Description: Alex is a young boy, growing up in the Russia of the communists....

NoveList Book Discussion Guide
NoveList/EBSCO Publishing © 2000


Dreams of my Russian Summers
by
Andrei Makine
(New York: Scribner, 1998)

AUTHOR:

Andrei Makine was born in 1957 in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. He grew up in the town of Penza, about 200 miles southeast of Moscow. While insisting that autobiographical accuracy in his novels is irrelevant, the fact remains that his personal history corresponds closely to how he describes Alex's youth in Dreams of My Russian Summers. Andrei had a French grandmother; he grew up able to speak and write French. France was always a magnet for him, the place where he knew he eventually wanted to live: "It was in Russia that I felt an exile."

Makine grew up in a repressive, post-Stalin communist Russia. Never entirely comfortable, he managed a modest success, largely in academic terms. He studied at Kalinin and Moscow, and wound up teaching philology at the university in Moscow. At the age of thirty, he took advantage of glasnost's loosening of restrictions, and left Russia. He applied for political asylum in France, received it, and lives there now.

The pattern he has established has Makine writing novels about Russia, in French. It was difficult for him to break into the publishing world -- the French were unwilling to believe that this newly-arrived political refugee could handle their own language with the authority that his books displayed. The solution to this dilemma plays out like a piece of vaudeville: Makine began describing his writings as "translations," and the publishers were willing to accept them on those terms -- even complimenting the high quality of the translations. The final vaudeville turn occurred when a publisher wanted to see the original, and Makine spent a frenzied three weeks translating his novel into first-time Russian.

All the carrying-on was ultimately successful, as Dreams of My Russian Summers, published in France as Le testament français, became the first book ever to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. The novel became popular in English translation as well. Makine now has four novels (all Russian in focus) available to English-speaking readers: Dreams of My Russian Summers (1997), Once Upon the River Love (1998), The Crime of Olga Arbyelina (1999), and Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer (2000).

Makine appears reclusive, a bit of a loner. He gives interviews rarely and grudgingly. He is unmarried. He -- rather surprisingly -- has been able to approximate Siberia in France, building himself a cabin on the ocean in the French Landes district, "miles from any habitation, where I could be alone and write." He is retiring enough that it took a national television appearance finally to convince the French public that he wasn't just a nom de plume of a legitimate French author.

Makine writes a dense, lyrical text that gives a sensuous sense of setting. He downplays the difficulty of writing in what is not, finally, his first language. It is not language, he says, that is the challenge: "What is difficult to express is the singularity of human beings. Only a poet can make your brown eyes unique among billions of other brown eyes." Writing is important to Makine, not only for the satisfaction it provides for him personally, but also because it can potentially be important for everyone reading it. What he thinks of art is a major part of the reason we find him living in France: "Only literature and art can show people the best in themselves and find some meaning in life beside material things. But it has to be done by individuals. Nothing can be done by the masses."

SUMMARY:

Alex is a young boy, growing up in the Russia of the communists. He has a sketchily drawn older sister, and parents who die while he is still a child. The closest family attachment he has is to his grandmother, Charlotte, who represents a world entirely removed from the bleak contemporary Russia that is poised at the edge of the steppes.

Charlotte is French, and it is her ties to that country that entangle Alex. Charlotte's father, Norbert, was an idealistic French doctor who was practicing his profession among the subjects of the tsar. He married the much younger Albertine, who moved all too quickly from being the young wife of the doctor to being the young widow. Her social position became anomalous -- no one knew quite what to make of a beautiful foreign widow who no longer had a man to define her status. Life became a scramble for Albertine and her young daughter; Albertine wound up addicted to morphine, with which she tried to blot out what life had become.

Sent back to the safety of relatives in France, Charlotte finds her way back across a chaotic Russia; she finds her mother and they live quietly together until Albertine's death. Charlotte marries Fyodor -- he is harried by party suspicions of his unhealthy marriage, and goes off to war, where he is twice reported dead. Charlotte correctly interprets this double negative as a potential positive; Fyodor walks back home, and the family is reunited, if only for a while. Charlotte's first child, a son, is actually the issue of her rape by tribesmen at the edge of the Russian desert, but he is raised and loved by Fyodor as if he were his own.

