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Book review: Mikhail Shishkin, 'Calligraphy Lesson'

‘Only art is capable of creating moments where our “unreal”, mortal time intersects with its “real” counterpart,’ says Shishkin.

 

‘Literature in modern Russia,’ writes historian Orlando Figes in A People’s Tragedy, his vast chronicle of the Russian Revolutions, ‘was always a surrogate for politics.’ ‘No other literature,’ he adds, ‘gave such prominence to the social novel’.

Indeed, the disciplinary distinction between politico-historical and novelistic narratives, which tends in the West to be regarded as more or less clear-cut, has been interrogated, and made fluid, by writers from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn. And yet, if overt reflections on politics and society have often been implanted into literary texts by Russian and Soviet authors, self-consciously apolitical writing, emancipated from questions of ideology or industrial production, also took on a decidedly political character during the Soviet period: the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, for instance, was deemed particularly pernicious by the authorities precisely because of its capacity to break free and rise above contemporary events, prising readers from the grip of paltry Soviet reality and transporting them into a linguistic Elsewhere. 

The selection of texts in Calligraphy Lesson, the first anthology of Mikhail Shishkin’s short prose in English translation, straddles the divide between these extremes. Complex and allusive, the title story, which explores a court secretary’s metaphysical escape out of the violence of his world and into the pure domain of letters, graphic signifiers that ‘[clamp] an unraveling world together’, is juxtaposed with autobiographical – and at times overtly politicised – narratives such as “The Half-Belt Overcoat” and “Nabokov’s Inkblot”. Meanwhile, the anthology’s final story, “In a Boat Scratched on a Wall”, takes us beyond fiction and into the realm of the philosophical essay – justifying the back-cover hybrid categorisation of Calligraphy Lesson as ‘Fiction/Creative Nonfiction’. In this respect, the collection stands at the nexus between Shishkin’s novelistic output and his increasingly outspoken forays into the political arena, several of which have been published in the New York Times and the Guardian, among other British and American papers. 

Art as redemption  

‘Current politics will never feature in my novels,’ Shishkin insists in an email interview with me. ‘Yesterday’s newspaper is a metaphor for death. Art, on the other hand, is an ark – you can take only what’s of utmost importance on board with you.

It’s really very simple. You’re staring at the Mona Lisa, say. And she’s staring back at you. And your gazes intersect in a space where time no longer exists. Or, listening to a piece of music that alighted in someone’s head three hundred years ago, you realise at a certain moment that the music has sprung from a place where there’s no death, and that, for the duration of that moment, it has rendered you, too, slightly immortal. Only art is capable of creating moments where our ‘unreal’, mortal time intersects with its ‘real’ counterpart, where the very notion of temporality, and therefore of death, does not exist. This is why we listen to music, pore over paintings, read books. We’re in search of such moments.’   

Shishkin’s understanding of artistic practice owes much, it would appear, to the pan-European Romantic idea of art as a kind of redemptive project that offers us instants, however provisional or fleeting, of secular salvation. In Calligraphy Lesson, he celebrates art’s – and, more specifically, language’s – capacity to elevate us to the time-annihilating plateau that Gogol, in Diary of a Madman, dubbed the ‘86th of Marchember’: ‘A sheet of ordinary paper breaks free and rises above events! Its perfection immediately yields an alienation, a hostility even, toward all that exists, toward nature itself, as if another, higher world, a world of harmony, had wrested this space from that kingdom of worms!’

Another story, ‘The Blind Musician’, is explicitly ‘set’ on the ‘teenth of Martober’ – that is, nowhen and nowhere, Russian names and occasional toponyms notwithstanding.       

He celebrates language’s capacity to elevate us to the time-annihilating plateau

Another Russia

Nevertheless, Shishkin, who notoriously refused to represent a ‘Russia of impostors’ at Book Expo America 2013, also concedes that ‘it’s impossible not to talk about what’s currently happening’ in the country, proclaiming that ‘the existence of another Russia, beyond the Russia of Putin, is important for me.

Though none of the texts featured in the anthology directly challenge, or even explicitly reference, the present Kremlin regime (and this in contrast to much of Shishkin’s recent output, including an essay accompanying Meinrad Schade’s photographs of war’s lingering presence throughout the former Soviet Union in the bilingual photography book War Without War/Krieg Ohne Krieg), the author’s political stance is unmistakeable, as is his ambivalence vis-à-vis the very notion of Russianness: ‘It’s an age-old question, and one that still hasn’t been answered: if you love your Motherland, should you wish her victory or defeat?’ asks the narrator of “The Half-Belt Overcoat”. ‘It’s still not completely clear where the Motherland ends and the regime begins, so entangled have they become.’

