The Life of an Unknown Man

by Andrei Makine

Paperback, 194 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $15 | purchase

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The Life of an Unknown Man
Author
Andrei Makine

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Makine's latest follows disillusioned Soviet-born author Ivan Shutov as he returns to Russia after decades as an expat. Translated by Geoffrey Strachan.

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Excerpt: The Life Of An Unkown Man

One evening they amused themselves by hurtling down a snow-covered hill on a toboggan. The cold lashed them in the face, a fine cloud of hoarfrost blurred their vision, and at the most thrilling moment of the descent, the young man seated behind her whispered, "I love you, Nadenka." Mingled with the whistling of the wind and the loud roar of the runners, his murmured remark was barely audible. A declaration? The gusting of the snow flurry? Panting, their hearts laid bare, they climbed back up the slope, plunged into a fresh descent and again that whisper, more discreet still, spoke of a love borne swiftly away on the tempest of white. I love you, Nadenka ...

"Goddamn Chekhov! In his day you could still write like that." Shutov pictures the scene: heady cold, the two timid lovers ... Nowadays they'd say it was over the top. They'd mock it as "sentimental rubbish." Hopelessly old fashioned. And yet it works! He judges it as a writer. Chekhov's touch is there: yes, the deadpan way he has of rescuing a subject anyone else could have drenched in sugary sentiment.

That "I love you, Nadenka," under cover of whirling snowflakes. It works.

He smiles wryly, used to being wary of his own enthusiasms. "It works all right, thanks to this bottle of whiskey," he tells himself, replenishing his glass. And also thanks to his lonely existence in this flat, where one of the occupants is a now absent young woman, Léa, who's coming tomorrow to collect her things, a pile of cardboard boxes beside the door. A tombstone that precludes any hope of love.

He pulls himself together, dreading the self-indulgent gloom that has dogged him for months. Lonely existence? A fine cliché! Paris is a city of loners . . . unless you're Hemingway painting the town red in the twenties. No, Chekhov's little device works because of the way his story slips forward in time: the two lovers part, settle down, have children, then meet again twenty years later in the same park and laughingly board a toboggan. And it happens all over again: the snowy breeze, the gleeful panic as they twist and turn, the strident screaming of the runners ... As they reach top speed the woman hears, "I love you. Nadenka ...," but this murmur is no more than distant music, protecting the secret of her youthful love.

So simple, yes, and yet so right, so evocative! They could still write like that in the good old days. No Freud, no postmodernism, no sex in every other sentence. And no worrying about what some little idiot with slicked-back hair on a television show will say about it. Which is why it still stands up. These days you have to write differently ...

Shutov gets up, staggers, stoops over Léa's things, picks up a book, opens it at random, gives a dry laugh. "The scent of roses? Forget it. What passes from the mistress's mouth to her lover's is saliva, along with a whole army of germs. It passes from the lover to his wife, from the wife to her baby, from the baby to its aunt, from the aunt, a waitress in a restaurant, to a customer whose soup she has spat in, from the customer to his wife, from his wife to her lover and thence to other mouths, so that every one of us is immersed in an ocean of intermingled saliva that binds us into one salivary commonwealth, a single moist, united humanity."

Revolting ... And it constitutes an entire credo. Formulated by a writer whom Léa idolizes and whom Shutov regards as drearily pretentious. A far cry from Chekhov. Nowadays a hero has to be neurotic, cynical, impatient to share his unsavory obsessions with us. Because his trouble is that his mother still has him on a leash, even when he makes love. That was how Léa's idol talked.

"If I'd known my mother," reflects Shutov, "I'd have spoken about her in my books." The thought revives in him the oldest memory of his life. A child sees a door closing: without knowing who it is that has just left, he senses it is someone he loves with all his tiny, still-mute being.

Beyond the windowpane, a May night, the fantastical collection of ancient facades marching up the slope of Ménilmontant. How often had he longed to talk to Léa about these moonlit rooftops! As if covered in snow. He had found no image to capture the poetry of this sleeping whiteness. Rooftops made nacreous by the moon? No, that's not it. In any case, what's the point of trying to find an evocative phrase? Léa has gone and this "dovecote" (which was what she used to call the converted attic) has reverted into being one of those oddly shaped dwellings that real estate agents advertise under the ambiguous heading: "Unusual property." Shutov's face twists into a grimace. "That's probably how they regard me. Unusual ..."

