sukhanov—and his understanding of his life—change over the course of the novel? In what ways can the changes and troubles he undergoes be seen as the return of the repressed contents of his own unconscious mind? How and why does he fall from the height of arrogance and self-satisfaction to a state of pitiful desperation?
  • Customer Reviews

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    The Dream Life of Sukhanov 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
    eas311 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    Strange and lovely. Grushin's Sukhanov floats between a present on the verge of perestroika & glasnost, and a past that swings from WWII through the thaw and onward. Is he falling into madness? Or reclaiming his artistic gift?
    Marse on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    It starts slow, but picks up in the second half. It is the story of a man who is forced to reassess his "successful" life because of a chance encounter with a former friend. This story could be set anywhere, but the Soviet and post-Soviet environment of the story make the protagonist's decisions seem more "fateful" than they needed to be.
    labfs39 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    Olga Grushin is my newest favorite author. Although she has only written two books, The Dream Life of Sukhanov and The Line, they are both are so superb that I am convinced that anything she writes will be good. Anatoly Sukhanov is a successful art magazine editor with a beautiful wife, an ambitious son, and a rebellious teenage daughter. At fifty-six, Anatoly has mastered the ability of writing about art without ruffling Soviet ministerial feathers: which topics to avoid, which names to redact, and whose opinion to follow. The key is not to think too much and definitely avoid remembering a different time, when he had different dreams, during the heady days of the Khrushchev Thaw. But overnight Sukhanov¿s world is turned upside down. An uncomfortable meeting with an former friend, colleagues who talk about a new freedom to express themselves, and cracks within the comfortable routine of his home life, all come together to shake Sukhanov¿s vow not to remember the past. Memories begin to leak into his mind until they become a torrent, and he finally has to face a decision he made many years before and its repercussions.Grushin¿s prose has a dream-like quality that perfectly suits the mood of the novel. Although the descriptions and phrasing seem a bit forced in the beginning (a first-time author trying too hard?), Grushin finds her voice, resulting in beautifully constructed images and descriptions. Equally impressive is how she is able to portray the life of an ordinary, long-time Soviet official suddenly faced with glasnost. Although too young to have experienced it herself, she was born in Moscow in 1971, Grushin is able to authentically portray the internal confusion of a man who made difficult choices in order to survive repressive regimes and is now faced with an openness that seemingly condemns those choices. It is a situation millions of Russians faced in the late 1980s, and the consequences of that internal dislocation have contributed to the backlash against free market democracy and the rise of a modern repressive state. Grushin does a nice job of creating a character that is fascinating on his own and yet representative of an entire generation.Highly recommended.
    Gary10 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    Well crafted story of a Russian bureaucrat before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Skillful blend of life, dreams and day dreams.
    Niecierpek on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    A really good book about the Soviet era and how it destroyed human spirit regardless if one conformed to the regime or not. Great observations on art, brilliant language and a tangible legacy of great Russian storytelling.
    Clara53 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    A true picture of Soviet life in the 80s.
    polarbear123 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    The dream life is an accurate description of this beautifully written novel. The descriptions in this book are truly magical and the prose flows so well drawing you into the world of Sukhanov. As the novel progresses and you find yourself geting to know the main character intimately the frequency of his dreams increases, as does their vividness. The author slips from reality into the dream world so smoothly that at times you yourself are unsure what is real and what is not. This just adds to the magic of the book, a truly haunting novel but not without a sense of humour. Highly recommended.
    booksmitten on LibraryThing 10 months ago
    Set in Moscow in the 1980s, Olga Grushin's brilliant debut novel tells the story of one man's dilemma between making sacrifices for his art or sacrificing art itself. Twenty years after chosing the latter, Sukhanov wonders if he really has anything left. The linguistic and narrative transitions between life and memory are stunning and seamless, and, as Grushin writes, "too incadescent to be a reality, too enchanting to be a reflection, too palpable to be a dream..." It has been a while since I've encountered a novel as engrossing as this one.
