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Russia: Emigre Writer Seen As Another Proust

  • Charles Fenyvesi

Washington, 26 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An emigre Russian novelist writing in French has seen the English translation of his memoir become a bestseller in the United States.

Andrei Makine, granted political asylum in Paris in 1987, has won the top literary prizes of the country, even though the French seldom accept a foreigner's French as equal to theirs.

Now he is enjoying critical and popular success in the United States as well. Last year, the Los Angeles Times declared "Dreams of My Russian Summers" the Best Book of the Year. A paperback edition has just been published.

Makine's inventive use of a language he perfected only in his 30s calls to mind Joseph Conrad's switch from Polish to English. But in terms of style, critics find a closer kinship between Makine's lyrical fusions of layers of time and the works of another Russian emigre master, Vladimir Nabokov. Some reviews even compared Makine's celebrations of memory to Marcel Proust's fabled search for lost time.

But Makine's visions of time and space have a twist. His remembrances of the Russian summers of his childhood in the 1960s and 1970s reflect his French grandmother's recollections of her youth in France. In Makine's memoir, the golden haze and the violet clouds above the eternal Russian steppe merge with the gilded ceilings and violet silks of the turn of the century in France known as Belle Epoque, which translates as the Beautiful Era.

Makine is the richer by having lived two lives: one in the present and in Russia, and the other in the past and in France which he calls "Atlantis." Makine writes: "Time in Atlantis knew only the marvelous simultaneity of the present."

Spending his summers in the town of Saranza on the eastern edge of the steppes and listening to Grandmother Charlotte's revelations on the balcony of her apartment, young Makine comes to believe that he found out the secret of how to be French. He writes: "The countless facets of this elusive identity had formed themselves into a living whole." In contrast to the coarseness and unpredictability of his native Russia, he finds France "a very well ordered mode of existence."

Grandmother has a battered suitcase which miraculously survived the Russian Civil War, famines and purges, Stalin's prison camps and Hitler's invasion. The suitcase is filled with photographs and newspaper clippings that Grandmother Charlotte and her mother collected. Next to old family photographs capturing for young Makine the French joy of life are articles about Tsar Nicholas' visit to France in 1896. The grandson growing up under Leonid Brezhnev's rule can't get over the fact that the Tsar, described in school as the bloody butcher of the people, shook hands with the President of the French Republic as the band played the Marseillaise, the marching song of the revolution of 1789. Grandmother recites the dramatic verses of the French Republic's official poet greeting the Tsar, assuring him that he earned "the love of a free people."

Young Makine is transfixed by his grandmother's revelation that a few years after the imperial visit, the same President of France died of a heart attack in the arms of his mistress. Another memory he acquires is his grandmother's childhood discovery of a plaque in a Paris alley. The plaque commemorates the spot where in 1407 an assassin, whose name translates as John Without Fear, thrust his sword through the Duke of Orleans after an amorous tryst with his sister-in-law the Queen, the lovely Isabeau.

After the summer holiday, Makine returns to the shabby present of his parents' home. It is in a grim industrial city of a million and a half inhabitants, stretched along both sides of the Volga river, with apartment blocks in the grandiose Stalinist style celebrating the socialist triumph over the forces of nature. Makine calls the city "the incarnation of the power of the empire" which he detests.

The impressionable boy doesn't just fall in love with faraway, mysterious France. In his imagination, he lives there. Only as an adolescent does he make an effort to live an ordinary Soviet life which leaves him feeling disgusted. He also tries to rebel against Grandmother who, he thinks, does not understand Russia. But he comes to believe that she knows Russia better than anyone else. Yet, she stays there and lives what he calls "a life half lived."

As a young adult in the1980s Makine flees Russia and winds up in Paris, where he dreams of Russia and his grandmother. In the memoir he writes in French he celebrates "the dry air of the steppe, whose silent transparency distilled the past." He praises the small town where his grandmother was "endlessly reliving the past, while at the same time mechanically performing routine tasks." He is thankful for that contrast, which he calls "an optical illusion" offering the most luminous moments of his life. In turn, those memories of France he first collected on the balcony overlooking the steppe give readers an unforgettable reverie, to be visited again and again.