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The Life of an Unknown Man: A Novel [Paperback]

Andre´ Makine , Geoffrey Strachan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

June 5 2012 Lannan Translation Selection (Graywolf Paperback)
A deeply moving meditation on memory, history, love, and art by the author of Dreams of My Russian Summers
 
In The Life of an Unknown Man, Andreï Makine explores what truly matters in life through the prism of Russia's past and present.
 
Shutov, a disenchanted writer, revisits St. Petersburg after twenty years of exile in Paris, hoping to recapture his youth. Instead, he meets Volsky, an old man who tells him his extraordinary story: of surviving the siege of Leningrad, the march on Berlin, and Stalin's purges, and of a transcendent love affair. Volsky's life is an inspiration to Shutov -- because for all that he suffered, he knew great happiness. This depth of feeling stands in sharp contrast to the empty lives Shutov encounters in the new Russia, and to his own life, that of just another unknown man . . .

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"It is impossible to exaggerate the power of this short, unbearably poignant novel. It is both brutal and lyrical. Makine consciously invokes Chekhov but his grasp of history is positively Tolstoy-like in scale. I can't think of a writer who would be a more deserving recipient of the Nobel literature prize." --Mail on Sunday
 
"Makine's laconic, sardonic portrait of the new Russia is laced with fury . . . a bold and eloquent novel." --The Guardian
 
"Like all his work, this novel has a wonderful flavor of a contemporary Chekhov with a splash of Proust. . . . What starts out an intimate account bursts out into something more ambitious and universal. Ultimately it's a haunting story, beautifully told." --The Observer
 
"Seamlessly translated by Geoffrey Strachan, Makine's novel explores the attempt of two 'ordinary' people to transcend suffering and find life's essential meaning. It is difficult to write without sentimentality about such a subject, but Makine's intelligence and truthfulness dismiss banality." --Pamela Norris, Literary Review
 
"Told with an intimacy made potent by Makine's lyrical, spare prose and Strachan's lucid translation. . . reconnects both the reader and the protagonist with Russia's blood soaked history, to startling effect." --The Financial Times
 
"Thrilling . . . Makine's most beautiful novel since [Dreams of My Russian Summers]." --Le Figaro

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Leonard Fleisig TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I'll be looking at the moon
But I'll be seeing you."

There comes a moment in Andrei Makine's wonderfully rendered "The Life of an Unknown Man" when Billie Holliday's rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You" popped into my head. Two days after finishing the book the story and the song lingers, entangled in my mind like the memory of a lost love.

I've been an admirer of Makine's since reading his Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer, and Music of a Life: A Novel (among others). So, when I saw that his new book was available in the U.K. I decided not to wait until the U.S. publication and ordered it in the U.K. I'm glad I didn't wait.

Makine, for those not familiar with his work, was born in the Soviet Union in 1958. He emigrated to France as a young man immediately assumed the role of a struggling writer. Written in French (Makine learned French as a student in the USSR) his manuscripts were rejected by every publisher in Paris. He spent many nights sleeping in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Finally, out of desperation, he told one publisher that the manuscript of his first book was a translation from the Russian. It was immediately accepted for publication. Makine's work for me combines the grace and elegance of the best French writers and the sad dark soul of the best Russian writers.

The story unfolds slowly. Shutov is a middle-aged Russian/Soviet émigré writer living in Paris. His fame and his writing have diminished since his exile and, as the story opens his fling with a decades-younger French woman has just ended. Depressed, his thoughts turn to his early life in Leningrad and the girl he left behind. On an impulse he gets a visa, decides to return to Leningrad find this girl and arrives just as the newly re-christened St.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "For a short moment, he lived the beginning of a life that he would have never believed possible on this earth." Nov. 14 2010
By Friederike Knabe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
The life-sustaining power of love and music is a central theme in Andrei Makine's most recent novel, "The Life of an Unknown Man". Nostalgia for a happier and innocent past has overcome fifty-something writer Ivan Choutov, a former Soviet dissident, living for the last twenty years in Paris. His work and life appear to be at a standstill. His much younger girlfriend is moving out, leaving him to ponder his own young love from his past life in Leningrad. Overcoming his long-held reluctance to reconnect with his hometown, he returns to St. Petersburg. And here the real story, the story within a story, emerges. Makine, acknowledged master of exploring the innermost nooks and pathways of the human heart, has reached a new level of depths with this most powerful, deeply stirring and far reaching exploration of the human condition set against the backdrop of historical times of hardship and dangers, but also of endurance, determination and hope.

