A Russian artist’s compromise with Soviet bureaucracy provokes a surreal midlife crisis in this first novel by Russian-born Grushin.
Anatoly Sukhanov, editor-in-chief of an official Soviet art magazine, becomes increasingly disoriented following a birthday celebration honoring his father-in-law Malinin, an “approved” artist who—in the fiery words of Sukhanov’s radicalized younger self—had “sold his soul to the devil” for wealth, fame and freedom from political oppression. Now, Sukhanov’s beautiful wife Nina sorrowfully accuses him of having done the same—as they grow ever further estranged. Other disapproving perspectives on his failures as both art’s representative and paterfamilias are offered by teenaged daughter Ksenya, whose liberal beliefs mock his, and adult son Vasily, a suave careerist who’s a far more skilled “operator” than Sukhanov himself. Initially nondescript or neutral, increasingly threatening encounters and incidents begin to unhinge Sukhanov, stimulating fragmentary guilty memories of his childhood and youth. A meeting with a former friend and fellow artist who didn’t “compromise” (and hasn’t prospered); the unexpected visit of an apologetic cousin whom Sukhanov can’t remember having met; a contretemps at his office when Sukhanov’s article on Salvador Dalí is “bumped” by a freelance essay on maverick Russian painter Marc Chagall—all trigger both reminiscences and hallucinations that “bring . . . him closer and closer to the forbidden edge of a personal darkness he had not leaned over in decades.” 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.
Brilliant work from a newcomer who’s already an estimable American writer.