No, I haven’t changed my focus to art history… And Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Booker-winning novel Матисс (Matisse) has little to do with Henri Matisse, at least at first glimpse. Describing Matisse is unusually challenging because it’s an ambitious, lumpy novel that uses complex, often poetic imagery and language to present social, existential, and metaphysical angles on post-Soviet Russia.
I think the best passages in Matisse take place underground, where Korolev really does become a king, wandering through subway tunnels and discovering hidden routes and stations. He loves the underground silence, piercing it by screaming when he enters new places. In one chilling scene, Korolev comes face to face with a passenger on a train; he also turns up civil defense sites and a model of the Kremlin.
Many elements in Matisse reminded me of other books. Vladimir Makanin’s Андеграунд (Underground) also focuses on an “intelligent” who lacks a permanent home or job. (This previous post shows other parallels, plus predecessors.) Makanin’s later Иsпуг (Fear), which I didn’t finish, covers similar territory and, like Matisse, includes an account of the October Events of 1993. The main characters in both Makanin books work as watchmen, as does Korolev for a short time.