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


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.

Tanuj Solanki

A first novel: loaded with all the allusions and insinuations the phrase carries.Let me compare this novel - because I want to - with another first novel by an American writer. Which novel? 'Everything is Illuminated' by Jonathan Safran Foer.The advantage Grushin has over Foer is age, and maturity.Where 'The Dream of Sukhanov' scores over 'Everything is Illuminated' is in its sincerity to its subject, which on one level of abstraction is similar to Foer's novel: a third generation exploration of politics' (or war's) impact on the individual. In approaching this theme, Grushin's novel does not get lost in gimmickry, a la Foer. Even in phases when the main character's dreams - as may be weaned from the title itself - take over the narrative, a Nabokovian clutch on the plot is never relented. Compare this with Foer's play of jumping from here to there, in space and in time; with the almost insufferable importance he gives to the text itself, compared to the overall pacing and content. Foer just wants you to love him, not his novel. Grushin's energies are directed more at her art, rather than being brazenly attention-seeking.Foer is more talented than Grushin, but his understanding of the art of the novel is very flimsy. Grushin, on the other hand, knows what she wants to achieve.Having said that, let me also poke my opinionated nose and spit out an evaluation of 'The Dream Life of Sukhanov'. I didn't like for most parts. And I didn't like it for the same reasons that I didn't like 'Everything is Illuminated'.Grushin's style is steeped in the Modernist tradition. She explores the current and dream consciousness of her main character with an unflinching desire to arrive at a certain center for her novel. But her desire to dazzle becomes obvious in some passages. It is here, in this similarity with that prankster Foer, that she fails.She apes Gogol in the scenes of conversation; she apes Nabokov in the sentence. (Although I didn't find where she aped Bulgakov, reviewers smarter than me must have had their reasons to believe so) And whenever she does this act of mimicing, she loses herself.Which brings me to a bigger question: Why is the new American novelist always crushed with this desire to dazzle? Why can't he or she write a novel, instead of writing a book that is incredibly entertaining? Why, just why, is the art of the novel relegated to a medium of entertainment?But there is hope. Grushin's novel, by being less successful than that of Foer's, gives us hope. If she can stick to her modus operandi, and arrive at a voice of her own, from which she is not very far away right now, as it stands, she will make a better novelist. Foer, on the other hand, stands a great risk of getting drowned in his success.


I found it a very frustrating read. I was more okay with it once I understood that it was a story of mental breakdown, but I had a hard time empathizing with or buying into the character of Sukhanov. It's such a passive and reactive character, I kept thinking of a pinball machine. I had much higher expectations of Grushin, especially having read an excerpt from her other book Exile, which I liked!


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


I am listening to this on BBC Radio 4. Laura has the link, but I think the first section is no longer available. It is very, very abridged. I feel like I cannot judge the whole book by this. The whole book is gone through in 10 15-minute sections. I am not that impressed. Listening to the abridged BBC version is enjoyable but I simply cannot give a star rating. I do not think I will read this book in the future. That does say something, doesn't it?!In this abridged version the message is terribly blatant. I cannot say I felt emotionally attached to any of the figures. The language did not seem exceptional. Neither did I learn anything about an historical period. When I listen to a book on BBC I plan on putting it on a BBC shelf. I will not rate it, but leave a few comments. If I do like it, I will keep the book shelved either as "to-read" or on a "wish list" shelf - to read properly from cover to cover at a later time. If I am not impressed it will be placed on either the "maybe" or "not to read" shelf. To shelve this as "read" seems wrong.

