The Life of an Unknown Man, by Andreï Makine, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, Sceptre RRP£16.99, 256 pages
Enthusiastic reviewers have compared the novels of the Russian-French writer Andreï Makine to the works of such master stylists as Chekhov, Nabokov, Turgenev or Proust, and there can be no denying that much of the writing in Makine’s latest novel, The Life of an Unknown Man, is dazzling and hauntingly elegiac.
Drawing on his Russian heritage (he was born in Krasnoyarsk in 1957), Makine writes powerfully about past and modern Russia, reflecting the brutality of its history and the resilience of its people.
Yet having lived in Paris since 1987, Makine is strongly influenced by French literary tradition, writing in the language and delighting in the language’s philosophical playfulness.
On occasion, Makine’s writing can be a stimulating fusion of these two great literary traditions and is a pleasure to read; at other times, though, it turns into a somewhat cloying mixture of vodka and cheese. Certainly, to include Makine in the same company as the pantheon of literary gods listed above is to be generous, or at least premature.
All books, it is sometimes said, contain their own criticism and that is true with this novel too. In a discussion on literature, one of the novel’s protagonists criticises Nabokov for being clever rather than brilliant, for loving words for their own sake rather than for what they say. “He writes like a butterfly collector: he catches a beautiful insect, kills it with formalin, impales it on a pin. And he does the same thing with words.” The same could be said of Makine. His authorial presence often weighs too heavily in this novel, distorting the clarity of thought or the narrative flow.
The story recounts the life of an émigré Russian novelist called Shutov, depressed at the failure of a love affair in Paris and increasingly disillusioned with the materialism of the modern world. Stung by his young lover’s taunts that his surname is derived from the Russian word for joke, he returns to St Petersburg tormented by doubts about his self-worth.
In an echo of a Chekhov tale, Shutov tries to recreate meaning for his life after 20 years in exile by tracking down one of his first loves in St Petersburg, tumbling into the moral morass of contemporary Russia as he does so.
But his own self-pity is thrown into stark relief by a chance encounter with Volsky, a dying pensioner and survivor of famine, war and repression who lived through what the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called that most carnivorous of centuries. Trapped in a besieged Leningrad in 1941, where 2m people waited to die in an “architectural fairground” with only sunshine to eat, Volsky found his voice and purpose by singing in an operatic troupe and then fighting for his country.
In spite of the many horrors he experiences and the privations he endures, this “unknown man” finds true love with Mila, the sweetheart of his youth, and derives happiness from the sheer beauty of the world. “Their joy came from the things one does not possess, from what other people had abandoned or scorned,” Makine writes.
His suffering stands in sharp rebuke to the self-indulgence of Shutov, who has enjoyed far more favourable times. One is reminded of the lament that concludes King Lear: “We that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
Makine’s novel is a meditation on how people can find freedom even when they lose all control of their destiny and discover happiness even when confronted with appalling suffering. Conversely, it is about how those who live in prosperous, modern democracies can be cursed by excessive choice and expectations and the temptations of celebrity.
For the author, this novel marks a striking departure from some of his earlier work, such as Le Testament Français, which was described as a love-letter to France. This breakthrough novel, depicting the violence of Soviet life and the almost mythical allure of France, won him wild admiration in Paris. It carried off two of France’s most prestigious prizes, the Prix Goncourt and Prix Medicis, in 1995. But, unsurprisingly perhaps, the novel was coolly received in Russia.
Since then, Makine’s thinking and his heavily autobiographical writing have evolved. He appears to have rediscovered some of the spiritual undercurrents of Russia and the material disappointments of France.
John Thornhill is the FT’s news editor and a former Moscow correspondent