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from the August 2015 issue

Mikhail Shishkin’s “Calligraphy Lesson”

Reviewed by Lucy Jones

Shishkin remains skeptical that language itself can cross borders—for example, in translation. For him, the problem lies in the incompatibility between translated texts and their readers.

The reason that he would not be attending the Book Expo America 2013, explained Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin in an open letter to the press two years ago, was that he did not want to be the voice of “a country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime [and] where the state is a pyramid of thieves.” Picking up on this theme in Calligraphy Lesson, his collection of short stories, several of which border on essays or memoirs, he repeatedly refers to the themes of criminality and prison—either as a metaphor for the Russian regime or actual incarcerations: in “The Half-Belt Overcoat” for example (the title a sly nod to Gogol’s famous story), in which Shishkin sandwiches memories of his adolescence and his mother between reflections on death, he refers to the school environment in which his mother works as “that prison system” and the Soviet Union in which she grew up as “a prison nation.” The setting of the titular “Calligraphy Lesson” is the lawcourt where a scribe has become obsessed with tracing letters for trial reports. His preoccupation with writing seems to be a defense mechanism to save him from going off the rails at news that his own son has been arrested and will be tried for murder. All the while, he appears to hold imaginary conversations in his head with figures from classic Russian literature. The title of the story “In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” refers to a man condemned to solitary confinement for life: he scratches a boat on the cell wall and then sails off in it. This story also retraces Shishkin’s own escape from the “prison reality” of his birthplace into exile in Switzerland, where he describes the fear that exile would render him “tongueless.” Exile freed him from political restrictions but at the price of momentarily losing his native language. On arrival in Switzerland, Shishkin is forced to abandon a novel he had begun in Moscow: “The letters I’d traced out there had a totally different density here . . . . Borders, distance, and air do wonders for words. A combination of Russian sounds that was so obvious and natural on Malaya Dmitrovka . . . can’t get through the customs here.” However, in Zurich he makes a new discovery: in the absence of the “prison camp slang of the streets” of his homeland, he is forced to turn around and face his own language, and he becomes selective about which parts of it he wants to retain. As he puts it: “When I left Russia, I lost the language I wanted to lose.” So, rather than losing his tongue, his tongue becomes untied: Shishkin disentangles his own language from Soviet-speak, giving it ample Swiss air.

But while exile was a choice that filtered his language, Shishkin remains skeptical that language itself can cross borders—for example, in translation. For him, the problem lies in the incompatibility between translated texts and their readers: “The experience of a language and the life lived through it . . . make languages with different pasts noncommunicating vessels.” In fact, this sentence appears twice in this collection. Some books, Shishkin argues, only exist alongside their reader, as the choice of one word in Russian places you on one side or the other of “the barricades”; here, presumably, he is referring to long-standing political and/or ideological discussions in Russian culture. In translation, not only do the barricades disappear along with the associations and allusions, he claims, but “you can’t even tell where [they] are.” What is more, the scent of the original is lost: the reader with no knowledge of Russian, as in my case, can only wonder how the “bottled aroma” that is “the art of Russian speech” smells when reading these English translations. Shishkin applies this metaphor in reverse to Joyce’s Ulysses, a book which he claims resists translation: “There can only be a ‘Russian Ulysses’ with a ‘little man’s soul’ à la Leskov,” he concludes. These misgivings, along with Marian Schwartz’s informative note following her translation of the story “Calligraphy Lesson,” interweave the collection as reflections on the act of writing and translation, making the reader acutely aware that the seamlessness of what she is reading is in fact a highly skilled conjuring act.

But Shishkin’s translators should take heart in the fact that the writer’s mistrust of translation extends to all language. Twice, in “Language Saved” and “In a Boat Scratched on the Wall,” he states: “Ever since the Tower of Babel, the task of language has been to misunderstand.” His wariness even extends to the use of “I” to refer to his younger self: “There I go,” he says, “presumptuously calling that teenager myself, though I’m not at all sure he’d agree to acknowledge himself in me as I am now . . . We may be namesakes—but so what?”

Exile, so Shishkin says, has made him appreciate the silence in language, because in Switzerland he was no longer surrounded by noise of Russian: “Just as the pause is a part of music, so silence is a part of the text. The most important part, maybe.” He leaves behind the “edicts and cursing,” the “bellowing,” and language’s mission to verbally “beat the feeble,” to “humiliate him, insult him and steal his ration.” Surrounded by silence, these stories have an aphoristic quality; the slight jumps in Shishkin’s train of thought as he moves from general ideas to personal details feel like the silences that occur in conversation when a person zooms in on a detail or digresses to explore some more tangential idea.

There are also texts in this collection that are outside the purview of the essay or personal memoir, such as “The Bell Tower of San Marco.” By recovering hundreds of letters written in the early twentieth century that retrace the real-life relationship between Lydia Kotchetkova, a Russian revolutionary, and Fritz Brupbacher, a Swiss doctor, Shishkin explores how this couple could only be intimate from a distance—through writing. But here, despite Fritz’s commitment to Lydia’s socialist ideals, writing isn’t able to impede disaster: the couple finally become estranged and disillusioned when the reality of living in two political and geographical worlds pulls them apart.

This volume introduces the reader to Shishkin’s Russia through the prism of the writer in exile, one that is arguably more clear-sighted from its removed vantage point. Shishkin’s reflections on his personal situation—the experience of living in Switzerland, his relationship with his ex-wife, his wordplays with his son, his chance encounter with a former schoolmate and Nabokov’s inkblot—are always reflections on Russia, too—both its relationship to the outside world and to itself. His clearly fictional stories use pure “Russian atmospherics,” to use Schwartz’s words, meaning that they are liberally sprinkled with historical and literary references that can be elusive for the uninitiated. But this doesn’t matter. The texts are sequenced in such a way as to make the reader who is blind or deaf to Russian glide through. Compact, and at times riveting to read, this collection delivers a well-rounded portrait of Russian’s most acclaimed contemporary writer—and nowhere is there a whiff of a little man’s soul. Describing his style, he remarks: “For me, the only way to create my own language is to write incorrectly. I sniff each sentence, and if I get a whiff of ‘How to Write Correctly,’ I cross it out again.”  

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