To follow her highly praised first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov—which tells the story of a Surrealist artist who, in an act of artistic self-betrayal, becomes a Soviet art functionary, only to find his world upended years later under glasnost—Olga Grushin set out to write a novel about a Russian émigré living in America who then returns to Russia. But after struggling through about 100 pages, Grushin abandoned the project.
“Hopefully my second novel jinx was the one that didn’t work out,” Grushin quips during a call to her home outside Washington, D.C. Grushin was born in Moscow in 1971 and came to the U.S. to attend Emory University in 1989. Her Alabama-born husband is an attorney, and they have two children—a boy and a girl—whose births coincided with the completion of each of Grushin’s novels. “Are we going to see a third child for the third novel?” Grushin says, laughing. “No, this is not a literary trend.”
While struggling with her novel in progress, Grushin happened upon “this story of how Igor Stravinsky, who was 80 at the time, was invited to return to his homeland for the first time in 50 years. People, when they learned of it, lined up and waited to buy tickets literally for a whole year. I was amazed by that story. The line itself became this complex social world with its own rules, its own leaders and its own social networks. As I kept struggling with my novel, I kept returning to this story again and again. I kept asking myself what kind of lives these people would have outside the line to make this possible. What would make them stand in line for a year to hear a two-hour concert? I was haunted by this episode. I kept thinking about it and I started writing little notes to myself. Finally I realized that this was the book that I actually wanted to write.”
Thus Grushin’s extraordinary novel, The Line, was born. But it is a mistake to think of this as a historical novel in any way, shape or form. Grushin says she spent no more than a day or two reading about the historical episode that so intrigued her. Her invented famous composer, Igor Selinsky, is more an object of hopes and fantasies about life in a better place than a physical presence. Even her vividly rendered setting is as much Kafkaesque dreamscape as it is Soviet bloc housing. “I didn’t want to make it too Russian,” she says. “I wanted to go in a different direction. I set out to write a more universal tale about hoping and waiting and dreaming about changing your life.”
The Line centers on the lives of four family members, each with different hopes for the future and different, sometimes conflicting reasons for being in line for tickets. One of the marvels of the novel is how Grushin, a great descriptive writer and a masterful psychologist, gradually brings these family members—and the people in line around them—into sharp, resonant relief. “I thought of each character as being like a mirror, so that you get different reflections of the characters, in snippets from different points of view,” she says. “In the beginning of the book each character is in some ways completely alone, cut off. You get bits of the same story told from different points of view and it’s a completely different story. But the line is a sort of transformative presence. I didn’t conceive of some pat transformation. I wanted something deeper. The line is this sort of gift, people being transformed by their common weight, their hopes, their coming together.”
The novel’s success in providing a depth of experience about such an unlikely, even dreary subject as a ticket line is a testament not only to Grushin’s large talent but to her sustained control of her art. “I think it was E.L. Doctorow who said that when he writes a novel he knows the departure point and the destination point but the rest is like driving at night with your headlights lighting up just a small portion of the road,” Grushin says. “For me it’s not at all like that. I have to have an outline. I had a little more of a smudged outline in this case than with my first novel because I wanted to explore a different way of writing, also quite consciously. In the first novel I was maybe a little too logical and rigid in my approach. It was the first book and I was nervous about letting myself write more freely. With this book the concept was more fluid.”
Grushin says she now begins her work day writing in a notebook in a local café; when the piece begins to flow, she returns home, types what she has written into a computer and goes on from there. Since she arrived in the U.S. and became serious about publishing fiction, Grushin has written in English. “I do strive for a kind of merging of the Russian and the English in my use of language,” she says. “I do feel it’s important for me to preserve the Russian cadences and feel to my work. On the other hand I live here and I’ve been writing in English for 20 years, which has obviously changed me.
“I grew up reading every conceivable writer. I had this sense of entering this great ocean of literature within which there are maybe little bays—the bay of Russian literature, the sea of American literature—but basically it was this one water. I don’t see myself as either Russian or American, really. I see myself more as just a writer of the world.”
In The Line, Olga Grushin shows herself to be one extraordinarily capable swimmer in the world’s great ocean of literature.
Review of Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov