Mikhail Shishkin was born in Moscow in 1961. He won the 2000 Booker Prize for his The Taking of Izmail and the 2005 National Bestseller Prize and the 2006 National “Big Book” Prize for his Maidenhair (Open Letter, 2012). He lives in Switzerland.
Works Published by Deep Vellum:
Reviews of Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories:
This extremely well-translated collection of fiction, memoirs and essays provides a useful point of entry, a summary of Shishkin’s abiding themes and approaches over the first twenty years of his career. In particular, Shishkin appears as a continuously, ironically, political writer.
Compact, and at times riveting to read, this collection delivers a well-rounded portrait of Russian’s most acclaimed contemporary writer.
Nothing I read about [Shishkin], however, quite prepared me for the desperate urgency of Calligraphy Lesson, as if its lyricism were only a last match struck against the darkness. His prose breathes life – doesn’t breathe it, gasps it, aware of the perishability of words, of worlds dying in each instant, and us dying with them, as life is beaten out of us second by second.
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.
“The collection consists of artfully constructed, empathetic tales of people living in the midst cyclonic time.”
“With its manageable size and its variety — and the personal background revealed in some of the pieces –, Calligraphy Lesson is an ideal introduction to Shishkin and his work.”
“Throughout the collection, Shishkin draws divides between the humble and the sacred, the earthly and the spiritual.”
“Shishkin’s writing is typical of the literary genre in its skillful achievement of complex, stylistic prose to evoke poignant themes common to all people, including love, life, family, and death.”
“As suggested, Russian literature is bound up inextricably with the country’s history, and that is no less true of this collection, which surely made the task of translating it formidable. But the artfulness of this translation helps it to surmount Shishkin’s own claim that languages cannot communicate with each other.”
“A welcome volume of stories from Russia’s finest contemporary fiction writer…full of his typical fusing of mysticism and modernist experimentation.”
“I highly recommend CALLIGRAPHY LESSON for the beautiful language, moving stories and the emotional characters.”
“Touches on eternal themes of love and loss, life and death, emigration and exile.”
Sample Works by Mikhail Shishkin:
Today, though, Victory Day has nothing to do with the people’s victory or my father’s victory. It is not a day of peace and remembrance for the victims. It is a day for rattling swords, a day of zinc coffins, a day of aggression, a day of great hypocrisy and great baseness.
“Calligraphy Lesson” from Words Without Borders (trans. Marian Schwartz):
The capital letter, Sofia Pavlovna, is the beginning of all beginnings, so let us begin with that. It’s like a first breath, a newborn’s cry, you might say. Just a moment ago there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. A void. And for another hundred or thousand years there might still have been nothing, but suddenly this pen, submitting to an impossibly higher will, is tracing a capital letter, and now there’s no stopping it. Being the pen’s first movement toward the period as well, it is a sign of both the hope and the absurdity of what is. Simultaneously. The first letter, like an embryo, conceals all life to come, to the very end–its spirit, its rhythm, its force, and its image.
Don’t go to any trouble, Evgeny Alexandrovich. I’m just a little chick and this is just my scratching. Why don’t you tell me something amusing? Interesting things happen at your work every day, after all. All those crimes, murderers, prostitutes, and rapists.
Good God, what criminals? They’re ordinary people. One blind drunk, another out of his mind, commit God knows what atrocity and are now thoroughly horrified themselves. We have no idea, they say, not a clue. And anyway, how could you even think that I, fine, upstanding man that I am, might do something like that? So they write petitions and solicitations and then more petitions and solicitations, begging for mercy, but no one has the slightest notion of how to hold a pen. Allow me to demonstrate. Lay the left side of the middle finger, down by the nail, against the right side of the pen. Like this. Lay the thumb, also close to the nail, against the left side, and let the index finger rest but not press on top, as if it were stroking the pen’s back. The pen rests against the base of the index finger’s third joint. These three fingers are called the writing fingers. Neither the pinkie nor the ring finger should touch the paper. There should always be space, air, between the hand and the paper. If the hand is constrained and lies on the paper, if even the tip of the pinkie rests there, the wrist has no freedom of movement. The pen must touch the paper lightly, easily, without the least tension, as if it were simply playing. The pinkie and ring fingers, I assure you, are nothing but bestial atavisms, and one can both write and make the sign of the cross without them.
“A revolution for Russia’s words” from the Independent (trans. Marian Schwartz; published as “In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” in Calligraphy Lesson):
As it creates reality, language judges: it punishes and it pardons. Language is its own verdict. There is nowhere to appeal. All higher courts are non-verbal. Even before he has begun writing, the writer is like Laocoön, pinioned by the language snake. If he is to explain anything, the writer must be freed from language.