An unlikely foreigner, Charlotte becomes a symbol of Russia: "this young Frenchwoman had the advantage of concentrating within her life span the crucial moments in the history of [Russia]." (pp. 87-88) Her own life stretched from the royal courts of the tsar to the gray, faceless bureaucracy of established communism.

Helping to raise young Alex, Charlotte is increasingly drawn to the France of her past. She speaks to her grandchildren in French, which becomes "our family dialect." (p. 20) The children's imaginations are fired by a suitcase full of newspaper clippings and curios from France's belle époque (the clippings miraculously survived the war-time wanderings, when the suitcase that held them was taken, on the assumption that it had been filled with food). Alex, in particular, finds the glamour and glitter of a dated Paris irresistible. He begins living in his imagination, with his focus on France.

In the meantime, there's the matter of trying to become an adult. Alex has the sort of up-and-down, troubled time that practically defines adolescence. One day he lives entirely in a vanished France; the next day, he wonders how he ever worked up any interest in that foolishness. One day he will chafe at the restrictions that communism tries to impose; the next he will revel in the simplicity of letting others make all his decisions. When all is said and done, it is his French dream that survives. As an adult, he manages to be given political asylum by France. Even though it is hard to figure out how to live, Alex finds himself living where he wants to be.

An end-of-the-book bit of irony is that Alex is not even French. The one-quarter French blood that he thought was his turns out to be merely another fiction. His mother turned out to be not Charlotte's child, but a Russian political prisoner who had had enough contact with Charlotte that the Frenchwoman was willing to place the orphaned child with her own family. The unexpected twist is startling, but what it finally winds up telling us is what Makine's novel is steadily telling us as well -- that dreams can be much more powerful than reality.

QUESTIONS:

While answers are provided, there is no presumption that you have been given the last word. Readers bring their own personalities to the books that they are examining. What is obvious and compelling to one reader may be invisible to the next. The questions that have been selected provide one reasonable access to the text; the answers are intended to give you examples of what a reflective reader might think. The variety of possible answers is one of the reasons we find book discussions such a rewarding activity.

Does life need to be edited?

Makine's short book is a sketchier effort at what Proust attempted at greater length -- making the past accessible by recreating it. A number of difficulties present themselves, one of the first being the sort of endless-regression effect: the memories belong to the people who remember them, and bringing back someone else's memories does not necessarily take you to the place they came from. Your memories contain undigested chunks of older memories, and the end product depends upon you as much as it depends upon what "really" happened. Life is too complex to allow anyone to pretend to authoritativeness; capturing "the extraordinary flow of days, words, and smells that everyone called life" (p. 60) is a difficult and elusive challenge. A stratagem for getting a handle on experience is to organize it; Makine maintains that "every adolescent classifies things, a defensive reflex when faced with the complexity of the adult world." (p. 84) The problem is that the patterns we attempt to impose upon experience -- particularly in the days of our naiveté -- are not always legitimate. Often they represent our own hopes rather than our observations. "How can it be," we ask with Alex, "that all these passions, griefs, loves leave so little trace?" (p. 127) Life is finally inchoate and untidy, an experience rather than a design: "life did not bother about the coherence of subject matter. It spilled out its contents in disorder, pell-mell. In its clumsiness it spoiled the purity of our compassion and compromised our just anger. Life, in fact, was an endless rough draft, in which events, badly organized, encroached upon one another, in which the characters were too numerous and prevented one another from speaking, suffering, being loved or hated individually." (p. 149)

What does Makine think of communism?