And yet ... He is the absolute prototype of a man ditched by a woman young enough to be his daughter. The plot for a lightweight novel in the French manner, a hundred pages of Parisian bed-hopping and gloom. All a love affair such as his would be worth.

He crouches down in the corner where Léa's things are piled up. "You're not a failure," she told him one day. "No. You're not even embittered. Not like one of those East Europeans, people like Cioran and the rest. You're just unlucky. Like someone ... like someone who ..." (she was searching for the word and he was wild with gratitude: she's understood me, I'm not a professional failure!) — "That's it. You're like an undetonated shell with its devastating power intact. You're an explosion still waiting to be heard."

In all his life no one had spoken to him like that. He had lived to the age of fifty, done a great deal of reading and study, experienced poverty and fleeting success, gone to war and come close to death, but it had taken a young Frenchwoman to explain to him what other people regarded as a wasted life. "An explosion still waiting to be heard ..." Which, in fact, is the common fate of all true artists. Very intelligent, that girl. Dear, good Léa. "My Léa ..."

Or else, maybe just a bitch who made use of this dovecote while she had nowhere else to stay and who's going off now because she found herself a "guy" who'll give her a roof over her head. A young "babe" setting out to conquer Paris, leaving Shutov to rot, an old madman obsessed with his search for an epithet to describe that lunar whiteness on the rooftops.

"I love you, Nadenka ..." He pours himself another whiskey, downs it with the grimace of one who has seen through the universal grubbiness of human nature, but, at the same time, with a writer's reflex, observes himself and finds his own posture false and exaggerated. No, there's no point in doing a bitter little Cioran number of his own. For whose benefit, in any case? Freed of the mask of disgust, his face softens, his eyes mist over. "I love you, Nadenka ..." If that story still works, Shutov tells himself, it's because I once knew a love like that. And that was ... yes, more than thirty years ago.

Except that it happened not in winter but beneath the translucent gold of autumn. The start of his studies in Leningrad, a feminine presence along pathways redolent of the acrid tang of dead leaves. A girl of whom the only trace now is a tenuous silhouette, the echo of a voice ...

The telephone rings. Shutov struggles out of the sofa's depths, stands—a drunken sailor on a ship's deck. The hope of hearing Léa sobers him up. His racing thoughts imagine a combination of excuses and backpedaling, which might enable them to get together again. He lifts the receiver, hears a dial tone, and then, on the other side of the wall, a vibrant male voice: his neighbor, an Australian student whose antipodean friends often telephone during the night. Since Léa's departure Shutov's ear is constantly cocked (telephone, footsteps on the stairs) and there is little sound insulation in his attic. His neighbor laughs with frank, healthy candor. To be a young Australian with fine white teeth, living amid the rooftops of Paris. Bliss!

Before sinking back into the depths of the sofa he wanders around to the corner where Léa's cardboard boxes are stacked. There is a bag of her clothes as well. The silk blouse he gave her ... One day they bathed in the sea, near Cassis—she got dressed and when she tossed her hair back in a swift movement to tie it up, her wet locks made a pattern of arabesques on the silk ... He has forgotten nothing, the fool. And these memories tear at his guts. No, at his eyelids, rather (make a note: the paint rips away your eyelids, making it impossible to banish the vision of the woman who has left you).

Damn those eyelids! Always his scribbler's mania. The conclusion is simpler that that: a young woman who breaks up with an aging man should never leave him alive. That's the truth! Léa should have knifed him, poisoned him, pushed him off that old stone bridge in the alpine village they visited one day. It would have been less inhuman that what she did. Less tormenting than the sleek softness of this silk. Yes, she should have killed him.

Which, in fact, is more or less what did happen.

Shutov remembers clearly the precise moment when the execution took place.

They often used to argue but with the theatrical violence of lovers, aware that the fiercest tirades will fade away at the first moans of pleasure. Shutov would rage against the poverty of contemporary literature. Léa would drum up a whole army of "living classics" to contradict him. He would thunder against writers castrated by political correctness. She would quote what she called a "brilliant" passage. (It was, among other things, about a son held on a leash mentally by his mother while he makes love to a woman.) They would loathe one another and, half an hour later, adore one another, and what was really important was the glow from the sunset coming in through the skylight, gilding Léa's skin and heightening a long scar on Shutov's shoulder.

