The Dream Life of Sukhanov

ISBN: 0399152989
ISBN 13: 9780399152986
By: Olga Grushin

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About this book

A brilliantly crafted novel about one man's betrayal of his talent, his friends, and his principles-a work of demon energy, startling imagery, and utter originality. At fifty-six, Anatoly Sukhanov has everything a man could want. Nearly twenty-five years ago, he traded his precarious existence as a brilliant underground artist for the perks and comforts of a high-ranking Soviet apparatchik. Once he created art; now he censors it. His past is a shadow, repressed to the point of nonexistence. But a series of increasingly bizarre events transforms his perfect world into a nightmare. Buried dreams return to haunt him, his life begins to unravel, new political alignments in the Kremlin threaten to undo him, and little by little, he finds himself losing everything he sold his soul to gain. Told in dream sequences that may be true, in real time that may be nightmares, in shifting time frames and voices, Olga Grushin's novel is a highly sophisticated, often surreal exploration of self-dissolution, faithlessness, and transformation.

Reader's Thoughts

Parrish Lantern

I've called this “A proper Russian Novel” and by this I mean that Olga Grushin has invested in the character of Sukhanov, all the angst and pathos, all the weakness and hubris that I remember reading in all those great Russian novels. Sukhanov goes on an epic journey of rediscovery, he is constantly assailed by images from his past, haunted by all those ideals he repressed for the sake of a career in the USSR. Yet things change, and it’s in this change, Sukhanov is left to question his choices….

Carl Brush

I have this hankering to learn languages. Problem is, I’m not so good at it. It’s a little like Salieri in Amadeus, born with the desire and some ability to compose music, but unable to reach the moutaintops he can see so clearly and forced to watch an unworthy twit scramble up easily ahead of him. So I’m even more in awe of writers who not only author fine works of literature in English, but do so in English as their second or third language. Conrad and Nabakov are the only two that pop into my mind, but now we have a third candidate--Olga Grushin, a young lady of enormous promise, whose early schooling was in Czechoslovakia, so English may well be a third language for her, yet The Dream Life Of Sukhanov became a 2006 New York Times notable. Maybe if I started writing in French. . . Grushin has great command of her imagery: The [street] lamps glowed like tangerine baloons let loose in the soft haze, and in their light the eithteenth-century facade of the old Moscow university shown brightly, as dramatic an familiar as the stage sset of some stately, stale play. And on the same page. . ....the elegant perfume of tonight...numerous layers of other fading scents which had accumulated over time in the so many sweet, barely discernible ghosts of past outings. This last passage indicates how important olfactory matters are to Grushin. The text is full of the smells of her characters and their surroundings. Probably no one I’ve read outside of Louise Erdrich creates environments so full of smells. The novel as whole is a fascinating exploration of the disintegration of a man and a system of thought, politics and art. Without giving too much of the plot away, I can say that the protagonist’s career parallels the rise and fall of socialistic realism in Russia. There’s a great deal of talk about the corruption of surrealistic art, about the necessity of art to serve society rather than mock or alienate it. The action of the book centers around the betrayal of passion and principle--both for an artist and for a society--that such attitudes involve. As the title announces, we’re inside the protagonist’s mind a great deal, some of the time in memory, some in dreams. Grushin deftly slips back and forth from third to first person so that we’re carried from observing a fantasy or memory to participating in it. Sometimes, it gets tedious. Oh, now we’ve had the present action which we predictably will trigger a memory, which just as predictably will trigger a dream. Yet, sequences build revelations and discoveries which create significant impact for the denouement. As the dream life builds, Sukhanov’s outer life deteriorates. It would be unkind to reveal the ways and reasons for the disintegration to those who might want to read the novel, so I’ll just state the fact of it and let be. Skillful as Sukhanov is, however, it added up to a disappointment for me. For one thing it took some effort to stick with it. Nothing that I would call a crisis occurred until after the first 150 pages. I don’t think I’m limited to shoot ‘em up’s, but I do like things to happen in a book. Also, the process of event-to-memory-to-dream sequence got transparent after a while. Too, Sukhanov is not a sympathetic character. He’s unlikable be design, which is fine, but I often didn’t even find him interesting. I was often more interested in his family than him and glad for interludes that included them so I could get out his mind. All in all, a good try at a tough task, but without thrilling results.

