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The Life of an Unknown Man

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  554 Ratings  ·  78 Reviews
A deeply moving meditation on memory, history, love, and art by the author of Dreams of My Russian Summers
In The Life of an Unknown Man, Andreï Makine explores what truly matters in life through the prism of Russia's past and present.
Shutov, a disenchanted writer, revisits St. Petersburg after twenty years of exile in Paris, hoping to recapture his youth. Inste
Paperback, 194 pages
Published June 5th 2012 by Graywolf Press (first published January 2009)
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Nov 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Russophiles, romantics
Shelves: russia, novels

The Life of An Unknown Man begins with the story of Shutov, a 50-something Russian émigré writer living in Paris, who is painfully aware that he is:

“… no more than a marginal figure. And even his past as a dissident, which in the old days had given 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!”


Friederike Knabe
Nov 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: french-lit
The life-sustaining power of love and music is a central theme in Andrei Makine's most recent novel, "The Life of an Unknown Man". Nostalgia for a happier and innocent past has overcome fifty-something writer Ivan Choutov, a former Soviet dissident, living for the last twenty years in Paris. His work and life appear to be at a standstill. His much younger girlfriend is moving out, leaving him to ponder his own young love from his past life in Leningrad. Overcoming his long-held reluctance to rec ...more
Apr 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: russia
It's always possible to turn to Andrei Makine for short, deceptively simple books that leave you thinking about deeper topics for days (and rereading deftly crafted lines that resonate with meaning). The Life of an Unknown Man was no different. The main theme of the book is the ignorance of the past (in the most literal sense of the term--ignoring it) as a criticism of today's society, which places so much emphasis on empty distractions.

The book's storyline is wrapped in layers that are breache
Aug 20, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Life of an Unknown Man is by a Russian emigré who writes in French but it’s a powerful evocation of contemporary Russian life, and how its tragic history lies beneath the glitzy surface of the new Russia.

According to Wikipedia:

Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature. Fyodor Dostoyevsky in particular is noted for exploring suffering in works such as Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. Christianity and Christian symbolism are also imp
Gumble's Yard
Jan 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
Excellent book. The weakest sections are the ones in the modern world – the Paris scenes reminiscent of Milan Kundera at his worst (and even with a character of the author’s age who manages to attract a woman thirty years younger). Much of the rest of the book covers ground about the Siege of Leningrad familiar from other novels but with Makine’s usual vivid imagery (with a particular emphasis here on Proustian style remembrance of images and especially music) and with the real strength that the ...more
I picked this up on a whim, but was hugely impressed, as the book is both moving and entertaining. The story starts as an examination of the emptiness of the life of the hero, a middle aged Russian writer in Paris. The story gets going once the action moves to Russia, and the core of the book is the account of an old man he meets there, a survivor of the siege of Leningrad, which is described in some detail and contrasted with the vacuity of the lifestyles of the younger Russians he meets.
Nov 29, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: random
amazing book, I ended up crying. A really moving love story.
Mar 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I must admit I didn't know Andrei Makine. This book was quite recently published in my language by my favorite publishing house, I read the summary on the back cover and felt that would be something interesting. It turned out to be an excellent reading which I fully enjoyed. Really good contemporary literature, these kind of books I love to read. It has all these features I admire in books, human characters, strong emotions, great background, nice language. And its size is rather short one, some ...more
Susanna Rautio
Mar 27, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Andreï Makine, yksi lempikirjailijoistani, miksen ole lukenut häntä vuosiin!

Melkein petyin, kun kirjan aloitti turhamainen, keski-ikäinen, Pariisissa asustava venäläisemigrantti - wanna be -suuri kirjailija. Surkuhupaisa hahmo, mutta ei minkäänlaista syvyyttä tai ahdistusta.

No seurasihan sitä, nimittäin ahdistusta. Hetken mielijohteesta venäläiskirjailija Sutov palaa takaisin Pietariin, kaupunkiin, joka on kolmessakymmenessä vuodessa hylännyt historiansa, sivistyksensä ja syvällisyytensä. Mutta
Pat Pujolas
Mar 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: all-time-faves
just read this book for a second time, and i enjoyed it even more. in fact, this book just moved up in the ranks to my top five of all time. it's a perfect little novel, especially for writers and anyone seeking profound prose, the kind that lives on for decades, long after the author is gone. what's your definition of happiness? and love? and meaning? this novel will help you answer those questions. highest of recommends
Jan 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Get through the first third of the book and it opens out to be something far more important and far better written than it had seemed. Changes in the country, the people, the culture are part of it but it all ties together beautifully at the end. Must read more of him.
Michael Brown
Oct 22, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful book and extremely moving. it's a book of two halves and the first is harder work than the second, which is gripping and beautifully written.
Aug 18, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Un roman in care se marturiseste de ce tranzitia in vremurile actuale dupa contextul comunist este imposibil de indurat de catre memoriile unor figuri care indeamna la alienare si resemnare.
Jun 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: russian
Tourists visiting St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2003 – the year of the city’s tricentennial – would have faced an abundance of beauty: the pastel-colored baroque buildings of Rastrelli, plazas and canals, lovely vistas of the Neva River, palaces and churches and museum, narrow streets once walked by Gogol and Dostoevsky, the Summer Garden where young lovers stroll, and the Bronze Horseman statue of city founder Peter the Great, immortalized in verse by Pushkin.
They could be forgiven for not being a
Jul 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: russia
I received this book through Goodreads giveaways.

This book is recommended for fans of Russian literature and books on war. If you liked City of Thieves by David Benioff, you might like this novel as well.

Basically, this book is about two people: Ivan Shutov and a man named Volsky. Shutov is a disillusioned unsuccessful Russian writer, living in France, who is getting over a breakup. Shutov, feeling depressed and nostalgic, flees back to St. Petersburg, only to discover that the Soviet Russia of
Feb 15, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Makine is one of the best writers in the French language. This novel is uneven, and is not his best – but it does contain some amazingly beautiful passages, and there are haunting chapters that do capture the immensity of what has been the Russian tragedy during the XXth century. There are two stories, in this book. The first concerns a Russian émigré in Paris, who sees himself as a failure, and decides, on a whim, to go back to Russia for a little bit: he hopes to reconnect with a past love. Th ...more
I have enjoyed the novels of Andrei Makine since reading "Dreams of my Russian Summers" many years ago. His ability to capture the essence of a moment or an experience does, in my estimation, put him nearly on par with the later stories of Anton Chekhov. This newest offering is particularly poignant and relevant to the times.The character Shutov is a survivor of Communism, the Siege of Leningrad, the Hell on earth that was Kursk, and finally--the modern, banal and superficial society that is the ...more
Feb 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book of two halves. In the first half the main character is living in Paris. He is a middle aged Russian writer who's relationship with a much younger French woman has ended and this causes his to reflect upon a love affair of his youth. He decides to try to find his old love and, on making contact, to visit her in St Petersberg where she still lives.

The second half of the book covers this visit but in particular the meeting between the main character and an elderly Russian man. The ol
Patricia O'Brien
This book had the most infuriating beginning - there is nothing more pathetic than a middle aged man mooning over past loves and I very nearly gave up on it. However, after about 100 pages the REAL story begins of the tale of the enigmatic mute who lives in a back room. What follows is a very moving account of the reality of Russia during the war together with an uplifting study of the power of music.
Nov 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
The story of a Russian who has been living in France, but returns to post-communist Russia. He encounters a man who shares his story of living through Stalin and what it was like during the war. I really enjoyed this read. It is such a different perspective of anything I've ever read about Russia. Good, strong writing. Highly recommend.
Jul 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Het eerst stuk van deze roman is niet zo bijzonder en dus even doorbijten, maar zodra het verhaal van Volski verteld wordt, laat het je geen moment meer los. Een geweldig goed geschreven boek over de kracht van muziek en het overlevingsmechanisme van mensen en het negeren en wegstoppen en wegkijken van het gruwelijke verleden van de Sovjet-Unie.
Feb 24, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: recensies
Sjoetov, een Russische schrijver die in de steek is gelaten door zijn veel jongere vriendin, keert na twintig jaar in Frankrijk te hebben geleefd, terug naar Rusland. Hij zoekt Jana op, de vrouw waarmee hij dertig jaar geleden in Sint-Petersburg (toen Leningrad) door een herfstig park heeft gewandeld. Hij droomt ervan terug te keren naar dat idyllische moment, maar alles is veranderd. Sint-Petersburg viert op uitbundige wijze het driehonderdjarige bestaan en Jana heeft het druk met haar werk én ...more
Oct 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
Author Andreï Makine is Russian-born but has lived in France since the 1980s and writes in French. His main character in this novel, Ivan Shutov, is also a Russian born writer who has lived in France since the 80s, although unlike his creator, Shutov is a rather unsuccessful writer. The novel, which is in 5 parts, opens with Shutov feeling distinctly sorry for himself having been dumped by his much younger French girlfriend. After a lot of self-indulgent whining (which I think the author introdu ...more
Mar 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
Poignantly desparate and dichotomous landscape of pain and fortitude, this deeply poetic journey is a great read. The use of reflection of life in the chasms of ice and the sky, the cyclical nature of life's journey with repeat characters and recurring trials, the truth in song and the truth in death. You will not finish any chapter in this book without a deeply profound nugget of truth to savor.

