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

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.

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.


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.

Erma Odrach

This is a story of a 56-year-old man, who 25 years earlier traded his life as an underground artist for that of a high-ranking Soviet agent. He ends up betraying his family, his friends and himself. The novel is set in present-day Moscow (1985), then flashes to the past and is full of dream sequences. I thought it was well-written, but I didn't like how it constantly moved from the first to second person.

Miriam Joy

It's difficult to review a book like this. Perhaps I should wait a few days and allow it to sink in before I try -- but it was in the middle of it that I decided I would give it 5 stars, so it should be enough to explain why.I cannot begin to explain why this book had such an emotional impact on me. Some of it, I think, cut a little bit too close to my heart for comfort. There were moments when I stopped and looked at a sentence and knew that it was my own emotions crystallised into words on a page, no matter the differences in situation between myself and the character in question.There were a few moments where I stopped and stared because of the sheer beauty of the prose, which at times was like a poem. It painted a picture so vivid and yet slightly too surreal to be within reach -- as though the world we were seeing wasn't clear enough, wasn't obvious, but could be seen through the clouded glass of an abstract painting. At other times it an absolute edge, a perceptive observation that perfectly encapsulated whatever it was describing.(Do I sound pretentious? I can't help it. I finished the book just minutes ago and the prose style has rubbed off on me. Everything seems to be tinged with a need to be profound. But if this is irritating you, then I apologise. It won't go on much longer.)And still other times I hesitated before continuing because something had been phrased in such a way that it had brought me to think of something entirely differently to how I had looked at it before, and gave clarity to thoughts which had previously seemed muddled in my head.This book was philosophy disguised as fiction, and truth pretending to be a dream. The enigmatic narrative style -- the shifting dream sequences, memories and the switch from third to first person every so often -- kept me, as a reader, alert and focused instead of skimming, yet it was compelling enough that I finished it in a day.My quest now begins to recommend this to as many people as I can.

Nora Malone

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


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.

Amanda Anthony

This book is about a man in a mid-life crisis, but it's better than that. The writing is vivid and beautiful - beautiful vocabulary, lovely descriptions. I loved how she shifted the voice from third person to first person when we went in Sukhanov's mind. It also was interesting because it gave a look into post-Stalin era and pre-fall of Communism Russia. Very very good.

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.

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?!?!?!


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...

Celia Pastoriza

I loved this book, particularly the way that every time I thought it had resolved, she would suddenly turn the tables and surprise me. A very good book.


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!


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.


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

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