Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 3, 1997

French Department
hosts best-selling
author: Confronting
The Living

Leslie Rice
News and Information
U. S. audiences will have the rare chance this week to hear Andrei Makine, author of the extraordinary and moving book Dreams of My Russian Summers, read from his best-selling novel at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 5, in the Donovan Room, 113 Gilman Hall on the Homewood campus. The reading by the Russian-born French author is free and sponsored by the Department of French and the French Ministry of Culture.

Makine's prize-winning novel of exile and memory tells the story of a Russian boy growing up in the harsh realities of Soviet life in the 1960s and 1970s and his love for his French grandmother. It is through her memories of suffering and of a larger, freer world, that he gathers the emotional capacity to surmount a grim, authoritarian Soviet life. Makine's portrait of a young boy, whose fascination with France makes him an outsider in the Soviet Union and eventually an unsettled traveler in Europe, will resonate with anyone who has ever felt part of two cultures without belonging to either.

His visit to Hopkins is a little out of the ordinary for the French Department, says chairman Stephen Nichols. Through a partnership with the French Ministry of Culture, Makine is one of three leading French writers to visit Hopkins. Two weeks ago, celebrated French short story writer Pierre Michon gave a reading, and on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at 5 p.m. in 336 Gilman Hall, French columnist and journalist Nina Sutton will read.

"So many writers that the French Department deals with are long dead; that's why it is so exciting for us and our students to come across a celebrated French writer who is actually alive and writing," Nichols says. "It's a wonderful opportunity for students to be able both to hear from the writer and to learn firsthand what the writing experience is like. Even with our dead writers there are so many times when we as readers would give anything to be able to ask them questions. With Andrei Makine, Pierre Michon and Nina Sutton, they will be able to ask the questions."

Every year, the French Ministry of Culture helps facilitate tours through the United States of French artists, writers and performers as a way of offering Americans a glimpse of modern French culture. Johns Hopkins has had a close relationship with the French government since 1993 when Johns Hopkins became one of six universities in the country to be designated, and partly funded by the French Parliament, as a Center for Excellence in French Studies.

Of the three French writers visiting this year, Makine is the best-known. He is the first non-French native to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, which in this country is akin to winning in one year both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. His writings have been compared by European critics to those of Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust and Boris Pasternak. In August 1997, Dreams of My Russian Summers was released in English in the United States and has since remained a best-seller.

Makine was born in Siberia in 1957 and grew up in Novgorod, on the tributary of the Volga. After earning his doctorate from Moscow University, he was appointed professor of literature at The Novgorod Institute and worked as an editor for the magazine Litterature moderne a l'etranger.

On a study trip to Paris in 1987, Makine was granted political asylum, and he has lived in the French capital ever since. After his emigration, he began to pursue writing fiction in the French language but found that Paris publishing houses would only accept his novels after he falsely told them the works had been translated from Russian to French. France, at the time, was having something of a love affair with Russian writers. As Dreams of My Russian Summers was about to be published, Makine's editor asked him to submit the "original" Russian version, of which there was none. It is said that Makine spent a handful of manic days and nights hastily rewriting the book in Russian to keep up his ruse.

During his Wednesday visit, listeners will get to hear Makine read in French, as a translator reads in English.

"Though that approach might seem a little stilted, it can actually be very seamlessly done," said Patrice Blousin, of the French Embassy who is arranging Makine's weeklong book tour. "In fact, we've found that audiences very much enjoy being able to hear a reading in the author's native tongue and being able to understand it in English at the same time."

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