So classical in form and so precise in execution are Andreï Makine's novels of Russia that one half expects their author to be a kind of glittering book-world fossil, as old as the 20th century, wizened from a lifetime of unpacking the tragic ironies of communism in gorgeously intricate prose miniatures.
Makine has been compared to Stendhal, Tolstoy and Proust; our best historians of the Soviet era queue up to pronounce him one of the finest living writers on the period; and he is regularly tipped to be among the contenders for the next Nobel in literature.
Makine's own life, it turns out, has been almost as extraordinary as any one might invent for him. Born in Siberia in 1957 and raised partly in an orphanage and partly by his French-speaking grandmother, he served with the Russian military in Angola and Afghanistan, where he was blown up in a jeep and spent three weeks in a coma. Back in Russia, he studied to be a teacher.
He came to Paris, where he began to write novels in French. In 1997, a lean-first period, in which he was forced to pretend that his books were translations from Russian originals before French publishers would agree to put them out, came to an end when his second novel, Le testament français, won both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. Since then, he has turned out 18 novels, all dealing with aspects of the Soviet experience and incorporating aspects of his own life to an extent that has been much debated in French literary circles.
In Brief Loves that Live Forever, the 12th of his novels to be published in English, he uses a sequence of short stories to explore the dangerously shifting ground between nostalgia for the bad old Russia of one's childhood and disenchantment with the new.
Writing, as he often does, of the gap between the old and the new Russia is an effort, he says, "to be neither black nor white about it. I try to understand how Russia has evolved, and what it has lost."
The project consumes almost all his time in Paris, where he lives, industrious and alone. "If it's not total engagement," he says seriously, "it's not worth it. At a certain level you have to be a kamikaze. I see writers doing publicity tours and I think, don't be in such a hurry. The success you expect will come, but you're trying to prostitute yourself now, running round the TV shows trying to push your books, writing badly."
"People talk about the Goncourt and I say, look, if I hadn't won it, I'd still be writing quietly away. You may say the prizes turned my life around: not at all. I was teaching, I could live for a week very modestly after giving a single lesson. If it had taken 30 years I would have carried right on, writing my books, unknown. For another 30 years."
Fiction: Brief Loves That Live Forever
MacLehose Press, pbk, 176 pages, £12