Dreams of My Russian Summers

by Andrei Makine

Arcade Publishing

241 pages


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Dreams of My Russian Summers is one of the three best books I read last year (the other two being The Underpainter and Cold Mountain ). It was published in France in 1995, the first by a non-Frenchman to win the Prix Goncourt, and the first ever to win both that prize and the Prix Medicis.

Makine was born in Siberia in 1957 but found political asylum while visiting Paris in 1987. Apparently French publishers rejected the book when it was first submitted in French; it was accepted only after the author pretended that it had translated from Russian. He has been compared to Chekhov and Proust. I was reminded of the impact Doctor Zhivago first provided: I wanted to saturate myself in anything Russian. And I wanted to start the pleasure of reading Dreams over again.

The Russian Summers of the title refers to time spent by the narrator and his sister visiting their grandmother, Charlotte, in the town of Saranza on the edge of the Russian steppe. Charlotte was born in France in 1903 and visited Russia in 1921 where she was trapped by the revolution. This is the story of her life. Among her earliest memories was seeing Marcel Proust play tennis. She survives famine, repression and wars plus the endless cold of Siberia.

Her tales, triggered by a suitcase full of crumbling newspaper clippings and old family photos, take her young grandchildren on flights of imagination to the Paris of her youth, the royal visit of Nicholas and Alexandra in 1896, the flood of 1910, and the death of the French president in the arms of his mistress. Her own life was even more harrowing. The chaos of civil war and forced labor, the rape by a band of thieves in the desert, eventually marrying a Russian who is twice reported dead at the Front, escaping the German air raid with her two children, working as a nurse in field hospitals... and keeping her Frenchness alive while embracing Russia's fierce vastness.

The narrator is also growing up between these idyllic visits to Saranza. The conflict of his life in Moscow in the latter half of the century versus the other-ness of the French language and culture as conveyed by his grandmother, leave him spinning through adolescence. He wanted to devour everything about the Parisian Belle Epoque, but must contend with conformist schoolmates.

In the latter part of the book he has moved to his beloved Paris and makes plans to bring Charlotte there. He struggles to become a writer (surely this is autobiographical) in his grandmaternal tongue, and like Proust, he goes back over events and emotions from her stories to extract their essence. I could quote at length any number of passages. The translation by Geoffery Strachan conveys the scintillating style. Like the narrator, I kept rolling phrases and images over on my tongue. I add my endorsement to the Newsday review: "Every once in a while, if you're lucky, you come across a new book that is so special you want to immerse yourself in its world for far longer that it takes to read it.... It is an extraordinarily beautiful and moving book."

 

January Magazine correspondent Chuck Erion has been a bookstore co-owner for 21 years. His store, Words Worth Books is located in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He is also a freelance writer. The fact that he sometimes combines these passions -- books and writing -- is not a surprise, but it's certainly a delight for January's readers.