    tobiejonzarelli on LibraryThing 10 months ago
    Anatoly Sukhanov, 'Toyla' the principal character in this hallucinogenic novel is a man who has lost his footing and his faith in the life he has chosen. Having abandoned his gift and his artistic potential, he becomes instead an art critic, voicing not what he believes in, but rather paraphrasing the 'socialist party line' in exchange for a comfortable life. But in abandoning his true self he becomes a caricature of a human being. On a visceral level I intensely disliked this man, he is so massively dissociated with himself, that he barely knows anyone else. It is a tribute to Olga Grushin's 'canvas' and her ability to paint with words that such a loathsome creature can escape the printed page and embed himself in our minds. This is an exceptional first novel, traveling deeply with the psyche of a split apart soul and finding the man within. I can't wait to read her next work.Mary Jones
    araridan on LibraryThing 10 months ago
    This novel at its core is a story of man in his 50s having to confront the decisions that he made as a younger man and how they shaped the course of his life. Sukhanov essentially had two paths that he could have taken. On one path he pursues his passions but will inevitably struggle economically and will be outcasted to a certain extent. The other path requires him to give up, even forsake, that which he is most talented and passionate about, but in exchange he will live quite comfortably. Having a beautiful wife and anticipating future children, Sukhanov "sells out"...a decision he makes for the benefit of his family, but ironically contributes to alienate him from each one of them later on.This novel comments a lot on the power of art and the individual, but also examines the relationship between politics and art. To top it off, Sukhanov's first passion, surrealist art, is the very form that his nightmares and delusions take later in his life that cause him to question everything he knows. One can easily empathize with Sukhanov; he is a likable protagonist and we can share the distress of facing our own dilemmas. I also appreciate that Grushin doesn't automatically steer us down one path or the other. There is another character in the book that essentially represents the fate of the other path, and it's not one that we would want either.
    AngieJG More than 1 year ago
    This novel is told from the 1st and 3rd person perspective. There are dreams and flashbacks that help paint the life story of Sukanov. The story was good, but I found myself in a dreamlike state wondering if Sukanov was dreaming, living in the past, or certifiably insane. Toward the end of the book (I guess during a flashback) Sukanov's mother explains that his father suffered from mental illness and that she was concerned he might inherit the gene. It seemed to me that he was having a mental breakdown throughout the book. I thought perhaps he would be sitting in a white gown in a Soviet mental hospital at the end. That would have made more sense to me. Instead we are left to guess. I wish there was more character development for Nina and the children. Overall, an interesting read though but I personally prefer more clarity and character development.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    harstan More than 1 year ago
    Russian avant-garde artist Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov once admired the freedom and boldness of western art his early work reflected that ¿decadent¿ influence. His inspiration changed when he married Nina, daughter of Soviet sponsored painter Malinin. That marital connection gets Sukhanov a bureaucratic job as a state critic of western decadence and cheerleader of Communist endeavors. Quickly Sukhanov rises up the bureaucracy to become Editor-in-Chief of Art of the World, a publication that ridicules Western art. With his rise, he receives the elitist Moscow apartment and other perks.--------- By the late 1980s and in his fifties, Sukhanov knows his wife and daughter have no respect for his sell-out while his ambitious son disregards him because he has no polish to rise any further. Sukhanov also suffers from writer¿s block and is unsure whether to cheer or fear that Gorbachev will change his upper class lifestyle. His past and present collide when he meets a former artist friend who didn't sell out so never gained material advantages, but the edge is reached when someone else¿s positive freelance review of Russian painter Marc Chagall replaces his diatribe on the decadence of Dali.------- This is an insightful biographical fictionalized account of an individual who by selling his beliefs in the Soviet bureaucracy receives all the perks, but has lost his self-esteem and knows his family belittles him. Interestingly Sukhanov senses his lifestyle is about to end, but his feelings are mixed as he welcomes this, but also fears he can never go home. Olga Grushin writes a fantastic insightful look at a man broken by a system.----- Harriet Klausner