‘The very persistence of notions such as “homeland” and “fatherland”,’ asserts sociologist Hilary Pilkington, citing Steven Grosby in Migration, Displacement and Identity in Post-Soviet Russia, points to ‘the linking of individual identity to a territorially bounded collective identity via a perceived biological connectedness’. But Shishkin’s “Motherland” isn’t territorially bounded. (He would agree, I suspect, with Douglas Hofstadter’s eloquent suggestion in Le Ton beau de Marot that a ‘Russian’s soul transcends Russia’s soil,’ and that ‘there is no unsunderable unity of the physical land of Russia and the abstraction that is the core of Russian-ness.’)

A country not to be found on any map, it’s a linguistically and culturally determined entity that can persist in the hearts and minds of Russians far beyond the geographic borders of the nation state – in the author’s adopted country of Switzerland, for instance, where his native tongue, together with ‘the letters [he’d] traced out [in Moscow],’ was suddenly defamiliarised, made alien, upon arrival in the canton of Zurich: ‘A combination of Russian sounds that was so obvious and natural on Malaya Dmitrovka, with the Chekhov Casino raging outside, can’t get through customs here. […] Here, any Russian word sounds all wrong and means something completely different’ (“In a Boat Scratched on a Wall”). 

‘When I left Russia,’ Shishkin explains, ‘I lost the language I wanted to lose’

This linguistic defamiliarisation, as made clear elsewhere in the same essay, proves politically significant. ‘When I left Russia,’ Shishkin explains, ‘I lost the language I wanted to lose’ – namely, the language that has always served as an instrument for the propagation of what he calls ‘totalitarian consciousness’: ‘Russian reality developed a language of unbridled power and abasement. […] In a country that lives by an unwritten but distinct law – the weakest’s place is by the slop bucket – the dialect suits the reality. Words rape. Words abuse.’ It is by means of this language that the state ‘wag[es] war against its own people’ (“Of Saucepans and Star-Showers”). It is by means of this language, too, that the regime is constructing inflammatory Us-versus-Them narratives of negative self-definition on state-owned media.

Conversely, Shishkin’s Russia, a porous, trans-border region of the psyche, is underpinned by the ‘non-totalitarian’ language of literature, and has taken refuge in the ‘squiggles of an exotic alphabet. Russia has gathered all its goods and chattel and taken up residence in a font.’

Citizens of Russian Culture 

The Russian phrase nositel’ yazyka (literally ‘bearer of language’) is usually rendered as ‘native speaker’, and tends to present few problems in translation; nositel’ kultury (‘bearer of culture”), on the other hand, has no common idiomatic equivalent in English, and suggests a deep-rooted ‘fluency’ in the cultural vernacular of a particular grouping.

Just as the Cyrillic alphabet may be ‘borne away’ into external or internal emigration (and ‘internal’ here, of course, means a retreat into one’s own mind), so too may other attributes of culture. ‘Russians have concocted another Russia for themselves,’ Shishkin tells me in our email interview. ‘It’s a country of Russian culture, replete with Russian literature, music and art, but devoid of Gulags, denunciations, “Cargo 200” [the sardonic term for army coffins returning from foreign wars], “Crimea-is-ours”, and so forth.’ Interestingly and provocatively, he speaks of this ‘other Russia’ in terms of citizenship, declaring himself ‘proud to be a citizen of this country, a citizen of Russian culture. My compatriots there,’ he adds, ‘are Rachmaninoff and Tolstoy, and not Beria and Putin.’

Shishkin is the inheritor of a Russian literary tradition and, simultaneously, of a pan-European one

There has been much talk in the last two decades of a ‘post-Soviet Russian identity’, of the so-called homo post-sovieticus, and Calligraphy Lesson sheds little light on such notions, if not altogether calling them into doubt.

Shishkin is the inheritor of a Russian literary tradition and, simultaneously, of a pan-European one; the pieces featured here must be read, first and foremost, as literary creations, regardless of their status as fiction or otherwise, and irrespective of what they reveal of the author’s political stance.

Real literature always serves as a conduit for mutual comprehension – a conduit that transcends international borders and invariably does more than politics in fostering understanding of the Other. Nor must we overlook a second such conduit: that of translation, both as art and as industry. (Calligraphy Lesson has emerged into the light of day thanks to the efforts of Dallas-based indie publisher Deep Vellum.)

At a time of almost unprecedented tension between Russia and the West, and with mainstream print publishing under threat in both the former and the latter (though for markedly different reasons), I suspect that grassroots publishing enterprises on both sides of the divide will play a crucial part in maintaining trans-border dialogue.

Mikhail Shishkin's The Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, Leo Shtutin, Sylvia Maizell and Mariya Bashkatova is published by Deep Vellum.
About the author

Leo completed a D.Phil in French literature at Merton College, Oxford in 2014 and is now working as a freelance translator from Russian and French, principally for online publications such as The Calvert Journal. His D.Phil thesis is currently under review at OUP.

Read On

Mikhail Shishkin. Maidenhair, translated by Marian Schwartz (Open Letter, 2012).

Deep Vellum Publishing


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