Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories
By Mikhail Shishkin (Translated)
Deep Vellum Publishing – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781941920039 – 180 Pages – Paperback
“The Half-Belt Overcoat” (Translated by Leo Shtutuin)
“Calligraphy Lesson” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“The Blind Musician” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Language Saved” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Nabakov’s Inkblot” (Translated by Mariya Bashkatova)
“Of Saucepans and Star-Showers” (Translated by Leo Shtutin)
“The Bell Tower of San Marco” (Translated by Sylvia Maizell)
“In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
This book from Deep Vellum Publishing marks the first collection of Mikhail Shishkin’s stories in English. Shishkin is a highly-regarded writer in contemporary Russian literature, a winner of multiple literary prizes whose name comes up with the likes of Haruki Murakami and Krasznahorkai László for potential candidacy for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
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. His particular style is impressionistic, which matches the characteristics of his dominating theme: language. The translation required for bringing these stories to Anglophones who cannot read Russian is wonderfully fitting with the primary concern of Shishkin’s prose. Through the narrators Shishkin argues that language is a barrier, something imperfect that can never express an exact truth. Twice he points to the story of the Tower of Babel as emblematic (the start of) the separations that language engenders.
Yet Shishkin’s stories explore this concept a bit more deeply, particularly in light of what language is able accomplish, despite its limitations through the art of prose, of the story. His debut 1993 story that gives the Calligraphy Lesson collection its name most strongly delves into this. In this story Shishkin considers words and their formation, whether through the process of basic writing, the art of calligraphy, or spoken and the power that they have to convey meaning both implicitly and explicitly. Moreover, he explores how language can be used to interpret complex human emotions and experience, such as the soul-numbing violence faced by the police investigator in the story.
Language allows organization of fragments, it allows the impression of a truth to be conveyed through imperfect means through the interpretations it permits. In one brilliantly written courtroom scene in the title story characters consider one word in Russian and the meaning, the ‘baggage’, that each letter of that word brings along with it, how they resonate in sound and appearance when written. Earlier in the story, Shishkin alternates scenes describing the composition of calligraphic text with scenes that mirror points in aspects of human interactions. Thus language itself is a translation, a transformation of ideas.
Aside from the repeated theme of language in general, Shishkin’s stories are also firmly embedded within the historical context of Russian literary history. (Footnotes and one brief, but very informative afterward are provided by the translators to give some grounding to readers.) The most recent story from Shishkin, 2013’s “Nabokov’s inkblot” illustrates this condition most directly with a character-driven tale that features a man considering his present, the weight that we attach to memories of the past, of historical significance broad or personal, and how they may be viewed quite differently in the light of the present moment.
The only limitation from the collection, from perhaps Shishkin’s short fiction in general, is the question of where it has grown – or can grow. His mastery of themes shines here, and he follows that dictum of writing what one knows best. His stories all feature male protagonists that resemble their author, literary-inclined Russians, some of whom like the author spend time residing in Switzerland. Can he write more than this? Does he need to even, if this where he excels, where he has something to say. For immediate purposes such questions are somewhat moot. This particular collection is short enough that the thematic repetition doesn’t try the reader, it is the perfect length for the stories to remain engaging. Additionally, stories vary in how far they extend the themes symbolically into the characters. For instance “The Blind Musician” considers language further within the realm of sight, with both the fallibility and unique abilities that blindness could offer.”In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” on the other hand is less of a narrative, something closer to an essay.
Books like this make me thankful for publishers of all kinds that support and facilitate translation of the world’s literature into English for the US market. In this case it offers accessibility to a major figure who I would otherwise be ignorant. Deep Vellum Publishing
is a Dallas-based nonprofit literary arts organization that specializes in getting translations to market. You can find out more about the organization, their books and their translators at their site. One translator of many of the stories in Calligraphy Lesson
, Marion Schwartz, was just shortlisted for the 2015 Read Russia prize
for her translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Deep Vellum Publishing via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.