Makine has been granted political asylum to live in France -- obviously he has problems with the communist government of Russia. He took advantage of glasnost to leave, and he has not taken advantage of the post-communist environment to go back home. He does not feel that communism provides the solution to the world's problems. Marx is one of several theorists of whom Makine says: "they have a very limited vision, which they develop to excess." In his character of Alex, he recognizes that the government has its own axe to grind, that the information made available is not going to be unbiased. When that bias becomes a problem to him in his attempts to read as much as he can about France, he moves on to a slightly different approach: "hungry for knowledge, I contrived to thwart this manipulation of history: I turned to literature." (p. 107) It was a workable approach -- fiction was not monitored as tightly as history. Alex, through most of the book, is young, and his feelings about communism are those of a young person. Overly confining at one time, the communist system can be gratifyingly clear and unambiguous at another. Discontented with his outsider status, he sees the seductive appeal of conformity. The communist society has something with which to recommend itself: "To blend into its easygoing and collectivist routine suddenly seemed to me like a brilliant solution! To live the life of everybody else." (p. 154) Even the need of the adolescent to make sex preeminent can be accommodated under communism (as it can anywhere at all) -- Alex describes his erotic reaction to a young girl student who competently (and sexily) disassembles and reassembles an automatic rifle. Communism was a fact of growing up for Alex and for Alex's author. It was not something to be lightly discarded, but it was a system that eventually revealed itself to be flawed. Makine finally left Russia because he was "torn between a Russia that was not ideal but had an ideal and a Russia that was realistic but did not suit me."

Can you be a convert to French?

For Makine, being French is very close to being a religion, and he appears to allow the possibility of joining up of your own free will. One thing that makes that approach possible is that Alex's France is not entirely real -- it is a quirky construct patched together from old French newspaper clippings, family legends, and Siberian experiences. It is, in fact, the "Atlantis" that Makine keeps calling it -- a mythical land that is recognizable and formative, even if no one can prove that it exists (or even existed). France, to Alex, registers more strongly as something not-Russian than as anything peculiarly Gallic. "Roast bartavels and ortolans" (p. 25), from the menu of the banquet for Nicholas II, becomes a good example of the nature of Alex's fixation. He relishes the sound and feel of those exotic words, without any real idea of what the words might mean. Much later, when he learns the actual meaning, "I knew how they were both game birds . . . A delicate, tasty, rare dish, but nothing more. . . . The magic . . . had faded." (pp. 119-120) The words were important as an incantation, or as a liturgy; as denoters of specific meanings, they became uninteresting. When Alex lists some of the "French" qualities he has deduced from the newspaper clippings, he begins with something that is "born," but moves on to qualities that are developed or indulged in: he sees "these Frenchmen" as "born rebels, dedicated demonstrators, professional moaners." (p. 79) Even as he is calling the qualities "French," he is describing them in ways that are closer to universal. Perhaps the closest Alex comes to recognizing what it is to be French is his attempt to "translate" scenes into Russian (p. 75), by replacing the French participants with Russian equivalents. It doesn't work; there is just not an entirely workable correspondence. Like the president dying in the arms of his mistress, some things are just not good prospects for cultural translation. On the whole, however, Makine seems to be of the opinion that you can be his kind of Frenchman if you choose to be. It's just as well, since the novel's surprise plot twist changes Alex's one-quarter ration of French blood to none at all, to nothing but wishful thinking.

Is the punctuation normal?

No, not really. It works; it does what the author wants it to do, but it is not what we are used to seeing. As we read along, we get an impression of more ellipses than we would expect. It's a perfectly valid impression; looking at the text more closely, we find that only 15 pages of the paperback edition do not contain at least one ellipsis (better than 93% of the book's pages include ellipses). There is only one place in the book (pp. 105-106) in which successive pages are ellipsis-free. Clearly, Makine thinks he can achieve effects that do not flow naturally from the more widely used set of punctuation marks. The function of the ellipsis is either to signal the omission of material, or to signal an indeterminate extension of action or tone. For the most part, Makine is after this latter effect. Even the smallest events lack closure; they have a potential resonance that occupies a much greater space than the little slice of time in which they appear to belong. Makine's ellipses suffer from the drawback common to mannerisms -- overuse blunts the impact. It is instructive, nonetheless, to look at a few examples of the kinds of statements the author feels are best dealt with by using ellipses:

How could I go on living while carrying within myself this other me that admires Beria. . . . (p. 146)
It was this sentence that sounded the death knell for my childhood. "He died in the arms of his mistress. . . ." (p. 74)
"Here, come with me, I'll show you something! Come on, you won't be sorry. . . ." (p. 162) [Pashka]
books had no price! You could go without buying a pair of shoes and freeze your feet in winter, but you bought a book. . . ." (p. 229)
We did not speak again about the woman in the padded jacket. . . .[Alex's mother] (p. 6)
I repeated to myself, as if it were something luminously obvious: "No, all those moments will never disappear. . . ." (p. 195

The reader is involved -- whether he wants to be or not -- in creating the full meaning of the statements. There are open-ended additions to be made to the sentences that complete their meaning, and those additions must be supplied by the reader. It's like a continuing grammatical workbook in which Makine is giving his readers exercises in history and memory, as he understands them.

