Monday, December 31, 2012

Rediscovering art in suffering, rediscovering language in silence (Books - The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine)

Barely a few pages into Andrei Makine's The Life of an Unknown Man (Trans. Geoffrey Strachan, Graywolf Press, 2012), I had a feeling it was going to become a favorite novel of 2012.  It is a literate paean to the life of a simple man, made memorable by his fierce and determined love.  It begins in Paris as Shutov, an emigre Russian writer, mourns a break-up with a much younger woman.  He mouths appreciation for Chekhov that is learned, indeed he speaks on television as a member of literary panel of experts, yet in his appraisal he is distant, formulaic, and, as one ambitious for a different kind of success, he is soured by fear of his own mediocrity. He is a man caught in between - in between old age and youth, in between success and ordinariness, in between the refined, educated life of a Frenchman-of-letters and a victim of the Soviet repression of anything humanistic or beautiful.
I'm not Russian, Lea.  I'm Soviet.  So you see I'm filthy, stupid, and vicious.  Very different from all those Michel Strogoffs and Prince Myshkins the French are crazy about.

Feeling empty and unmoored, Shutov visits St Petersberg to visit a woman he once loved and look for the echo of the feelings they once had.  There, occupying one room of a large flat where she lives, he meets Georgy Volsky, whose memory of what happened to him during the siege of Leningrad and afterward changes Shutov's life.

This is a novel of inspiration, not action.  Makine's sentences drop onto the page like water onto a leaf.  Its language does not dazzle, it sustains focus, giving us time to experience, to reflect, to get closer.
"We were fighting...for the motherland."  The words came out with no rhetorical flourish, there was even an ironic hesitation, acknowledging the naivete of the time-honored expression.  But that last remark, which he saw forming on the old man's lips, was neutral, the name of a river, a topographical fact...
The action of this novel is Shutov's moving away from the vanity of a life lived in esthetic appreciation so that he might move toward engagement, toward suffering, out of that "in between," and finally toward love.  This is accomplished in a scant 194 pages, amid brief quotes from Chekhov's short story The Joke.  In this story, a young woman, Nadenka, goes tobogganing despite a deep fear, because each time she does she believes she hears the words "Nadenka, I love you," whispered on the wind. It is the story's narrator, toying with her, but she risks terror in hope that she will hear the words again, words that then sustain her later in life.

Then, in a second narrative nested within Shutov's - Volsky's story - (for this is a story about story-making) it is a musical performance during the siege of Leningrad that brings two lovers together.  Later, separated by physical distance, it is ironically not words, but the empty space of the sky that brings them together.  It is this story about communication in the absence of language that finally moves Shutov, a man of words, to again find something worth writing about.

Makine's depiction of life during the siege is abjectly harrowing and immediate. His love story is tender and powerful, but what struck me most is the respect Makine has for the value of art.  Living as I do, in a culture where art generally succeeds as a commodity, where when one raises money to make art one must justify it as some sort of social salve by claiming it raises reading test scores, it is powerful to read someone who loves art for its power to sustain the human spirit. When for 872 days from 1941 - 1943 millions of people subsisted on bread made of flour mixed with hay, when over 1,000,000 people lost their lives, citizens sought sustenance in the theatre, in the premier of Shostakovich's new Symphony #7.  After Volsky sings at the front line, after he fights in Berlin, after he suffers Stalin's paranoid purges, he returns to make art with people who suffer.  Art is not a compilation of words, a smear of paint, a series of notes, or a beautifully articulated extension of the leg.  Art is an act of imagination sustained by human will out of need, out of passion.  This is why, in the context of deprivation of freedom or material goods, artists again and again create things of resounding richness.  One feels in reading this narrative Makine's sense of desolation on behalf of Russian culture as the result of its political evisceration.  It is out of that urgency, strengthened by his self-imposed exile, that he has himself created art of lasting value - a story that reads as though his heart were opened like the page of a book. 

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