Sunday, July 22, 2012

From Russia With Love

ERIC FORBES caught up with novelist OLGA GRUSHIN to talk about her life as a writer and her two critically acclaimed novels, The Dream Life of Sukhanov and The Line


OLGA GRUSHIN is the author of the novels, The Dream Life of Sukhanov and The Line (published as The Concert Ticket in the UK), as well as stories, literary criticism, essays and other works. Born in Moscow in 1971, the daughter of the prominent Soviet sociologist Boris Grushin, she spent a large part of her childhood in Prague. After returning to Moscow, she studied art history at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and journalism at the Moscow State University.

Fairy-tale childhood
Grushin’s father was a sociologist who pioneered public opinion research in the Soviet Union, and who, as a result, often got into trouble with the authorities. In the mid-1970s, when she was four, Boris Grushin proposed a revolutionary sociological approach and witnessed a full-scale attack mounted against him in the press. Branded “anti-Marxist,” he lost his job and was virtually blacklisted, until an influential friend offered him a position at a magazine in Prague where they lived for five years. “Prague was magical, and I had a fairy-tale childhood,” Grushin says. “When we returned to Moscow in 1981, everything seemed grim and oppressive, the winters went on and on, and I had trouble adjusting; yet soon enough perestroika began, and Moscow became a thrilling place to live, especially for a teenager who dreamed of being a writer.”

Growing up in Moscow, she read many classics in translation: A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Hans Christian Andersen, Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. After moving to Prague, she discovered a local library overflowing with books she had never heard of in Russia. She brought piles of them home, devoured them greedily, and went back for more. Later, when she was ten or eleven, she began to read everything she could find on her parents’ bookshelves in Moscow: Poe, Twain, Dumas, James Fennimore Cooper, Verne, Kipling, Stevenson, and so on. She tackled the Russian classics at thirteen or fourteen, devouring everything by Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov, and a year or two later she discovered the Russian poets—Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Nikolai Gumilev and Osip Mandelstam.

Going to America
In 1989, she was awarded a full scholarship to study at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and became the first Russian citizen to enroll in and complete a four-year American college program, graduating summa cum laude in 1993. “When I arrived, I was met with a lot of media attention; for the first few weeks I felt a bit like a deer in the headlights. Just off the plane, I was asked about dating American boys, and on campus, I was followed around by a TV crew who filmed staged excursions to the shops, trips to the bank, and meals featuring gigantic, towering hamburgers that I didn’t know how to eat.” However, once the media interest faded, she happily threw herself into American life. “I wanted to learn about everything, experience everything, cram as many things as possible into my days—American football games, modern dance lessons, horseback riding, soap operas, fraternity parties, church services, book clubs—everything seemed so terribly exotic.”

After returning to Moscow, she studied art history at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and journalism at the Moscow State University.

Growing up in a family of journalists and writers, it was almost as if Grushin, who now lives near Washington, D.C., with her husband and children, never had a choice in the matter of career. She started writing her first stories when she was four or five and hasn’t stopped. In her early youth she devoured the biographies of Russian poets and writers whose lives were full of adventure, drama and historical upheavals, with prison terms, wars, grand passions and a duel or two along the way. “At fifteen, I imagined that any proper writer’s life should proceed along similar lines. Was I in for an awakening!”

Daily writing routine
She usually starts her day by going over the pages she wrote the day before, editing the old text until it segues into the new. “Ordinarily I write for a stretch of four or five hours; when I feel my sentences becoming forced, I stop.” Whether she’s working on a novel or a story, she knows exactly where she’s going: “I make outlines and take extensive notes beforehand, and I like to be organised and conscious about my character development and scene settings.” But on her best days, she often has a sense of going deeper and deeper into some place that has nothing to do with outlines and preconceived plots—and her favourite moments are much like dreaming, when the writing seems to flow on its own accord and scenes change in mid-sentence and her characters say or do things she didn’t know they would say or do. “Afterwards, these always seem to be the best parts of the book.”

English versus Russian
Writing in English, she says, is a world of difference from writing in her mother tongue. “The languages are so different that my style in English is inevitably different from my style in Russian, just as my thinking is different in each language: each comes with its own intellectual and emotional vocabulary.” Russian is the more emotional and lyrical of the two, and English, while somewhat drier, has a richer vocabulary and, therefore, the capacity for profound nuances and precision. “English is now my official writing language while Russian is my private language, reserved for my diary and letters to my family.” But she does try to imbue the English of her fiction with a Russian sensibility: since her novels are set in Russia, she has attempted to retain Russian cadences in her sentences and use Russian turns of phrase.