Is truth important?

That probably depends on how strictly you define truth. Factual accuracy is not high on the list of Makine's priorities. When Alex and his sister listen to Charlotte's stories, "real sequence hardly mattered. For us only the chronology of our grandmother's long stories counted." (p. 24) What is important is the feeling and the tone; anachronisms are just not worth worrying about. In a larger sense, this is why Makine has written a novel instead of a memoir; it gives him much more freedom in arranging events to create effects. While his own life is certainly a major source for his fictional efforts, Makine is irritated by the critics who insist on completely identifying Makine's protagonists with Makine: "Every time I publish a new novel I'm asked if it is autobiographical, even when the protagonist is female. You must separate an author's life from his work." The author can take events and improve them, giving them an impact they would not achieve unassisted. Even the characters in the novel are aware of the attraction of revisionism, of the appeal of being the one who can make things change. Alex reflects on his role in the flawed world that includes barbarisms like Beria, and thinks about how he would like things to be: "Remaking history. Purifying the world. Hunting down evil. Giving all these people refuge in one's heart, so as to be able to release them one day into a world liberated from evil." (p. 146) The sobering fact, however, is that these are the prerogatives of fiction, that -- in our actual lives -- we are much less likely to influence events, than events are likely to influence us. The novelist works with a truth that is larger and more universal than historical accuracy, and Makine is unrepentant about the divide: "writing by definition engenders a distance from daily reality."

What has Alex learned about sex?

Alex's discoveries are appropriate to a coming-of-age novel; they are both fervent and callow. He receives a blinding insight -- "being a man meant thinking constantly about women" (p. 124) -- without realizing that man should more properly be replaced by adolescent. The extent to which the body develops an agenda entirely distinct from the mind's is startling to Alex, and disturbing. His awkward coupling with the girl from the open-air dance hall emphasizes all his ambivalence. He is drawn inexorably to his fulfillment, only to find it all quickly anticlimactic: "Her body was becoming indifferent to me, useless. Sunk in my dull physical contentment, I was self-sufficient." (p. 168) When the time comes to leave her, Alex finds that "'I love you' would have been a lie I could not utter." (p. 170) It is an oddly inverted Romanticism. Alex ardently wishes for the intoxication of a grand passion, and is bitterly disappointed that what he gets is so tawdry and ephemeral. The apparent ease with which the French incorporate women and sex into their lives is entirely alien to Alex's Slavic soul. He thinks of Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev, and Brezhnev: "they all had one quality in common: at their sides a feminine presence, let alone an amorous one, was inconceivable." (p. 75) He never does get to a very satisfying resolution. To give women the importance he feels they ought to have is more of a project than he allows himself to have time for. It is not that far removed from the stance of the novel's author, who -- unmarried at 42 -- pleads the demands of Art as the reason for his bachelor status: "My engagement with literature is total; it does not leave room for other commitments. Some writers can separate life from work, but I can't. I write slowly, and when I'm working on a book I think about it twenty-four hours a day. It would not be fair on a wife and children."

Who is the most interesting character in the novel?

The grandmother, Charlotte, gets my vote. The narrative is filtered through the sensibilities of young Alex, but the boy is too self-absorbed and petulant to sustain our full interest. Charlotte, on the other hand, is a survivor who has found her way to an inner peace in a world that has gone crazy around her. "Her own life story . . . had long since become a myth" (p. 7), and it included all the tangled threads of courage and endurance and adaptability that we associate with myths. The scope of her life was extraordinary: she "had the advantage of concentrating within her life span the crucial moments in the history of our country. She had lived under the tsar and survived Stalin's purges; she had come through the war and witnessed the fall of so many idols. . . . her life, traced against the background of the empire's bloodiest century, took on an epic dimension." (pp. 87-88) She was part of her Russian setting, and yet always apart from it as well. She is aptly addressed by the locals as "Sharlota Norbertovna" (p. 17), a collision term that forces imperfect varieties of French and Russian into an unlikely composite. The part of her that is not Russian is what makes her useful and appreciated by those who are native: "Charlotte's eyes reflected a disturbing world where unforced truth abounded -- an unfamiliar Russia that they needed to discover." (p. 66) Her tenacious clinging to the humane ideals of her origins brought an unexpected hope to the bleak landscape of Siberian winter. "Charlotte russe" becomes the reward for Makine's readers -- a sweet culmination of the literary repast, served at Siberian temperatures.

