Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Ivan Bunin, Nikolai Leskov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Fyodor Sologub, Ivan Goncharov and more, the list of sublime and powerful Russian writers is long.
For me, as for so many Western readers Russian novels retain an elevated stature, and Russian novelists claim an abiding reverence. How much of this should be attributed to Russia itself being such a vastly interesting place, with its epic, wrenching history, and how much to the writing facility of the authors themselves I’m not sure, though obviously, whatever the proper ratio it is some of both
Andre Makine, born in 1957, has written all of his novels outside of physical Russia, though it would be right to say he inhabits the place still in important respects. Not only has he written all of his novels in Paris, he has written them in the French language. Hazy about his biography, it is unclear whether he learned the language while growing up in Siberia from a French-born grandmother or picked it up himself from books. But writing in French is hardly an un-Russian thing to do, French the preferred language of pre-Revolution Russian elites.
Makine lived in the Soviet Union until the age of thirty, seeking asylum in France during a visit to Paris. He was so penniless initially he sacked out for a while in Pere Lachaise, the famous Paris cemetery that is the final resting place of so many monumental artists.
In his novels Makine engages with Russia’s Twentieth Century sweep and tumult in a quiet way. Often his characters are mentally and emotionally straddling more than one place, more than one life, and in the case of Russia itself two distinct eras. Often stories are told from the point of view of expatriates’ remembrances, sometimes incorporating visits back to their native land, or recounted to the narrator by others. The extremity, the brutality and cruelty to which some of these lives have been subjected are folded delicately and reflectively into Makine’s stories. His calm, precise, if not classical technique also has the effect at times of setting these extraordinary circumstances that engulf his “ordinary” characters’ lives into dramatic relief. Makine’s facility for evocation is unparalleled perhaps among living novelists, and his books are as transportive as anything you are likely to read old or new.
His breakthrough novel in the West was Dreams of My Russian Summers (Le Testament Francais in the French Edition) and it is elegantly wrought, elegance a consistent characteristic through all of Makine’s books. It is, as the title suggests, an adult’s reminiscence of summers spent as a boy with his French-born grandmother in her home on the edge of the Russian steppes. Interwoven is the grandmother’s own remarkable and compelling story, intersecting as it does with a traumatic swath of Soviet history.
Among the novels, Once Upon the River Love, and Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer may be my favorites. For Americans coming of age during the Cold War there was immense curiosity what life for ordinary citizens must be like in a place variously portrayed as an “evil empire” or as sealed behind an “iron curtain”. In these two books Makine portrays what is common about growing up and about adolescence, with the unique character of life in a communal apartment building in Confessions of A Fallen Standard-Bearer for instance, a world still shadowed in many ways by the catastrophe of the Second World War as much as by the peculiarities of life in an authoritarian state, the legacy of physical wounds as central as the oppressive bureaucratic oddities governing daily existence, all of it through the eyes of remembered adolescence.
In Once Upon the River Love the universalities of coming of age are depicted along with life growing up in a Siberian village at times literally buried by snow, and in the neighborhood of a labor camp, its distant perimeters marked by barbed wire. There’s the commonality of the impressionability of youth, and the uniqueness of adolescents in a remote Siberian village obsessed by French New Wave films and the cool of Jean-Paul Belmondo, who appeared in many of them, representing not only suave but the exotic allure of modernity and a mostly forbidden West.
Yet in both novels it is the daily-ness of the lives that prevails in the imagination and etches a place there.
Many unforgettable souls populate these exquisitely rendered tales of bedeviled lives, internalized and indomitable natural wonder, of inviolable humanity: Olga in The Crime of Olga Arbyelina, the émigré living with her son in an ancient, crumbling building that is home to a community of Russian immigrants in Paris, and how she came to be suspected of murder; or Vera, the woman in The Woman Who Waited, in a tiny, wooded village that does not appear on maps or even have a name, where she goes about her remarkably busy and vigorous life while harboring her mysteriously abiding hope for the return of a fiancé who decades ago left the village to go to war and never returned; or young Alexi, who on the evening he is to perform his first solo appearance as a concert pianist in Moscow, in Music of a Life, has his world profoundly and irrevocably altered by an act of the state.
Perhaps as striking a current as any flowing through Makine’s work is the astonishing self-discovery that one may retain, and likely will retain nostalgia and true affection for a time and a place menaced by hardship, absurdity and banality; for the vital joys and satisfactions and daily-ness where life otherwise is dominated by cruelty, and beset with suffering, always amidst the redemptive beauty of nature.
One might go so far as to say that in his books Makine is stylistically French while temperamentally Russian. I don’t know. But at the least, there is the resonance of two magnificent literary cultures in one distinctive author.