When Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, the antihero of Olga Grushin’s novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov, encounters an old friend, he has his first inkling that the path he’s chosen has led him astray. Of course, the arrogant conformist doesn’t instantly recognize it as such: His one-time compatriot, a man who’s pursued his passion to little success, simply releases in Sukhanov “a solitary trembling note whose sound rose higher and higher in his chest, awakening inarticulate longings and, inseparable from them, a piercing, unfamiliar sorrow.”
It’s a de rigueur first-novel echo of personal experience for the Russian-born Grushin, 34, who lives in Silver Spring with her husband and son. The author heard her own note unmistakably when, before deciding on a law school, she worked at a D.C. firm. Though she found her work interesting, she says, “it was incredibly grueling hours. And it left me absolutely no time to write.”
Grushin had written short fiction pieces for herself, but “making money with writing just didn’t even occur to me.” When she abandoned the law, she vowed to try to get published. After taking on a number of jobs—cocktail waitress, World Bank translator, editor at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Institute—and publishing several short stories, she began writing her novel full-time in 2001. The result has received favorable reviews from the likes of the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Though only one of her short pieces failed to be published, “I don’t really enjoy writing short stories,” says Grushin. “I always thought I wanted to write a novel. Brevity is not one of my talents….I don’t enjoy reading [short stories], either.” Though she concedes to an affinity for Chekhov, if he had written novels, says Grushin, she would have read those instead.
Chekhov’s influence is evident in Sukhanov. The protagonist, a former underground Moscow painter who has sold out to become the wealthy editor of a Soviet-sanctioned pre-glasnost artpublication, is visited by strangers and long-lost acquaintances who provoke an avalanche of suppressed memories. And unlike his creator’s, Sukhanov’s choices haven’t aligned passion and success.
“[The book] grew out of my experiences growing up in Russia,” says Grushin, who was the first Russian citizen to attend an American four-year institution, enrolling at Emory University in 1989. “My parents’ friends—artists, writers—seeing the daily choices that they had to make…It still seemed very vivid, very relevant to me, because people here have to make a lot of similar choices: pursuing your dreams or supporting your family?”
It’s a theme that resonates throughout the Western world, but the tone of the novel is specifically Russian. Sukhanov slips between reality and reverie, with steadily decreasing distinction between the two. The dreaminess-cum-madness is not only reminiscent of Gogol and Bulgakov, but it also conjures the kind of surrealistic images that Sukhanov once loved but now attacks in his critical essays.
Grushin studied art history as a youth at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts; in fact, there isn’t much she hasn’t studied. In addition to writing her second novel, she is currently tackling a chronological catalog of world literature. “I’m up to ancient Rome,” she laughs. “When people tell me, ‘I just read this great new book by this great new author,’ I say, ‘I’ll probably get to it when I’m 90.’” —Anne Marson