What is the role of the French language?

To date, Makine appears to be comfortable with a description of his oeuvre as what a critic calls "Russian novels written in French." And he does, in fact, write in French. The possibility of using French came to Makine, much as it did to Alex, through the existence of a French grandmother. What that accomplished was turning the French language into what was "basically regarded . . . as our family dialect." (p. 20) It is only later that French is moved from the instinctive level (If we speak, this language is what we use) to the level of artifice (This is an alternate way in which I am able to express myself). Alex realizes that his beloved French is a "tool," and that he can use it to create literature: "Literature was now revealed as being perpetual amazement at the flow of words into which the world dissolved. French . . . was, I saw now, the supreme language of amazement." (p. 189) It represented entrée to a world that was everything that communist Russia was not, and a world that required a different language to do it justice. What made French work for Makine was, first, that he could speak and write it, and second, that it was not Russian. Beyond that, the specific language was not crucial. Movement from one language to another was difficult: it "is a painful process. Either one fails totally, or it becomes a new freedom, like a child being born." The bottom line is that the author uses language -- any language -- as a "tool," and that, whatever he is actually using, "a writer invents his own language."

THE TRANSLATOR'S DILEMMA
   Dreams of My Russian Summers is a translation into English from the French in which it was written (by an expatriate Russian living in France). Andrei Makine grew up writing both prose and poetry in French, while living in Russia. He can be credited with the poet's concentration upon each word and its place in the whole. He has considered problems of translation, and gives us one insight in the text of the novel: "the translator of prose is the slave of the author, and the translator of poetry is his rival." (p. 199) In another place, Makine deals with the mechanics of poetry, the artificial linking of words (through rhyme) that normally would not be thought to be connected. We are quoted pairs "stream-dream, gold-untold" (p. 29), and it is all a pleasant literary diversion. Eventually, however, it will occur to the reader that the original was written in French, and there was no "stream-dream, gold-untold" -- they are not equivalent rhyming pairs in French. We are dealing with poetry; what can the translator -- the writer's rival -- do?
   I got in touch with the Bibliothèque publique d'information: Centre Pompidou, in Paris, and was lucky enough to be given a great deal of useful information by Ms. Chantal Simon. The corresponding passages in the two languages are:

La cadence des strophes nous grisa. La résonance des rimes célébrait à nos oreilles d'extraordinaires mariages de mots lointains: fleuve-neuve, or-encor. . . . Nous sentions que seuls ces artifices verbaux pouvaient exprimer l'exotisme de notre Atlantide française:

The cadence of the verses intoxicated us. To our ears the resonance of the rhymes celebrated extraordinary marriages between words that were far apart: "stream-dream," "gold-untold." . . . We sensed that only such verbal artifices could express the exotic nature of our French Atlantis: (p. 29)

We see that the translator, Geoffrey Strachan, has taken a middle path with respect to the translation. The first word of each pair is simply translated: fleuve becomes stream; or becomes gold. For the second word of each pair, however, the translation won't work; the equivalent words don't rhyme. Neuve would be new, and encor would be again, and the discussion of poetic rhyme would be pointless. The English words chosen to complete the pairs -- "dream" and "untold" -- fill the obvious requirements; they rhyme, and the rhyme supplies a link that is not required by the meaning. The tone remains very much the same in both languages and the translation can be considered a success. Ms. Simon brought up some finer points that don't particularly change the point of the passages, but demonstrate the sort of attention to detail that Makine gives his novel, and that he expects of his translator as well. Encore is the familiar form of the adverb (even the reader with no French will recognize it as something heard shouted at the end of concerts). Encor, without the final -e, is an old-fashioned, poetic version of that word, appropriate in the context of the sort of poetry Makine is discussing. "Lointain" could have been translated in several ways: "far apart" is Strachan's version, and it works well enough, although it may be a shade more rigid -- less ambiguous and fluid -- than the French original. Or, in other words, it is indeed a translation -- not entirely the same as the original.