Lorenzo Berardi

On The Vicissitudes of the Dream Life of Sukhanov.In the beginning it was fire...I've rescued this book from a mouldy crate (which once contained Portuguese tangerines) left on the floor of a firemen station in a provincial English town on a placid Saturday afternoon of early May.The first novel by Olga Grushin was lying on her meek ivory back crushed beneath a pile of heavy-weighted low-browed gaudy rubbish labeled Sophie Kinsella, Danielle Steel and E.L. James. (BBC Oxford set the mood broadcasting 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' by Bonnie Tyler)The local firemen were sipping cups of tea wrapped up in their fluorescent-striped uniforms chatting amiably with elderly bystanders and enjoying their charity event. They couldn't save The Dream Life of Sukhanov. And no one of the reluctant book-scourers of Abingdon-on-Thames had the keen eye or the noble heart needed to pick up this gem of a novel. What they did, little by little, was making room for The Dream Life of Sukhanov by taking the aforementioned Kinsella, Steele and James away. (BBC Oxford adjusted their standards by switching to 'Ring of Fire' by Johnny Cash)Thus, I was able to spot the novel, lift it up and - taken by a sudden impulse - decide to save it from oblivion and bring it home, across the street. It costed me one quid. Sgt. Sam Fireman said: 'thanks, mate'.You may be surprised to know that I had never heard of Olga Grushin before. However, put a nice sketch of the Red Square in Moscow on the cover as well as a line stating 'shortlisted for the orange award for new writers 2006' and a broad spectrum of praise from Vogue (do they know books?) to The Financial Times (do they care about books?) and that's it: you buy me. What I thought is this: in the worst case scenario - say, if this is going to be awful cheap Russian-flavoured crap like 'Snowdrops' - I will have good fun in writing an evil review smashing this novel to bits. But if the novel proves to be good, that would be almost better than being sarcastic about it. And then came water...It happened that the very same night my partner in life and in book-rescuing were invited to a social gathering involving the making and baking of a half-dozen pizzas, multilingual chatting and the occasional warm beer. You know, we're not exactly the Oxford University Ball types. Falling hopelessly drunk in a college quadrangle blabbering obscenities in Latin is not our idea of entertainment. Or not anymore.Anyway, what matters here is that I put 'The Dream Life of Sukhanov' in my rucksack so that I could have something to read on the bus (my partner abhors noise on the public transport and wears fancy earplugs which do not encourage conversation). And that's when I begin to understand that this novel was stunning.A few pages were enough to make me realise that Olga Grushin likes adjectives but does have talent. I left a postcard from Lisbon (a homage to those Portuguese tangerines) as a bookmark between page 16 and 17 and left the bus with my partner to reach our social gathering. We wanted to walk a bit. The problem is that we didn't expect a deluge to welcome us in Oxford. It took us half an hour to reach our destination where our friends had already started to make dough, warm up the ovens and assemble the ingredients for the pizza bonanza. We were desperately wet but beastly hungry and after fishing bottles of beers from my rucksack, I forgot to check what happened to The Dream Life of Sukhanov.We baked. We ate. We chatted. We drank. We said goodnight see you later guys. My partner and I left. Back home - despite the late hour - I spent twenty minutes hair-drying my freshly rescued book page after page. The first novel by Olga Grushin took so much water that its last 80 pages were like a single thick plank of plywood. The Red Square was flooded beyond recognition. Only the faintest outlines of Saint Basil and the Kremlin were still there. (I hope my neighbours have forgiven me for the noise. If you meet them, say sorry on my behalf and tell them that the hair-dryer bit wasn't a song by Kraftwerk and was for a good cause).Ok, to cut a long story short, I am glad to tell you that The Dream Life of Sukhanov survived the deluge.The Red Square is back on dry soil. One can actually leaf through each of the last 80 pages. Luckily. In short. Go, fetch this book. It is truly exquisite. It doesn't have much of a plot but it's masterfully written. It includes some of the best pages about art which I've ever read (not that I'm an expert, but still). There are sentences which are worth of Nabokov and others which would have pleased Bulgakov. Believe me. The likes and works of Chagall, Dalì, Rublev are here. Moscow in the mid-1980s is here.The moral miseries and sour memories of a privileged man - Tolya Sukhanov, you bet - are here. Some interesting literary experiments in switching from the first to the third person narrator (and back, and back again!) are here. Beauty is here. Just keep this novel in a dry place, please.

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?!?!?!


One of the best books I've read this year. Gripping, yet feels instantly like a classic, feels slightly like Bulgakov. Just simply loved it. Wish more people could write like this.

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….


