There is a tune, for which I’d gladly part
With all Rossini, Weber, and Mozart,
An ancient air, whose languid melody
Has secret charms that speak only to me*…
We’ve all had them, those dreams whose intimations of life are so strong that we can see, smell, and embrace someone we love and long for just as they slip from the grasp of our light sleep. We wake up, dizzy and lump throated, frantic to bring the dream back, to sink into it again and to possess that person for one moment longer, knowing that the trance was sweetest just as it was lost.
The Franco-Russian author Andreï Makine captures this moment when ”secret charms” speak in his 1995 novel Dreams of My Russian Summers. I read the novel with mixed expectations, having no knowledge of the author but an interest in his 2006 novel, The Woman Who Waited after reading this review. My utter lack of familiarity with Proust, particularly with À la recherche du temps perdu, caused me initially to doubt my adequacy to approach Makine’s novel of remembrance. However when I sat down with Dreams of My Russian Summers, all doubts and fears were swept aside by the beauty of the language as translated by Geoffrey Strachan.
Dreams of My Russian Summers is as difficult to encapsulate as that achingly sought spectre who appears then vanishes in troubled sleep. Makine jumps back and forth in time to tell the coming of age story of a Russian boy who spends summers with his grandmother, Charlotte, in her apartment near the steppe outside the Siberian village of Saranza. From her flower potted balcony, Charlotte entrances the unnamed boy and his sister with stories of France, her homeland, creating for them a gilded world of tragedy and romance that begins with the 1899 death of French president Félix Faure in apoplectic orgasm.
The death of Félix Faure made me aware of my age: I was thirteen; I guessed what ”dying in the arms of a woman” meant, and from now on I could be spoken to on such subjects. Furthermore, the courage and total absence of hypocrisy in Charlotte’s story demonstrated what I already knew: she was not a grandmother like the others. No Russian babushka would have ventured on such a discussion with her grandson. In this freedom of expression I sensed an unaccustomed perception of the body, of love, of relationships between man and woman — a mysterious ”French outlook.”
With the narrator’s entrée to French lore, his imaginative powers are unfettered from their Russian beginnings within the bleak concrete blocks of Soviet housing. Nightly spellbound by his grandmother’s tantalizingly descriptive summer tales of France, the young boy feels himself drawn to her native tongue and its ability to portray emotion. He’s captivated in such a way that his worldview suddenly bursts into being, alive with empathy for persons both fictional and corporeal.
The fatal love that had caused the heart of the president to burst reshaped the France that I carried inside me. This came mainly from storybooks. But on that memorable evening the literary characters who rubbed shoulders on its highways seemed to be awakening after a long sleep…Without being able to explain it myself, I felt as if I heard a string vibrating in the soul of this woman (referring to Emma Bovary). My own heart sang out in unison. A smiling voice that came from Charlotte’s stories prompted me: ”Emma Bovary, c’est moi!”
The burgeoning empathy that the narrator describes suddenly enfolds not only his beloveds, but the unsavory and brutal as well. The boy is able to perceive motivations that are exceedingly noble and those that are much less so. He feels his grandmother’s fear and ultimate bravery in wartime. He keens intimately the excitement of his friend Pashka upon hearing a poem by Victor Hugo. Simultaneously, the now lustful teenage boy understands the desire for power embodied in stories he hears about Lavrenti Beria, the despotic head of Stalin’s secret police and serial rapist who trawled the streets of Moscow for prey in his limousine.
And I hated myself! For I could not help admiring this stalker of women. Yes, within me there was someone who — with dread, with repulsion, with shame — reveled in the power of the man with the pince-nez. All women belonged to him! He cruised around the vastness of Moscow as if in the middle of a harem. And what fascinated me most was his indifference. He had no need to be loved, he did not care what the women he chose might feel toward him. He selected a woman, desired her, possessed her the same day. Then forgot her. And all the cries, lamentations, sobs, groans, supplications, and curses that he had occasion to hear were for him only spices that added to the savor of the rape.
I lost consciousness at the start of my fourth sleepless night. Just before fainting, I felt I had grasped the fevered thought of one of those raped women, who must have realized that whatever happened she would not be allowed to leave. This thought, which cut through her enforced intoxication, her pain, her disgust, resounded in my head and threw me to the ground.
In such manner, the boy grapples with his newfound powers of empathy. All the while, as the narrative shifts and flashes forward and back, both the boy and his grandmother grow older. Now a young man with his own emerging, complex history, the narrator searches for the right tools to wield in the world as an imaginer and empathizer.
This language-tool, employed, sharpened, perfected, was, I told myself, nothing other than literary composition. I had already sensed that the anecdotes about France with which I had amused my fellow pupils throughout that year were the first draft for this novelist’s language: had I not manipulated it to please sometimes the ”proletarians” and sometimes the ”aesthetes”? Literature was now revealed as being perpetual amazement at the flow of words into which the world dissolved. French, my grandmaternal tongue, was, I saw now, the supreme language of amazement.
All of which sent a pang through me and caused me to feel the need to rent a Parisian garret and reside forevermore among words, wine, words, words! Then, I looked round the office lunchroom. The jig was up. The reverie was ended; clients would be waiting. As someone who considers herself the most selfish of readers, Makine’s journey of emotional involvement with fiction and her human counterparts affected me deeply, though the novel must be experienced in its entirety for its languorous qualities to seep in. No amount of searching for the best passages can find the wispy loved one. To my unpardonable delight, none of the dog earing I lavished upon my lovely hardback edition can target exactly the right phrases. Dreams of My Russian Summers is the first book in a long time that I instantly began to reread after finishing it, only to quit in exasperation, as though I had tried to hold someone that last, flickering moment before they vanished forever, as though I had awakened from a delectable dream and was caught trying to return.