Shutov's journey to the new and confusing Russia, is somewhat oversimplified and terse, but then I re
Sep 29, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: in-translation
This novel started out slowly, following the life of Shutov, a Russian writer living in Paris who goes back to Russia for the first time in twenty years. I didn't actually care much about Shutov, so it took me a while to get through his story. He was amusing at times and it was interesting seeing the changes that have occurred in Russia through his eyes, but I didn't care what happened to him. Then Shutov gets put in charge of watching over an old Russian man on his last night before he gets sen ...more
Tamsin Burford
Jul 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
The Life of an Unknown Man is a book of three parts, all quite distinct but interrelated. It is a small novel which is in no way small in stature or feel, or in the emotions it describes or evinces from the reader.

The first part was the most difficult to get to grips with. Shutov, a writer without much success or celebrity, examines his most recent relationship break up whilst harking back to his youth and to his creative in heritance. He constantly refers back to Checkov. I found this part of t
După cum ne-a obișnuit de atâta vreme, Andreï Makine nu se dezminte nici în Viața unui bărbat necunoscut, ci ne pune, o dată în plus, în fața unor mari iubiri. Pe lângă peisajul obișnuit, cel al bărbatului sărac și melancolic care se retrage din viața publică într-o izbă pentru a se regăsi după ce a fost mutilat sufletește de război, unde se îndrăgostește de o femeie care stă în așteptarea lipsită de fasoane a vieții viețuite fără de speranță, zi după zi, în acest roman găsim și un alt personaj, ...more
Full Stop
Jun 12, 2014 added it
Shelves: summer-2012

Review by Helen Stuhr-Rommereim

In interviews, Russian émigré author Andreï Makine often describes his life as the ascetic existence of an intellectual from an era past: living alone in a small, empty apartment; drinking excessive amounts of coffee; writing novels on an electric typewriter in the dead of night. Shutov, the protagonist of Makine’s most recent novel, The Life of an Unknown Man — his twelfth — leads a life strikingly similar to Makine’s, with
Sep 30, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Andreï Makine’s latest novel The Life of an Unknown Man, is breathtaking in its humanity and tenderness. It uncovers Russia’s past in layers, as a disillusioned exile returns home to a city hurtling towards the future.

Shutov, a middle-aged writer of middling success, finds his life being dismantled as his lover, the much younger Léa, moves her books and furniture from his modest Paris flat. He’s a failure, a joke. Even his name, Léa reminds him, means ‘clown’. You’re only half-right, he throws b
Jun 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I came across this book at a local library. I was drawn to it because of the picture of the Cathedral on the Spilt Blood in St-Petersburg (Russia) on the cover. Formerly known as Leningrad, the city where I grew up in. I was curious to read it as the book had been written by someone who had lived in Soviet Russia and in 1987 emigrated to France asking for political protection. I was really impressed that he wrote his books in French. The copy I picked up from the library was the English translat ...more
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Andreï Makine was born in Krasnoyarsk, Soviet Union on 10 September 1957 and grew up in city of Penza, a provincial town about 440 miles south-east of Moscow. As a boy, having acquired familiarity with France and its language from his French-born grandmother (it is not certain whether Makine had a French grandmother; in later interviews he claimed to have learnt French from a friend), he wrote poe ...more
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“This happiness rendered absurd men's desire to dominate, to kill, to possess, thought Volsky. For neither Mila nor he possessed anything. Their joy came from the things one does not possess, from what other people had abandoned or scorned. But, above all, this sunset, this scent of warm bark, these clouds above the young trees in the graveyard, these belonged to everybody!” 4 likes
“They did not speak, surprised to see how simple, almost poor, happiness could be, yes, materially poor and yet so abundant.” 4 likes
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