Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



In association with Amazon.it - Italia

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Life of an Unknown Man

Andreï Makine

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Life of an Unknown Man

Title: The Life of an Unknown Man
Author: Andreï Makine
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 194 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Life of an Unknown Man - US
The Life of an Unknown Man - UK
The Life of an Unknown Man - Canada
La vie d'un homme inconnu - Canada
The Life of an Unknown Man - India
La vie d'un homme inconnu - France
Vida de un desconocido - España
  • French title: La vie d'un homme inconnu
  • Translated by Geoffrey Strachan

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : very fine writing and story-telling; doesn't entirely work as a novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 11/10/2010 John Thornhill
The Guardian . 1/10/2010 Helen Dunmore
The Independent . 15/10/2010 James Urquhart
The Observer A- 23/10/2010 Viv Groskop
The Spectator . 23/10/2010 Charlotte Hobson
TLS A+ 21/1/2011 David Evans

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "(D)azzling and hauntingly elegiac. (...) Makine’s novel is a meditation on how people can find freedom even when they lose all control of their destiny and discover happiness even when confronted with appalling suffering. Conversely, it is about how those who live in prosperous, modern democracies can be cursed by excessive choice and expectations and the temptations of celebrity." - John Thornhill, Financial Times

  • "The Life of an Unknown Man does not always have the imaginative power to embody its ideas, but it is nevertheless a bold and eloquent novel." - Helen Dunmore, The Guardian

  • "The Life of an Unknown Man may lack some of the fierce elegance of Makine's best work. But it reiterates the author's passionate attachment to Russia, and his determination to celebrate individual humanity while excoriating the oppressive politics that have shaped our present reality." - James Urquhart, The Independent

  • "Like all his work, this novel has a wonderful flavour of a contemporary Chekhov with a splash of Proust. Not that Makine is an intimidating writer: he has a sense of humour and a keen self-awareness. (...) If the novel has one flaw, it's in its differing tones. Shutov goes from self-pity to accepting his place in the grand scheme of things. (...) What starts out as an intimate account bursts out into something more ambitious and universal. Ultimately it's a haunting story, beautifully told." - Viv Groskop, The Observer

  • "It would be easy to dismiss this as a retrogressive position, a dubious nostalgia for a time that both Shutov and Makine went into exile to avoid. Makine’s judgment of contemporary Russia is swift and sweeping. Yet there is truth in the idea that a remarkable and precious element of the Russian spirit has been -- not lost, exactly, but disregarded and dismissed in the stampede towards the free market." - Charlotte Hobson, The Spectator

  • "In any case, this masterful novel resists easy answers. It finds Makine at the height of his powers (...) Rich, artful, and affecting, The Life of an Unknown Man secures Makine’s place in the first rank of European novelists." - David Evans, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       The Life of an Unknown Man begins as the story of Shutov, a writer originally from the Soviet Union now living -- and enjoying modest success -- in France. By now -- in 2003 --, however, his shtick is growing old, even to the much younger Léa, who adoringly attached herself to him but is now detaching herself and moving on:

Literary Paris fascinated her and Shutov seemed like a well-established writer. The illusion lasted less than a year. The time it took for a young woman from the provinces to get her bearings and realize that this man was, in fact, no more than a marginal figure. And even his past as a dissident, which in the old days gave Shutov a certain aura, was becoming a flaw, or at least a sign of how prehistoric he was: just think, a dissident from the eighties of the previous century, an opposition figure exiled from a country that had since been erased from all the maps !
       What's a Soviet relic to do ? Well, why not head back to Russia ? Shutov digs out the address book he brought into exile with him, and it's: "A whole lapsed world Shutov is trying to bring back to life" -- most notably in seeking out old flame Yana.
       Needless to say, you can't go home again. Shutov lands back in St. Petersburg -- just in time for the grand tercentenary celebrations -- but, yes, things have changed. Truth remains malleable ("Historians rewrite the truth every day"), consumerism has run rampant, culture is being hollowed out by an embrace of "American-style know-how" (so that they're now: "selling books like vacuum cleaners").
To these young Russians no book is forbidden now. They travel the world (Vlad has just come back from Boston), they are well fed, well educated, free of complexes ... And yet they lack something ...
       Of course, Shutov hasn't exactly been keeping up with the times in general: he bombs on TV when he's invited on a show in France, and he admits to not even owning a computer, and still writing everything by hand (before typing it out ...). He is a man from a different era; he is also a man whose formative years were spent in a different -- and now, as he'll come to realize, almost entirely lost -- (socio-political-)culture: as he admits before venturing back: "I'm not Russian, Léa. I'm Soviet"
       Yana, on the other hand, has adapted right along with the times, and is right in the thick of everything, busy and efficient. In the house that she is renovating -- and where Shutov stays -- there's still one more tenant to be dislodged, an old, silent invalid who will be picked up soon. But on his last night in the house it's Shutov who keeps an eye on him -- and to whom the old man, who is named Volsky, opens up, telling his story.
       So The Life of an Unknown Man contains a (long life-)story within a story, as Volsky recounts surviving the siege of Leningrad, and his great love, and the time after the war and how they were split up and sent off to camps under Stalin, and then what came after. A saga from different, Soviet times, a life lived under the most difficult of circumstances -- and yet Volsky still managed to make something of it. Apparently just what Shutov needs to hear.
       There's no question that Makine can write: Shutov envies Chekhov -- "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 complains that: "These days you have to write differently ...", but Makine shows there are still traditional ways of getting by, and The Life of an Unknown Man is an impressive prose-work, its chapters and episodes beautifully crafted and presented. But that doesn't quite make a novel, and Makine's simple Russian-doll construction -- with one very long life-story nestled inside the narrative -- doesn't quite work; just because there are two compelling (in very different ways) life-tales here doesn't make for a completely satisfying work of fiction. Aside from feeling much too forced -- and also, rather unsettlingly, too nostalgic for Soviet (hard) times and the good that can come from suffering --, it leaves The Life of an Unknown Man a book that is neither fish nor fowl, a two-in-one novel that is, in many respects, very good, but still doesn't quite add up.
       Worthwhile, but not a complete success.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 May 2012

- Return to top of the page -


The Life of an Unknown Man: Reviews: Andreï Makine: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Andreï Makine was born in the Soviet Union in 1957 and has lived in France since 1987.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2012 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links