Russian literature may take pride in a strange success: Andreï Makine, a Russian of indeterminate French origin, was awarded two of the most prestigious literary prizes for a book written in French, in France, and about France—a book which is nonetheless quintessentially Russian. In our time, it seems, you have to be born Russian, spend thirty years of your life in Russia, a country where cruelty and reverie form a paradoxical unity (this, of course, is a cliché, but, like all clichés, it’s true) in order to hallucinate with such power and passion, in order to create a fabulous country—a nonexistent France—from words and dreams.
On first glance (but only on first) this France is the subject of Makine’s book. The author created a stir in 1995: he was the only French writer (and he wasn’t even French, for that matter!) to have ever been awarded the country’s two highest literary awards for one and the same book: the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis, as well as the “Lycée Goncourt,” which is awarded by students. How the prizes were awarded is a detective story in its own right: Makine’s books were rejected by French publishers; the writer lived in poverty, half-starving, slept at night in a cemetery crypt, wrote his books sitting on park benches. Finally, driven to despair, he passed off one of his original French-language books as a translation from the Russian—only then was any attention paid to it. Nonetheless, fame eluded him, and Makine came up against unexpected difficulties. For example, the publisher of his second book demanded to see the original Russian, which, of course, didn’t exist, and Makine was obliged to quickly translate his own work into Russian. Finally, the author’s third novel—the subject of this review—was noticed by Gallimard, published, and it collected all the honors imaginable. A foreigner! L’étranger!
Russian vanity is of course flattered by this very pleasant scandal.
Dreams of France are an old Russian tradition. A Frenchman doesn’t dream of France for obvious reasons: he lives there. Other foreigners, if they dream, are pragmatic: you can save your money and take a trip. The Russian, locked up for decades behind the iron curtain (in a country constructed from dozens of other countries and yet unified), in a country where not even all its cities are open to its own citizens, and sometimes are not even marked on the map, a country of secrets and taboos, locked doors and underground secret railways, a country of fences and suspicious glances—the Russian has developed a capacity for reverie unlike anyone else’s. The climate, regime, and the huge distances facilitate lethargy and dreams. There, beyond the horizon, beyond the undulating steppe or the forests of fir trees, beyond the endless snowy expanses, far, far away, there is, of course, the marvelous country of Paris: not so much France as Paris. There they have boulevards and fashion, artists and lovers, cheese and poetry, gallantry and wit, culture and philosophy, and above all a language unbelievably beautiful and melodious. It was not by chance that throughout the nineteenth century French was for Russia the language of education, a mark of belonging to the upper classes; it was not by chance that after the catastrophe of 1917 millions of Russians sought sanctuary in France. Later, after the fall of the iron curtain, practical Russians left for America, idealists for France. “Well, what is Paris like?” I asked a poet friend in 1987 who had just spent a week in Paris for the first time in his life. “It’s exactly what we think it is,” was the answer. (This doesn’t mean that we are right in what we think about Paris. It just means that Paris corresponds to all dreams of it, that it disappoints no expectation.)
The almost nameless narrator (his name—Alyosha—appears only once, and even then nearly at the end of the book), whose biography in many ways runs parallel to the author’s, spends every summer of his childhood in a small Russian town, almost a village, on the steppe, with his French grandmother. He and his sister, who also is not named in the book, sit on the flower-entwined balcony every day in the shadow of a lamp with a turquoise shade, and, dreamy and relatively obedient children that they are, listen entranced to their grandmother’s stories of France (Paris and its environs) at the time of the Belle Epoque and the beginning of our century—in French. The narrator is not a child but a grown man, recalling his childhood in complex, adult language much influenced by Proust, whose presence in the narrative is noted both by the epigraph that opens the book and by references to Marcel himself, who plays tennis in Neuilly.
The nameless children, strangely indifferent to their nameless parents, spend every summer in a nonexistent world: there are none of the childhood games, friends, fights, or childhood dramas we all know. Their toys—a memorial collection of Grandmother’s pebbles, each of which has a name—for instance, “Verdun” is an iron-colored shard, given to Grandmother by an officer in the First World War. The children’s living space is the balcony and, only occasionally, the courtyard, which is alien to them, inhabited by frightened babushkas and filled with the shouts of a local drunkard. The warm breath of the Volga steppes, the fragrance of flowers, the rustle of brittle newspaper clippings that Grandmother retrieves from her trunk, the music of the French language, of French poems, yellowed photographs of a bygone time—this is their enchanted country. Each evening, when Grandmother sits down on the balcony, eternally mending the same lace blouse, and the children fall silent at her feet, harking to the murmur of foreign speech, the world is transformed: the melodious sounds of French have the power to evoke visual hallucinations.