Cliff Thompson

On the book club list. Just started it; always been fascinated by Stalinist culture, but have only read history; this looks like my first foray into the life inside the cultural elites...And now, I have finished it. Very disappointed. What could have been an interesting story about the mid-life crisis of a Soviet cultural bureaucrat who'd traded his creative potential for a place of privilege ended up being an overheated melodrama. Or, it could have been abstracted a bit and been an engaging work on the tension between following a calling and fitting in, or whether an artist has an obligation to use their talents or follow their muse (or even has a choice in the matter). Clearly Grushin was trying to accomplish something along those lines, but every event was portentious, every second significant; there were no casual glances - it was so pressurized that in quiet moments I heard a Hammond organ in the background, and in the heated ones a pipe organ playing the opening bars of the Tocatta in D-minor, and the whole house fell down under the weight of the paint... Well, at least Grushin tried, I will give her credit for that; this is not an easy sort of story to write well. And she shared the "critical moment" when Sukhanov decided to sell his soul; I was afraid that he would be found dying in the snow, muttering "Rosebud, rosebud..." and we readers would be left standing around wondering WTF?!?!?!


earlier this year i read Grushin's The Line and i liked it so much that i went in search of this earlier novel. The Dream Life of Sukhanov has the best of the Russian novel about it. the uncertainties of a shifting reality wherein people gain and lose favour and the paranoia that state produces .... well, it makes great fodder for stories.and damn this Olga Grushin is a good the story progresses, Grushin switches between a first and third person narrative and flips through time like one of those old fashioned books with the drawings in the corner that produces an animated transformation when one flips through the pages fast enough. (what is that called anyway?) the lines between fantasy -or nightmare- and reality become increasingly blurred. how much of what unfolds is Sukhanov's paranoia? how much is reality and how much the result of a nervous breakdown? AND .... when you have state politics that can change the rules at any moment ... does it even matter what is real and what is delusion? there is a Russian saying that goes something like this: anyone can change the future but only the Czar can change the past. this is the political context that coloured every aspect of Russian society and breathed life into the best of the Russian novelists. Grushin keeps the tradition alive and kicking.


A fascinating and deeply imaginative novel, beautifully written, surreal and all too real. To an American audience it may read as a high-art tale of midlife crisis, with a Russian twist. That is fair enough, and the novel is highly accomplished on that level. But it is also shot through with quintessentially Russian metaphysics. You will particularly like this book if you are a reader who appreciates writing that exploits words' ability to do more than represent a simulacrum of reality.


Lyrical, but strangely uncompelling, this is the story of a moral and mental breakdown. An artist of brilliant promise in his youth, Sukhanov sells out to the Soviet way, becoming an art critic/apparatchik promoting 'Russian' art as opposed to decadant Western art. In 1985 at age 56, the combination of mid-life and glasnost brings his past crashing down on him. As in European literature of the 20th century, politics shapes life in a way that is unknown in this country.


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.

Lee Razer

Anatoly Sukhanov is a Soviet apparatchik, editor of Moscow's Art of the World magazine and author of such Party-approved works as "Surrealism and other Western "Isms" as Manifestations of Capitalist Insolvency". As the novel begins, in a Soviet Union shortly after the ascension of Gorbachev, he is simply another soulless Soviet official ready to be mocked and condemned by another Russian novelist. As the novel unfolds, however, that is not what happens. As glasnost begins to thaw the political environment around him, Sukhanov's past, which he has long frozen out of his consciousness, also thaws and bubbles up first through his dreams, then takes over his waking life as he suffers what appears to be a nervous breakdown. Grushin's novel ultimately raises interesting questions. In a totalitarian society, is it more admirable to stay true to yourself, or to do what you must to provide for those you love? If it is admirable to risk severe hardship for your ideals, does that remain the case when your family shares your fate with you? And what cost can those choices exact?A very good book, especially if you have an interest in art and Russia.


In the mid-1980's, Sukhanov has reached the top of his career in Soviet arts administration. In the journal he edits he pans the art he loves as capitalist decadence. This editor position has a lot of perks and he holds it by virtue of his wife's connections.As the novel progresses, Grushin explores whether or not Sukhanov ever had a choice in life. His father's fate in Stalin's Russia is symbolic of many who perished for perceived political crimes or for just being individuals. Sukhanov's life choices may be typical of those children of trauma, whose caretakers felt silence to be golden.The novel gives us the present, flashes to the past, and whimsical dreams which represent Sukhanov's integration of past and present reality.I expected Suk's lifestyle with chauffeured car and dacha, but did not expect the relative freedom with which the characters express themselves. This novel depicts a verbally trusting culture. Suk freely describes his formulaic essays ("throw in some Marx"). He candidly tells his staff his reservations about the publication of this new required essay. His rural cousin, from whom I would expect greater discretion in expressing opinions freely spoke to the unorthodox ideas that Suk's journal would never dare to print. Suk, the ultimate apparatchik said out loud that lots of people perished in the 50s, but it just wasn't done in the 60s and 70s.Earlier this year I read My Name is Red which, although a murder mystery, explores similar themes. In both, the ruling class dictates a repetitive art, and artist administrators are the front line in disciplining artists to produce it. There seems to be either more freedom or daring in 1980s Russia or just more difficulty in enforcement. Also, in Russia, there is pressure from below to produce soviet realism, the population, perhaps exhausted from war and poverty is said to long for images of a dynamic industrial future. In the sultan's of world of "Red", the population is not a factor, only the sultan and his artistically conservative workshop supervisor.There is a lot here, and while not as acclaimed, I found this book equal to "Red" in its discussion of the role of art in politics.