For a long while he turned a blind eye. The tone of their arguments changed: Léa becoming less combative, he more virulent. He sensed a threat in this indifference and was now the only one still ranting and raving. Especially that evening when he had received one of his manuscripts back, rejected. That was when, picking her way between words, she had compared him to an explosion unable to make itself heard ... After they had split up Shutov would come to perceive that this had been the last flush of tenderness within her.

Then the dismantling began (beneath the windows of his attic workmen were removing some scaffolding: yet another stupid parallel, the writer's mania) and their union was taken apart as well, a story at a time. Léa came increasingly rarely to the dovecote, explaining her absences less and less, yawning and letting him shout himself hoarse.

"The awesome power of a woman no longer in love," thought Shutov, peering at himself in the mirror, feeling the crow's-feet around his eyes, promising to be more conciliatory, a little more devious about his own convictions, to come to terms with her "living classics" ... Then took to shouting again, invoking the sacred fire of the poets. In a word, making himself unbearable. For he was in love.

The assassination took place in a café. For ten minutes or so, Shutov made an effort to be nice, gentil, as the French say, then, unable to hold back, erupted ("an explosion!" he thought later, mocking himself). Everything came under fire: the wheeling and dealing of the book world, the fawning wordsmiths who suck up to the hoi polloi as well as the cultural elite, Léa herself ("The truth is you're just a groupie to that rotten little clique"), even the newspaper poking out of her bag. ("Go ahead! Lick the boots of your armchair socialists. Maybe they'll take you on as a stringer for their Paris Pravda") ... He felt ridiculous, knowing there was only one thing he should be asking her: do you still love me or not? But he dreaded her reply and clung to the memory of their arguments in the old days, which used to founder, lovingly in an embrace.

At first Léa succeeded in passing off the scene to the customers in the café as a somewhat lively but amicable squabble. Then came the moment when the acrimonious tone was no longer fooling anyone: a middle-aged gentleman was "bawling out" his girlfriend, who was, incidentally, far too young for him. Léa felt trapped. Get up and walk away? But she still had quite a lot of stuff to collect from this madman's attic and he was capable of throwing it all out into the street. Shutov would never know if such thoughts passed through her mind. Léa's face hardened. And with a bored expression she aimed her blow where she knew him to be defenseless.

"By the way, I've learned what your surname means in Russian ... ," she announced, taking advantage of the umpteenth coffee he was downing with a grimace.

Shutov pretended surprise but his face took on an evasive, almost guilty expression. He stammered, "Well, you know . . . There are several possible derivations ..."

Léa emitted a peal of laugher, a tinkling cascade of breaking glass. "No. Your name has only one meaning .." She kept him waiting, then in a firm, disdainful voice, let fly: "Shut means 'clown.' You know. A buffoon."

She got up and made her way to the exit without hurrying, so confident was she of the effect of her words. Stunned, Shutov watched her walking away, followed by amused glances from the other customers, then jumped up, ran to the door, and there, amid the passerby, yelled out in a voice whose pained tones astonished even himself: "Shut means a sad clown! Remember that! And this sad clown loved you ..."

The end of the sentence faded away into a cough. "Like the whispering of the young lover in Chekhov's story," it occurred to him one evening, as he was staring at the last of Léa's cardboard boxes, stacked there in the corner of the dovecote.

But that day, on his return from the café, for a long time he was incapable of thought, once more picturing a child in a row of other children, all dressed the same, a boy taking a step forward on hearing his name called and shouting, "Present," then resuming his place. They are lined up in front of the gray orphanage building and after the roll call they climb into a truck and go off to work amid muddy fields under a fine hail of icy tears. For the first time in his life the child perceives that this name, Shutov, is his only possession here on this earth, the only thing that makes him "present" in other people's eyes. A name he will always feel slightly ashamed of (that damn derivation!) but to which, however, he will be attached, for it is the name borne by that still-mute little being, who had seen the door closing on the person he loved most in all the world.

From The Life of an Unknown Man, by Andreï Makine, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan. Copyright 2012 by Andreï Makine and Geoffrey Strachan. Excerpted with permission from Graywolf Press.