It was above the line of the horizon that we discerned a pale reflection—it was like the sparkle of little waves on the surface of a river. Incredulous, we peered into the darkness that surged over our flying balcony. Yes, far away on the steppe there shone an expanse of water, rising, spreading the bitter cold of the great rains. The sheet seemed to be lightening steadily, with a dull, wintry glow.
Now we saw emerging from this fantastic tide the black masses of apartment blocks, the spires of cathedrals, the posts of street lamps—a city! Gigantic, harmonious despite the waters that flooded its avenues, a ghost city was emerging before our eyes….
A mirage of the steppe? No, it’s the magic power of a child’s imagination at work—the boy hasn’t noticed that Grandmother has been telling the story of the Paris flood of 1910 to the quiet children for some time.
The children, entranced, read the menu of a dinner given by the president of France in honor of the arrival of the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, in 1896—unheard of, incomprehensible dishes, engaging not so much for their promise of gastronomic delight (what could the children know of this?) as for the very sound of the words, magical formulas which grant access to an enchanted kingdom of “bartavels”—red partridges—and ortolans. And, later, for the narrator-adolescent, these magical words will be the mysterious consolation of a hidden knowledge, when the crude Soviet crowd pushes him and his sister out of a line for prosaic oranges, which were in short supply anyway. Well, so the young people didn’t get any oranges, they were injured and humiliated, but they have what no one can buy or take away—bartavels and ortolans, the keys to an enchanted country!
As I looked at her pale face with the winter sky reflected in her eyes, I felt my lungs fill with an entirely new air—that of Cherbourg—with the smell of salt mist, of wet pebbles on the beach, and the echoing cries of seagulls over the endless ocean.
The Paris flood, and the arrival in France of Nicholas II, and the death in 1899 of the French president Félix Faure in the embrace of his lover are unrelated events joined by no chronological thread other than the make-believe one of narrative. But these are the events around which the universe of the dreamy narrator turns. And the center of this universe is the grandmother, Charlotte Lemonnier. How did she end up in Russia? Her father, a Frenchman, worked as a doctor in a Siberian city before the Revolution—a fairly common situation: Russia has always been home to lots of foreigners. After the death of Charlotte’s father, her mother didn’t want, or wasn’t able, to return to France (there were some family problems, here the narrator obscures things), and, weak-willed and alone, she became a morphine addict. Each year Charlotte’s mother traveled to France with her daughter, and the girl found herself in a completely different world, utterly unlike that of the impoverished Siberian town. One fine day the mother decided to remain in her native France after all, and, leaving her daughter in Neuilly, returned to Russia for her things. It was 1914, the First World War had begun. Charlotte next saw her mother in 1921, when she went off to look for her. She didn’t immediately recognize her in the old woman she found hunched over a pile of kindling in the courtyard. Charlotte returned to Russia—and fell into a trap. Russia’s doors slammed shut, and she never saw France again. From then on France became a myth. Grandmother Charlotte transmits this myth to her grandchildren.
Charlotte’s Russian life is terrifying, and, along with a knowledge of France, the grandson learns the truth about the horrors of Russian history as well: the brutality, the prisons, cruelty, concentration camps, early deaths, lawlessness. As the novel’s action moves forward and the narrator matures, France and Russia become intertwined in a fantastical pattern of irreconcilable elements. He himself is both Russian and French. If in childhood he is more French, a dreamer, a visionary, then, in maturing, he becomes more and more Russian: his reverie alienates him from his surroundings, his knowledge and tales of France provoke bewilderment and ridicule; he is ultimately ashamed of his awkward situation among his peers. But every summer he returns to his grandmother, to the almost irreal balcony, entwined with flowers, hanging over the steppe, in the last house on the edge of the inhabited world, to listen once again to the stories of things that exist nowhere. Is it imagined France that draws him, or his grandmother as the incarnation of that France?