Revisiting St. Petersburg after twenty years is a shock to Choutov. There is little that reminds him of the place he knew, the Russia he had been dreaming of: "a life cradled by beloved poems; a park under the golden canopy of leaves, a woman, walking in silence, like the heroine of a poem." His own youth's heroine, the girl of his melancholy dreams, has grown into a modern business woman with no time for the "old" romantic visitor. The depiction of the modern St. Petersburg, vibrant, youthful, fast-paced and a bit crazy - seemingly more "westernized" than the cities of Western Europe - is convincingly realistic. Wandering the streets of the festive city, Choutov, however, feels increasingly alienated and discouraged. Where to go from here, where to find some inner peace and, above all, his emotional home? Have Russians like him lost more with the break-up of the Soviet Union than they bargained for? How to bring together this new Russia with the essence of the Russian soul and identity?

A chance encounter on his last evening in the city, while not necessarily bringing easy answers or solutions, opens a new path for Choutov to see his world and that of his city with a deeper understanding and appreciation. The second narrative that the meeting enables takes Choutov and the reader back to the devastating times of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad(1941-44), and, after a lull in the aftermath of the defeat of the German army, to the resumption of the Stalinist purges. The heart wrenching stories of the struggle for survival of the local population is epitomized by the story of a young couple, Volski and Mila. They stand for the hundreds of thousands who were lost in those troubling times, an "unknown man" and an "unknown woman".

Without wanting to reveal much of the extraordinary account that forms the centre of Makine's novel, one of many deeply affecting scenarios stands for many: Volski and Mila, both musicians, have joined a small choir that sings and plays all over the encircled city to bring some lighter moments to the starving and despairing. One day they are asked to sing close to the frontline, to support the local defence forces, determined yet poorly equipped, and to confuse the Germans on the other side of the Neva river...

Makine's ability to speak in the voice of Volski, to recount the deep scars to body and mind, to reflect on his life's ups and downs, is extraordinary. Music brings solace and calms the soul. The emotional depth of his character and his overwhelming belief in the power of love, that is often closely connected to the music on his lips or in his heart, makes Volski a profound human being who will linger in the reader's mind long after the book is closed. For me, having read a number or Makine's novels, both in English and the original French, "The Life of an Unknown Man" stands out as one of his most personal and intimate, yet powerful in his painting of the broader canvass of a very significant and painful period of recent Russian history. I read the novel in French; all translations are mine. [Friederike Knabe]
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Why should the Gulag be a criterion of good literature? And suffering a measure of authenticity?" June 12 2012
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
(4.5 stars) Ivan Shutov, a Russian author/critic in his fifties, now living in Paris, is brooding about his difficulty getting his work published, about the current lack of real romance in his life, and about the incipient departure of his lover, a young woman who has fed his ego for two and a half years. Impatient and self-centered, he has been indifferent to her own needs, unable to recognize that she is a real person with her own ideas. Instead, he sees her in terms of his creative writing, looking at her and their relationship from afar - as if he were a participant in a fictional romantic scene which includes her as a character. He believes that his mistake in the relationship has been "his desire to love Lea as one loves a poem."

Focusing on the attitudes and beliefs of four time periods, author Andrei Makine analyzes what it means to be human; whether an individual is important in his own right or only as part of a community; what makes life worth living; why humans sacrifice their lives for people and causes they love; and how and why individuals express themselves in art, literature, or music. Shutov's favorite authors, Chekhov and Tolstoy, whom he often quotes, are from the early twentieth century, yet they symbolize for Shutov the values he longs for, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, something Makine illustrates in Parts I and II. Georgy Lvovich, known as Volsky, a character with whom Shutov has a life-changing experience in Parts III and IV, has survived the Siege of Leningrad in the 1940s, then has had to deal with the terrible aftermath of the war - the communist crackdowns and mass arrests in the `fifties and `sixties. Shutov himself grew up in the mid-`fifties in Leningrad, but still seems ignorant of the traumas others suffered in the decade before him.

Makine's focus for half the novel on the Siege of Leningrad in 1941 and its aftermath, shows the intensity and passion of life then, the horrors of starvation and war, and the values that emerge from these crises. Volsky and his theatre troupe, all literally starving, use their art to keep people from dying of despair, singing at the front while living on only one slice of bread a day. Many are killed, but what they learn from their confrontation with death as they sing of life inspires Shutov to think in new directions. Volsky's love story, both romantic and realistic, shows Shutov for the first time what love can mean.

Though the structure lays out a clear direction for Makine's themes and the characters' growth, the novel sometimes feels a bit out of balance. The two sections about Volsky are more insightful and important than the sections about Shutov, who is not a very sympathetic character. Romantic elements sometimes impinge on the mood and tempo and can feel sentimental, and the ironies and symbols sometimes become a bit too obvious. The death of a white foal leads to some unfortunate moralizing, and some characters, at times, tell the reader what to think after their points are already clear. These are minor distractions, however, in this powerfully and passionately drawn novel which presents well developed themes about life, death, individuality, and the arts, and does so in original and thought-provoking ways.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Suffering and Serenity July 12 2011
By Ralph Blumenau - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
WARNING: Some readers may feel I have given away too much of the story.

