Thursday, 25 March 2010

'What would you like?'

The Concert Ticket

by Olga Grushin

I read Olga Grushin's first novel, The Dream Life Of Sukhanov, after reading one positive review (in the TLS I believe) and after seeing the book itself. The picture on the left does nothing to convey the tactile pleasure of the heavy cartridge-style paper used on the dust-jacket and the visual gratification of the watercolour title. The real treat was reading the book itself of course. Anatoly Sukhanov, as the editor of Russia's leading art periodical, enjoys a privileged life. He and his family live in a posh flat in Moscow, attending art exhibitions and cultural premieres, all the result of his toeing of the party aesthetic line. But Sukhanov himself was once a promising artist and his creative side breaks through in dream sequences and flashbacks, his cosy life slowly unravelling in a glorious creative explosion. The language was heady and evocative, the politics worn lightly, and the sympathy for the main character well marshalled.

So I have been eagerly awaiting her second novel, even filling in the time before it arrived with a preparatory read which provided some context. Whilst it is published as The Concert Ticket here, American readers will find it as The Line, a title which more closely echoes that precedent, Vladimir Sorokin's The Queue. The difference is interesting as each title draws two of the main themes of the novel to the foreground. The line itself, as Sorokin showed, is almost a character on its own, becoming a malevolent presence in Grushin's imagining. The concert ticket means something different to the three main characters, and indeed to everyone in the line, but I'm getting ahead of myself there, and you know how us Brits feel about queue jumping.

Grushin has taken a real event as her springboard: the return of Stravinsky in 1962, his first visit to the country he had left half a century earlier, in order to conduct a one-off concert. The line for tickets for these rare event began a year before and developed into a 'complex social system', with people working together to maintain their place in the line. It is a similar cohesiveness to that in Sorokin's novel but Grushin creates a far more antagonistic atmosphere, with people competing in a hostile environment and a serious toll to be paid by many of the line's members.

At the centre of her story are a single family, each member with their own reason for wanting the ticket, and with only one ticket allowed per person in the queue those competing interests will fracture the family apart but also in many ways bring it closer together. For Anna, before she even knows what the queue is for, there is the promise of something important at the kiosk, something...

...to make her and her family happier, or lend some simple beauty to her everyday life, or perhaps even infuse her entire existence, working into its minute cracks and voids, knitting it into a tighter, brighter fuller, fabric.

For her husband Sergei, there is the possibility of passion with a woman with whom he shares the night shift. His stumbling attempts to woo consisting first of conversation and companionship as he walks her home each night.

...after a soft goodbye, she would run up the stairs to her door, her ascending steps - one, two, three, the fourth cut off by the door bang - inscribing itself on the black sheet of quiet as the notes of some elusive score he strove to decipher, and retain in his memory, so that he could keep at least a small part of it with him while he waited impatiently for the next evening, for the next walk...

Their son Alexander, who is slowly exempting himself from school and any hope for the future, finds a more dangerous kind of companionship amongst the motley crew of petty criminals and con-artists that haunt the night.

...he suddenly understood just how much he loved these nights - loved the brightening chill in the air past midnight, the freedom of going nowhere, doing nothing, existing in some secret, timeless pocket of invisibility, some private allotment of night, alongside these gruff, dangerous men; staying awake, alert, alive, while in identical, ugly buildings all through the city, nighttime windows quickened with identical, ugly lives moving like cutout puppets on dozens of lit stages in dozens of predictable plays, until one after another the windows, overripe, fell to the ground and were swallowed by darkness...

There is a fourth member of the family, Anna's mother, who for many years has been a silent presence in the house. Behind that silence there is of course a story to be told and in one of the novel's more successful stylistic conceits, the promise of the concert ticket acts like the uncorking of a bottle and in her night-time monologue, mis-heard by the family as a neighbour's radio or conversation, a past of which none of them could have guessed comes flowing out. Moments like these which inhabit the area between sleeping and waking, drunkenness and sobriety, madness and sanity, are Grushin's strength, much like the 'dream life' she created for Sukhanov. But where that first novel had a single character for us to follow, the triple focus of this book makes her job that little bit harder. There is something unsatisfying about the motivations of both Anna and Sergei, as though there isn't enough space in the book to fully deal with either. The surprise is that their son Alexander ends up becoming the most fully formed character, perhaps because his age means that he undergoes the most development whilst those around him disintegrate.

Alexander felt the room widening, quite as if its walls had dissolved into new windows through which another, astonishing world was entering in large luminous pieces. It was a world he had sensed before in the old man's presence - a world he had fully expected to give up only an hour earlier - a place where no object was meaningless, no action inconsequential, where every word, every turn, every note led to some adventure resonating deep within one's soul; but this time, he felt that he himself had bee admitted to the story.

That collapse of people's lives I mentioned is caused by the malign influence I mentioned earlier, contained within the queue. Before she even takes her place in the line Anna is told by an old man that the kiosk at the end of it will be selling whatever it is you most desire, something which is almost true even when the people know exactly what does lie at the end. It isn't really the concert ticket that people are queuing for, or that they are willing to sacrifice so much for. It is the action that counts.

The people of the line had grown silent, weary, furtive glances at the faceless officials who prowled the side-walks, yet at the same time, Anna sensed, thee had been, since the beginning of fall , since the fall of darkness, an imperceptible drawing closer, quite as if their communal, increasingly dangerous wait had rubbed their souls raw, had made their emotions transparent, had marked them all with an invisible sign of shared time, of shared expectation, so that every once in a while they could turn to one another with the kind of heedless, naked urgency and talk as they would talk only to their families, and perhaps not even to them, united by fear and hope and trust under black, pregnant skies.


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