Nathan Cervantes

While I felt the author did a number of clever/interesting things in this novel, I think overall it tends to drag out its prose a bit more than it needs to and tends to make bold claims without fully justifying them. Of the things I found interesting, I thought Grushin's use of color references and transitions did an effective job of continually recalling the artist's outlook to the reader's attention while also highlighting the sometimes surreal nature of human experience (and by extension the value of abstract art), and illustrating the power of the dream state while calling the Sukhanov's sanity into question. Additionally, Grushin gives the English reader (who is unlikely to be Russian) a sense of the geography and environment of Moscow without ever assuming a familiarity or getting bogged down in details, and likewise, her command of Russian history for narratological use makes the story approachable and compelling even for people who didn't grow up in the Cold War era or who don't have a working knowledge of Soviet history. An issue I had though was with the central premise of the book; that artistic integrity should always take precedence over practical considerations, even when those considerations include poverty and exile. From the way the argument is presented, I would venture a guess that Grushin herself has never been poor; wondering how you're gonna pay your electric bill or keep a roof over your head is hard enough when you're making those decisions for yourself, but exponentially harder when you're making them for a family, and that's provided you don't have an authoritarian government actively working against you. Which isn't to say one should just give in and sell out when adversity arises, but society doesn't reward you for being a martyr until after you're dead, and sometimes working with the system to get at least some of what you want is the more practical and responsible course of action. For Grushin, however, the argument seems to be a yes or no moral decision, where one can answer firmly and immovably in favor of free artistic expression, consequences be damned. In the end, this doesn't greatly damage her otherwise effective novel, but I think it could have been substantially better if she had acknowledged the full complexity of the situation she presents.

Cat {Wild Night In}

I don't know about you, but normally I run to a novel to hide from the world and get transported as quickly as possible to a far-away place. At first, (until chapter 6) I found it hard to sink into this story, not because of a dislike of it, but because of the richness of the language. The beauty of the descriptions made me stop to luxuriate in them, for example, "...the sun shot out through the glass in a fiery orange zigzag, and out into the street spilled the zesty smell of roast chicken and the honey notes of some classic romance". You can't not savour that.Then, after chapter six, I settled down to read and, to quote Sukhanov, "The rest happened with the magical facility of a dream".I'm not well-read enough to compare it to Bulgakov or Gogol's work, but I can say with total sincerity that this novel is a modern masterpiece that is worth experiencing before you die.


Emanuel Lavrentievich closed the book and returned to his review. There was an odd sensation in his eyes and the back of his throat, and a number of thoughts, all of which he knew he would be well advised not to dwell on, were doing their best to gain his attention. He moved his gaze over the words he had already written, but they refused to cohere into sentences. And some of them surely had nothing to do with it? He deleted "Chekhov", "ineluctably" and "icon", pondered a while, and then put back "icon".The rest of this review is in my book If Research Were Romance and Other Implausible Conjectures

Nora Malone

Best book I've read in a long time. Olga Grushin is my new favorite contemporary writer.

Richard Simpson

Since reading Dostoyevsky at the age of fourteen, this book came closest to the profound effect I experienced then, though now I am thirty years of age. Grushin deals with a universal dilemma in all societies, that we accept the status quo in order to survive, which necessarily means the loss of our dreams. Yet dreams may come with a price, and so does art. Additionally there is something undeniably Russian in this work, its cold tragedy, and mortal genius. The colour schemes and figurative language hold a fecundity rarely encountered in modern literature - the old masters have been done proud. A work of art.


Second installment of "Novel on the Globe" course. I really enjoyed this novel and would give it four and a half stars if the website so allowed me. Following in the tradition of most Russian novels, I feel like I could read this novel a few more times and still not entirely obtain all the symbolism and meaning behind it. There are certainly layers upon layers within this text.The story revolves around the middle-aged character Sukhanov during glasnost period Moscow. At first, we learn that Sukhanov lives a very comfortable, upper-class lifestyle that is anything but an example of socialist-communist life. He has obtained this position by being the editor of a Soviet-art publication. As the story unravels, so does Sukhanov's life and mind. Marked by many flashbacks, commentary on art, russia, and soviet life, Grushkin develops a story that essentially questions the importance of artistic integrity versus towing party-lines to obtain a life of comfort and stability. Don't worry she leaves the answer up to you.Weaving together Sukhanov's perception and his memory with strange transitions between 1st and 3rd person narrative, the novel unfolds into a story that at times can be as surreal and maybe confusing for the average reader. Nevertheless, "The Dream Life..." finds its greatest strength in being able to weave together such surreal elements within the structure of a relatively linear narrative. Overall, probably one of the better contemporary novels I have ever read. Mind you, I am not very well-read in contemporary fiction. Plus, I really like the topic of art and culture...this book examines that a lot.Highly suggested, however, dont expect a highly surrealist and unstructured novel but rather one that utilizes these elements within the confines of a linear narrative.Imagine a less fantastical Bulgakov with a hint of Gogol...

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