Getting published
She approached the business of getting her first novel published in a methodical fashion—though she was lucky along the way. “I started by purchasing a slim little book, How to Break into Print—the best $10 I’ve ever spent in my life: among other things, it taught me to double-space my manuscript.” Armed with that knowledge, she wrote and published a handful of stories. “I knew absolutely no one in the business, but I thought that a few credits in literary magazines might eventually help me find an agent.” Once she completed her novel, she combed through the acknowledgement pages of the books she liked best, drew up a list of literary agents, and sent out query letters. Warren Frazier responded to her query within a day: “I sent him the manuscript via email; he called me the next morning. We were lucky with finding a publisher, too: Marian Wood of Putnam loved the book and bought it within a week or two of receiving the manuscript.”

First novel
The Dream Life of Sukhanov is the story of a brilliant artist in Soviet Russia who chooses to give up his dangerous art and settles for a life of material comfort and moral ambiguity, until decades later, in 1985, his betrayed gift starts to haunt him and his perfectly arranged, successful life starts to unravel. “Central to the book are the themes of our dreams and our choices, the role of art and the role of family in shaping our lives. Sukhanov was not based on anyone I knew, but in many ways he was formed by my experiences of growing up in Russia, listening to my parents and their friends—people of Sukhanov’s generation, many of them artists, philosophers and writers, all of whom had to struggle with their own difficult choices.”

Some, like her father and the artist Ernest Neizvestny, a close family friend, followed their beliefs and suffered the consequences. (Neizvestny, one of the artists exhibited at the infamous Manège show in 1962, stood up to Khrushchev in a celebrated confrontation and was eventually forced to emigrate to the US.) Others bargained with the authorities and enjoyed certain rewards, but always at a price. The questions of artistic courage and betrayal, daily comfort and immortality were very real concerns from her earliest years, and Sukhanov was the result of her thinking about these questions for a long time.

For a while she also debated between making him an artist or a writer, but an artist seemed the more interesting choice: “For one thing, I wanted to imagine someone more remote from myself; for another, I liked the challenge of writing a very visual novel: everything in the novel is seen through Sukhanov’s eyes, through the eyes of an artist of genius who has ignored his talent for years, yet who cannot help but perceive reality as an artist would, in vivid colours, with striking images, even with scattered, hidden references to actual masterpieces throughout.” And the surrealism motif, which passes through the novel, ties in perfectly with her exploration of madness brought on by the denial of one’s true nature.

Soviet history
Her first novel spans some fifty years of Soviet history, from 1929—the year of Sukhanov’s birth—to 1985, when the novel takes place. “It is not strictly speaking a historical novel, but it does touch on quite a few momentous events, from Stalin’s repressions and the Great Patriotic War to Khrushchev’s Thaw and the beginning of perestroika, and there is a famous historical episode at the heart of the book—the Manège incident of 1962, when Khrushchev visited an art show in Moscow and lashed out against a group of abstract and expressionist artists exhibited there, telling them that their art was good only for covering urinals and threatening them with Siberia.”

With such a backdrop, one would expect loads of research. However, she did not do much research since most of the material was familiar to her—she had lived through the early years of perestroika, studied art and art history, and grown up listening to her parents’ stories—but she did read memoirs of unofficial Russian artists of the times and various accounts of the Manège exhibition to get the overall mood right. “I wanted to avoid cluttering the book with historical details, however: I tried to lend it a more universal feel, so that people not at all familiar with Soviet history might find the story appealing as well, and with a hope that it might retain its resonance years from now.”

Second novel
Grushin’s second novel, The Line, also published as The Concert Ticket, was inspired by a real historical event. In 1962, the celebrated Russian composer Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was invited to visit Russia after nearly fifty years of exile to perform his music at a Leningrad concert hall. When people learned about it, they lined up for tickets, and the line lasted an entire year, evolving over time into a unique and complex social system, with people working together and taking turns standing in line. The story of the year-long waiting in line struck her as incredibly powerful, but it took her only a day or two of research to realise that she would not be using the actual event at all, as it developed in ways different from the direction she intended to go with the book.

She did, however, listen to a lot of Stravinsky and read accounts of the Ballets Russes, a Russian ballet company that was a sensation in Paris in the years before the Revolution, which inspired another development in her novel. “That said, The Line required no research per se, and is very far from being a historical novel: it takes place in the unnamed capital of an unnamed country and its temporal setting is an amalgamation: I borrow liberally from three different periods of Soviet history, namely, the repression of Stalin’s 1930s, the hopefulness of Khrushchev’s Thaw (late 1950s to early 1960s) and the stagnation of Brezhnev’s 1970s.” She imagined the book not so much as a story set in Soviet Russia but rather as a Russian dreamscape of sorts—a meditation on hope, history and time.


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