The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2005, 2007) by Olga GrushinI don’t know about you, but as I grow older, I rarely read a book with the total abandonment I used to experience as a child or a teenager. Olga Grushin, a young(ish) American writer who emigrated from Russia at eighteen, must have some special powers in order to cast this spell with both her novels, The Line and The Dream Life of Sukhanov. The first thing that separates Grushin’s novels from those written by her American contemporaries is that, unlike them, she is still interested in something called “the human condition.” I am always puzzled by the fact that, while apparently political, most (relatively) young American writers, don’t integrate this interest into something one might call “our universal condition.” But then, how could they, when those of them who are in academia, are taught to run away from notions of the “universal” as if they were plague? On the other hand, many writers who integrate a contemporary political experience into their writings—usually poets—do this in such a righteous, sloganeering way that one is instantly tempted to become apolitical. I am thinking here of the numerous bad poems simmering with righteous indignation at W. Bush that I had to listen to during endless poetry readings. All this to say that it may take a writer who has actually lived in a country where one couldn’t run away from politics, where every gesture ended up being political whether one was aware of it or not, to write in a mature way about the individual versus the collective, the singular versus the universal, fate versus will, and the relationship between the individual destiny and history. One cannot deal with such subjects when one has that nihilist ironic tone many contemporary American writers feel obligated to exhibit.The historical background of The Dream Life of Sukhanov is that of Russia between the 1930s and the 1980s. The protagonist is the director of the main arts magazine in Moscow, and son-in-law of the most famous painter of day. Both titles implied a privileged position under communism, since one couldn’t get them without bowing to the Communist Party, and they came with numerous perks: access to special stores of the nomenklatura, a private chauffeur, etc. Little by little, the reader is drawn into the hero’s dream life, and finds out that he had grown up in poverty and fear, having witnessed the killings of the Stalinist era and his father’s suicide. As a young man he fell in love with surrealism, and despised the official rhetoric and the socialist realist paintings depicting optimist laborers singing the beauty of their tractors. And then, one day he had to choose between continuing to be a poor, unrecognized painter, faithful to his ideals, and selling out to those in power in order to provide for his family. At the heart of the novel is the choice, or rather, the question: what would you do if you had to choose? Sukhanov has to choose between killing the artist in himself and collaborating with the regime, on one hand, and keeping his artistic integrity, but having to survive by doing hard, low paid jobs, on the other hand. But choosing the latter also means committing suicide as an artist, since he wouldn’t be able to exhibit his paintings, and what good is a painting without a viewer? In appearance, the novel gives us the story of a man who has betrayed his youth, but the closer we get to the end, the more we realize that the novel doesn’t have any easy answers, and that whatever the man would have chosen, he would have failed. At the end of the novel, a character introduced in the very first pages reappears: Sukhanov’s friend, Belkin, who had taken the opposite path, that of artistic honesty and everyday misery. Belkin, who is poor and whose wife has left him, finally gets his first show when he is in his mid-fifties, but then he realizes that he is a mediocre painter. Until his world suddenly unravels, Sukhanov is rich, happily married to a gorgeous woman, respected (or rather, feared) by those in his profession. In the end, his entire world falls apart, and although as readers we know that he is justly punished, the author doesn’t give us a straight answer regarding the better choice. As Sukhanov’s wife says during their younger (and poorer) days, “There is more than one way to lose one’s soul.” This is an extremely mature novel, and it is amazing that a writer who left Russia at such a young age can recreate so well not only the people’s daily lives and the country’s atmosphere, but the existential choices communism imposed on people. As rooted as the novel is in a particular time and place, this very anchoring makes it universal insofar as in many ways we are all products of our choices. Last but not least, Olga Grushin is a great stylist, and her paragraphs on art are among the best in the novel.

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.


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.


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...


Wow! Another npr recommendation that was so beautifully written taking you places in the mind you may not have even known you had.

Kate Sykes

A profoundly engaging character-based novel about a Russian art critic's rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace. Spanning approximately fifty years of Anatoly Sukhanov's life, the story takes shape from the schizophrenic paroxysms of the character's daydreams and nightmares. On the surface a book about a middle-aged man losing his mind and therefore finding himself, Dream Life is also an allegory of Russian communism, and a formidable treatise on surrealism. This book succeeds on every level, packing much more literary weight than its slim figure would have you believe.

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