Ivan Shutov was a Russian dissident writer of the early 1980s; he is now living in Paris, aged around 50. He constantly translates every experience into a literary phrase, often from Russian literature. He is old enough to be the father of his lover Léa who has just left him for someone of her own age after one of their many quarrels about literature, in which he had become increasingly aggressive in dismissing the modern literature she loves. Even when she is moved by the tragedy of a Chekhov story which he loves, he feels compelled to savage her emotion, claiming that these tragedies are trivial compared with what he has witnessed in Soviet Russia and as a soldier in Afghanistan. He could not help making such savage comments even though he knew they were destroying their relationship. When, inevitably, she left him, but he missed her desperately.

Life in Paris was now so empty for him that, twenty years after he had left, he returned to Russia, now that the Soviet Union had collapsed. He has tracked down Yana, who had been a fellow-student with whom he had had "a brief undeclared love affair".

The Paris part of the novel was not all that easy to read - the emotions were all rather complex; ideally the allusions to Russian literature require some prior knowledge of it. But now there is more clarity in the story-telling.

Of course Shutov is returning to a Russia utterly transformed, with materialism rampant. Yana is not the thick-set matron he had expected her to turn into, but a svelte, glamorous, vulgar nouveau-riche, who has just acquired a number of workers' flats she has turned into a vast apartment. The previous occupants have been moved out, all except for an old paraplegic, a former singer but now supposedly dumb, who will be moved to some old people's home as soon as the current celebrations of St Petersburg's tercentenary are over. St Petersburg en fŕte is a grotesque picture of dissolute decadence, and Shutov feels more of an outsider here then he had felt in Paris. When Yana's son Vlad boasts of marketing American-style mass down-market magazines, Shutov thinks of the dissident literature in Soviet times which could be both life-enhancing and life-threatening.

Yana and Vlad ask Shutov to keep and eye on the old paraplegic while they are out of the house - they are worried that he might do himself a mischief before he is moved out of what was his home. Shutov agrees to look after him. The old man, Georgy Lvovich Volsky, is not dumb at all: the television, with its rolling programme of extravagances of every kind, prompts him to speak.

We now have the story of Volsky and of his beloved Mina - the graphic story of the siege of Leningrad, where thousands were dying of hunger and where starving singers, musicians and actors defiantly performed to starving audiences in the city and on the front line. (The importance of music and of acting in taking people in helping people to forget extreme suffering is a theme that will recur again later in the novel.) Later Volsky took part in the battles of Stalingrad and of Kursk (a powerful description of the latter).

After the war Volsky and Mina set up a little home on what was the front line outside Leningrad, and for a while they live unobtrusively and happily there, thankful to have survived the war and delighting in nature. Mina teaches children in a nearby school and falls foul of the authorities for teaching them the songs the soldiers sang during the war instead of the patriotic communist songs that are now required, and the couple come under surveillance from state security agents. Soon they are arrested and sent to different camps. Volsky had suffered so much in the war that he saw the cruel life in the camp in perspective, displayed astonishing serenity, and was comforted by the thought that Mila was probably seeing the same beautiful sky as he was.

He suffers another blow after he has been released from the camp. That blow, too, he eventually absorbs, as he does the repeated encounters with mean-minded officials in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. He quietly does good where he can, enriches the lives of orphaned children; but eventually, with his strength breaking down, he ends up in this room from which he is about to be evicted by Yana. Still he is not bitter, and there is a touching and elegiac passage before he is finally moved out.

Shutov had already felt alienated from the new Russia; now he feels he cannot bear to stay there any longer, and he realizes how, despite his own tribulations when he had been living in his native land, how deeply attached he was to it, with all its suffering, endurance, love, nature. Life there was real, not febrile, meretricious and superficial as it is in Russia now. The life he had led in Paris, too, seems false to him. He knows what his task must be now: to write about the life of this Unknown Man.

Makine spares us none of the horror that Russians had endured during and after the war; one has to admires Volsky's almost oriental serenity and lack of hatred (for the Germans, for brutal interrogating officers, for Yana and her like, all of whom he actually pities). The book talks about the things that really matter, about how it is possible with their help to rise above the most terrible suffering and also to be aloof from the temptations of materialism.

All this is true enough; so I feel guilty about my feeling that there is something verging on the sentimental about this message.
3.0 out of 5 stars Such a sad story. Beautifully written but so vivid July 4 2014
By Daniel Rubens, Janine Rubens - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Such a sad story. Beautifully written but so vivid. I could feel and see the images as if I was there in Rissia.
1.0 out of 5 stars Worse than dull May 8 2014
By Guy Randell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Well, to be honest I only made it through about half this book. Otherwise I might have rated it even lower.

"Dull" doesn't begin to express the annoying repetition, the tedium, the annoying repetition, the stream of consciousness( did I mention annoying repetition?). It's like a Russian writer trying to write like a French writer. Wait; that's what it is.

Better it should have been an unknown book, with an unknown title, by an unknown author, sold to an unknown reader, who was not me.
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