In the text, Makine gives us another indication that he is attuned to the differences inherent in different languages' ways of getting to the same place. This time, the word is "flower," and the languages are Russian and French. Makine provides his own annotations: (p. 188) "wondering why that glint in the grass, that colored, scented, living brilliance,

sometimes existed in the masculine, and had a crunchy, fragile, crystalline identity, imposed , it seemed, by one of its names, tsvetok;

and was sometimes enveloped in a velvety, feltlike, and feminine aura, becoming une fleur."

How is Russia presented?

If France is the preciously artificial, Russia is the robustly natural. It is hard to get a handle on Russia, not because it is so complicated, but just because it is so big and sprawling that it includes a bit of almost anything you can imagine. Walt Whitman (not a bad poet, incidentally, for non-urban Russia) could have had Russia in mind when he declaimed "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." (Whitman, Song of Myself) Russia does convey that sort of ambivalent message. Alex shares the puzzled outrage: "This country is monstrous! Evil, suffering, torture, self-mutilation are the favorite pastimes of its inhabitants. And still I love? I love it for its absurdity. For its monstrosities." (p. 144) But he doesn't always love it. Every now and then he gets to feeling smug that he is not like the rest of his countrymen. "How fortunate . . . to have only one view of life. Not to see as I see . . ." (p. 39) Out of atheistic Russia we get a perfect echo of the biblical Pharisee (Luke 18:11). Russia is admirable, finally, as a remarkable fact of nature, not as a construction of man. It is presented not so much a victor as a survivor -- too big to ever lose. Its size is what proved too much for Napoleon and Hitler; it was what Charlotte observed in her wartime flight from Russia's western frontier: "This country is too big to conquer. The silence of this boundless plain will resist their bombs." (p. 96) Russia will endure because it is beyond the human scale -- it will outlast those who are trying to shape it. The Russian scale will dictate terms to those who live there. Makine gives us two useful reflections on what it means to live there. First, Alex, horrified by all the suffering and all the evil contained in what is still his country, says that to be a Russian is to be "living very mundanely on the edge of the abyss." (p. 147) Charlotte's mother, Albertine, provides a second, still more fatalistic insight: "That's how it is in this country. You can come in easily but you never get out. . . ." (p. 57)

FURTHER READING:

James Hilton, Lost Horizon (1936).
Like Alex, the characters in Lost Horizon are introduced to a society very different (and arguably better) than anything they have experienced. They have to make the decision whether gaining the new is worth losing the old. Shangri-La works as the French Atlantis.

Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia (1977).
Generally classified as a Young Adult novel, this is a sensitive look at young people, their friendships, and how they deal with tragedy. Terabithia is the imaginary world to which the novel's young friends withdraw when the real world doesn't offer them much. Like the Paris that Alex pieces together in Siberia, Terabithia is "a bookish country, a country composed of words" (p. 228), and it offers the promise (if not the reality) of escape. [This book is classified at the Children's level in the NoveList database.]

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (1922).
The classic French mingling of memory and imagination. Proust was an acknowledged influence upon Makine, who when asked what kind of things he had read in his Russian youth, said that he had used that time to read, along with much else, "all of Proust."

Robert Ward, Grace: A Fictional Memoir (1998).
A young boy idolizes his grandmother. The author, instead of writing a predictable memoir, chooses to write a work of fiction. A remarkably similar approach to Makine's, the big difference being that it winds up in Baltimore instead of Siberia, and the political friction is provided by the Civil Rights Movement instead of communism.

Vladimir Nabokov, The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (1995).
Another expatriate Russian whose literary reputation was built in a language that was not native to him. This collection features a number of stories set in Russia, or with Russian characters abroad. The story "Sounds" especially evokes a sense of Russia as a mythical country.

Book Discussion Guide developed by Joe Sedey, a member of the staff of the St. Louis Public Library, St. Louis, Missouri.
2000




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