Like most human beings, most novelists are neither outstandingly good nor outstandingly bad. This poses a problem for reviewers. A good novelist can write interestingly about mediocre characters; but even a superlative reviewer may find it difficult to write interestingly about mediocre novels. In consequence, reviewers all too often rush to the extremes of proclaiming a novel either a stinker or a masterpiece. In my own time, reviewers have called Anthony Powell the English Proust and C. P. Snow the English Balzac, and compared Olivia Manning’s two wartime trilogies to War and Peace. When, some 50 years ago, I published a novel entitled The Widow, my publisher rang up in a state of rare excitement to tell me that a now forgotten reviewer had referred to me as ‘Gibbon’s successor’. Even if I had been a historian, I should have been appalled by such a preposterous but no doubt well-intentioned accolade. Hyperbole and the derision that follows it can ultimately do the writer no good at all.
All this is a preamble to saying that, when I describe Andre• Makine as a great writer, this is no journalistic exaggeration but my wholly sincere estimate of a man of prodigious gifts. In his combination of clarity, concision, tenderness and elegiac lyricism, he is the heir to Ivan Bunin, the first Russian ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Like Bunin, Makine was born and brought up in Russia, and became an ZmigrZ in France. Fortunately, perhaps because, unlike Bunin, he was still a young man, he then did not suffer Bunin’s creative and psychological decline, but won the Priz Goncourt, the Prix MZdicis and the Grand Prix RTL-Lire all within the space of less than 15 years.
The first remarkable thing about A Life’s Music is that, though so short – at 106 pages no more than a novella – it tells the reader so much both about its central character, Alexe•, in particular, and about Homo sovieticus in general – of whom Alexe• is so tragic, valiant and lucky an example. The capriciousness of luck, which somehow, against all the odds, allows Alexe• to survive the banishment of his parents to the Gulag, a dramatic switch of identity to avoid joining them, the enforced abandonment of his nascent career as a concert pianist, and the horrors of the last war, is a thread constantly glinting through the tunnel-like darkness of the existence through which he gropes his stumbling way.
The opening provides an astonishing tour de force of description. The narrator, who might be Makine, finds himself marooned in a remote railway station in the heart of the Urals, waiting, with innumerable other people, for a train that never comes. Here, he thinks, ‘in this superabundance of space