Saturday, January 28, 2012

Revenge of Imagination and the Queen of Analepsis

The Bolshevik revolution and the rise of the totalitarian state drove dreams in Russia underground. The safe places to write about dreams – or from them – were now to be found in state-sponsored studies of folklore and folk art, and in science fiction, which can put the reader inside a dream without a frame.
    What happens when the imagination is driven underground?
    A Russian-American writer, Olga Grushin, brilliantly depicts the revolt of the imagination  in her novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov. The protagonist is a promising Surrealist painter who buries his art in order to get a fat paycheck and a big apartment and a chauffeured car as an art bureaucrat. His suppressed imagination comes after him, spawning dreamlike anomalies in his everyday world, until that world – and the false values it instilled in him – falls apart.
     I read The Dream Life of Sukhanov when it was first published in 2005, and read it again this winter for sheer pleasure and also to study the author's mastery of certain techniques. It is chastening to notice that English is her third language, since so many native writers in English have much to learn from her.
     Olga Grushin is the queen of analepsis. That is the literary term for a flashback, but in this novel she raises the art to a new level, beyond either of those terms.
     The novel opens in dreary 1985 Moscow, in the privileged life of the editor of the most influential Soviet art magazine, who gets a chauffeur and a dacha and a big apartment in return for squelching or spitting on any signs of originality or Western "decadence" in the art scene. He was once a promising young Surrealist painter, whose imagination was on fire since he got an illicit look at Chagall's flying violinists and horses, sealed from public view in locked basement at a museum. But then Sukhanov made a Faustian deal, trading his creative soul for a well-paid life, because he thought this was what his beautiful wife (the daughter of an icon of Soviet realism) required. The whole drama of the novel turns on the revenge of the artist's imagination, and its powerful engine is analepsis. In this story, the flashbacks don't delay the action; they drive it.
     The narration of Sukhanov's current life is recorded in the past tense and in the third person, doubly distancing us from it. By contrast, when we slip into his memory stream - which I am inclined to call his state of memorydream - the narration is in the first person, and often in the present tense. We grasp very quickly that these brilliant bursts of memory are taking Sukhanov (and us with him) into a life more vivid and more real than the scripted existence he has been leading. His past is more present and more intimate than his present. The transitions are flawless, though sometimes shocking. The shift may take place in mid-sentence, giving us the vertiginous sensation of hanging over an open elevator shaft - a situation Sukhanov finds himself in, as the structures of his world start to crumple.
     The interplay of dream and memory shakes his default version of reality. The dream world is becoming the real word.
     Pictures come alive and spill into the streets. A figure in a brown coat from Dali paintings turns up as a character in Moscow and at a strange country railroad station, both frustrator and liberator. A face reflected in a window in an early canvas, when Sukhanov was still an artist, turns out to be the face of the woman he will love and marry, unknown when he made the painting.
     I love the rhyming symbols in the book, especially the mirrors. Shards of light and color reflected in a flower seller’s bucket of water. “Multiplying infinities” of images in the facing floor-length mirrors in the grandiose lobby of Sukhanov’s apartment building. The sexy glimpse of a painted nude with a swan, coming alive in a window.
     Grushin is wonderful at crafting simile and metaphor: the corridors of a Soviet art institute are “the color of disease”; a stairwell splits the "gray monstrosity" of a building in half, "laying it open like an enormous, overripe fruit".
     Olga Grushin paints with words as a Surrealist paints with a brush: the fantastic is shocking and believable because of the excellence and realism of the depiction. While she transports us to Moscow, in the mid-1980s and in the mid-1950s, she succeeds in carrying us to a country of the mind where the themes are universal, and drives us to wonder what open elevator shafts will yawn before us if we try to suppress our own creative spirits.


nina said...
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Justin Patrick Moore said...

Interesting about the elevator shaft...

...I just started reading Haruki Murakami's "Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" which begins in an elevator leading to a very bureaucratic realm...

...and my friend Andy, reading the copy of Dhalgren I loaned him, commented to me friday night about the scene where the boy falls down the elevator shaft in this novel by Samuel R. Delany...

...suddenly I have the theme song for "Are You Being Served" playing in my head... Going Up!