Grandmother is also a beauty (descriptions of her face and figure recur frequently); grandmother is a sorceress (she survives the most terrible circumstances—war, hunger, a march on foot across half of Russia), grandmother is an animal tamer (she calms a threatening drunk; an exhausted peasant woman turns to her to rest, and, overcoming the class and ethnic hostility that one might have expected, she lies down on the floor of grandmother’s apartment, arms stretched out—a strange scene that can only be taken as a symbol, not a real event). Grandmother is also a poisoner: she permanently infected the boy with a dangerous reverie, she split his consciousness, so that he feels French among Russians, an eccentric, an outcast, forever and endlessly other. The narrator comes to revolt against Grandmother: his parents (faceless, nameless) are dying during his adolescence. How dare she outlive them! Why is she stronger?
He no longer wants to be French, he protests. The more horrible the truths about Russian life he learns, as he grows older, the more Russian he feels. He develops a strange adoration for this barbaric, wild, cruel country. Charlotte turns out to be stronger than his revolt against her, she is stronger than everyone in this story. She lives through the death of her mother, husband, and daughter; just as, her horrified grandson finds out, she lived through a rape. As a result of this rape she gave birth to a son by the Uzbek rapist. The narrator’s uncle is an intelligent, quiet boy with noticeably Eastern features.
And at some point in the story we notice the strangest thing of all: the grandmother—is Russia herself. Raped (by a criminal), loving (her husband), tormented by her adopted country and incapable of leaving it (and not wanting to), accepting both her children equally—the offspring of her beloved husband and of her rapist—she refuses to die. She carries with her throughout her life a dream of France like a fairy tale told of some far-off, imaginary, nonexistent place. The grandmother incarnates everything in the Russian fate: filth, love, dreams, absolution, patience, saintliness, torment. The narrator (at the end of the novel) manages to escape to France, and tries to become a writer there. He wants to finally bring Charlotte to Paris—when he receives word that she has died.
A year after her death, the narrator receives a letter from her…. Yes, there is a certain “mystery” element in the novel, a turn of the plot I don’t want to write about, so as not to ruin the reader’s pleasure.
Makine’s book is deeply, densely symbolic, even allegorical. There are wonderful scenes built on allegories. Thus, the adolescent narrator, tormented by awakening sexual curiosity, sees a prostitute bringing two clients to an old boat, and the boy, amazed by the secrets of adult behavior, watches through different portholes. Through one he sees the crude physiological details of fornication, the mechanical movement of bodies (the participants couple in a kneeling position); and through the other window he sees the indifferent face of the prostitute, touched with the boredom of the everyday—she even scrapes the polish off her nails…. He looks through the first window again, and then through the second….
The sense of two layers of a single existence being cut off, divided, disconnected (everything depends on which window you look through) is symbolized in this and other scenes, although this is its most graphic expression. Having grasped the author’s symbolic device, one can see an analogous conflict (a simultaneous merging and disengaging) in almost any scene, passage, character, or turn in the plot. Once you discern this, the prose becomes much more meaningful, the reader’s interest more justified, and those parts of the narrative that might have seemed tedious are suddenly presented in a new, engaging light. The flow of the narrative on the surface seems too monotonous at times, and the action too slow: it spins in one place, as if it didn’t have the strength to break away from Charlotte’s gravitational pull. That is, in fact, what’s going on: Charlotte is Russia—the mysterious captured princess is at the center of the writer’s universe.
As far as I know, none of the reviewers of this book has noticed this obvious and profound meaning, has bothered to dip below the surface of the book’s glinting, moiré, very French, very “stylized” surface. Hence the mistakes and perplexed questions of a largely favorable press. One reviewer regrets that the image of the sister wasn’t developed further (although all the rest of the characters in the book are deliberately blurred, fragmentary, functioning mostly as “furniture”), another imagines that the Volga steppes are in the Ukraine, and many stubbornly call the book “Dreams of My Siberian Summers,” latching onto the word “Siberia,” which is often repeated, but has little to do with the narrator’s childhood—Siberia was where Grandmother spent her childhood, but the narrator lived in European Russia! This mistake is produced by the reviewers’ own reveries, for they generally have as vague an idea of Russian geography as the author of this book has of the geography of France.
Most of those writing about Dreams of My Russian Summers agree that it is a love story. This is of course true, but the love in it is stranger and more profound than an ordinary love for a woman: it is the inexplicable, unshared, tortuous love for Russia, and, perhaps, for what is traditionally considered Russia’s “feminine” being. People run away from a love like this, as did the writer. They try to save themselves, they fail; they curse, write, and sing about it; finally, they receive awards in their invented, overseas kingdom.
—Translated from the Russian
by Jamey Gambrell
November 20, 1997