On Olga Grushin’s “The Dream Life of Sukhanov”

by Mr. Sheehy

I have a top five list for almost everything: movies, books, places to visit, and concerts I’ve attended. If I am truly interested in knowing who you are, I’m likely to ask for your entries in these categories. I’m not sure where the drive to rank favorites originates, but I like to use that drive to contemplate topics further than I might otherwise. By ranking items, I invent conflicts and am forced to articulate, if only to myself, why one is better than another. Literature falls prey to my habit more than any other area, and I have invented a category which I have rarely considered: top books by living authors. Why have I not had such a category? Possibly because I am rarely impressed with works by living authors, or if I am impressed with portions of a writer’s work, the work often has a glaring issue that prevents my recommending it – see, for example, Sherman Alexie and the sexual content that dominates his poetry and Reservation Blues. Now, however, I am willing to create the category, because I have a book to place at the top: The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin.

Grushin’s creation draws me in particularly because her character, Anatoly Sukhanov, faces some of the great questions any artist or person of ambition is likely to confront. I consider myself one of these people, and I see Sukhanov repeating many currents I have felt pulsing through me. What is it to have talent – real talent – and how is a person to know whether he or she possesses it? How far should you pursue the dream you have imagined? When is it time to give in and do the normal thing, whatever that is? Sukhanov has talent as a painter and thinks himself capable of creating work on par with the most famous Russian artists. Others too suggest that he has it. But when he is young and poor, how is he to know that for sure? When he is faced with becoming an outlawed artist, shamed by the communist leader Khrushchev, left without a way to support his wife, should he tinker with a dream of creating works of beauty?

And as he decides whether to pursue the creation of beauty, and as we make whatever decisions we make regarding our dreams and our reality, how do we decide whether we trust our understanding of an event when we are making important choices about our life based upon that understanding? Put differently, how can we make the right decision without the ability to see hindsight? This is where we act upon or turn away from that call to greatness. This is where we wonder whether we’re hearing a call or a common romantic dream, like becoming a Major League Baseball star or a princess. In choosing, regret lurks nearby.

At 33 years-old, Sukhanov decides to take a cushy route that only the privileged yes-men of Russian society can travel, sacrificing his ambition as an artist and his artistic philosophy for the chance to support a family and climb the social ladder. Twenty-three years later, he reflects (mostly through a series of dreams) on how he made that choice, and he reinterprets both the events and the emotions that motivated it. His reflection leads to a reversal, and though I feel Sukhanov makes a better choice, I wonder if I can trust his interpretation of events, as they have so often led him astray, and as he shows a tendency towards mental illness as his past asserts itself in his mind. Now that, as a 56-year old man, he has decided to pursue that greatness he thought he could accomplish as a young man, is he actually capable of achieving it? Or is he descending the path of a deluded lunatic? Whether I trust him or not, he has chosen to pursue greatness, and he affirms to his friend Lev Belkin, who chose to pursue that call but achieved only mediocrity, that it is the only acceptable path: “Never doubt that you did the right thing. Better to know the truth, whatever it is, than to wonder forever about what might have been” (349).

This theme about the intimations of greatness and the what ifs that could plague us is the part of the book that intrigues me. I have come across it many times. John Keats (the poet who wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) felt this in his life as a young poet. He admired Shakespeare foremost and held a lingering idea that he might create similar beauty. Certainly, he had begun to do so shortly before his death at 25. Another interesting spot I remember crossing this theme is in the lyrics of a John Gorka song, called “Morningside.” Gorka observes that the call to greatness often comes young, as it does with Sukhanov, but many of us move beyond that call as we hit the “real world,” and we never look back to it. Gorka’s speaker hears it again and humbly wants to reengage the pursuit:

Am I a fool at this late date
To heed a voice that says,
You can be great

I heard it young, now I hear it again
It says, you can be better than you’ve ever been

Don’t want to waste what I have to give
In all of the time that I’ve left to live
Don’t want to waste what I have to give
In any of the time that I’ve got left
I can do more than I thought I could
Work brings more luck than knocking on wood
There’s random bad and random good
Work brings more good luck

You ask the world
And the world says, no
It’s the world’s refrain
Mine says, go
You ask the world
And the world says, no
It’s an old world refrain
Mine says, go

Don’t want to waste what I have to give
In all of the time that I’ve left to live
Don’t want to waste what I have to give
In any of the time that I’ve got left
I can do more than I thought I could
Work brings more luck than knocking on wood
There’s random bad and random good
Work brings more good luck

Better be off
I’ve got dreams to dream
Though it seems uphill and a little extreme
If I can find hope in this fading light
Then I’ll find you on the morningside

Grushin’s book ends with a surreal image of Sukhanov’s pursuit of great art. Broken and confused about what is real and what is a dream, Sukhanov retreats to a broken-down church and prepares to paint his great works. The scene leaves the reader a mixture of beauty and tragedy. Here a man has finally cast off the hypocrisy of his professional life of the last 20 years and reengaged his pursuit of great art. But here also a man has lost his family and seems to have descended into mental illness, where he is unable to discern what is real and what is a dream. Despite that tragedy, one feels that this paradoxical mixture is better than the tepid hypocrisy he lived for the last 20 years, and that he too should ignore the world’s refrain of no and do more than he thought he could.

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