Life, in Letters Unread
The epistolary novel is a prismatic art-form: two, maybe three voices, channeled through a narrow tunnel of text. There is no shouting, except in quotations; no screaming, except through punctuation. The physical world is perceived only through the lens of a retrospective consciousness, and the inner world appears in a heightened cast of private disclosure.
The epistolary novel is, in other words, a novel’s novel, a nested box in which the conventions of prose-writing are made the explicit framework for storytelling. Mikhail Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark, a novel in letters, begins with “I open yesterday’s Evening News, and it’s all about you and me.” Their world, we realize, is always already there, in the newspaper and beyond, timeless and atemporal. “It’s going to be the word in the beginning again, they write,” the letter continues—it’s the Bible, the beginning of time, the Big Bang: “And what’s more, supposedly everything already existed even before the bang—all the galaxies we can see and ones we can’t. In the same way that the future glass lives in the sand, and the grains of sand are the seeds in the window here, through which I’ve just seen a little boy run past outside with a soccer ball stuffed up the front of his t-shirt.”
The premise of Shishkin’s novel is simple: two lovers, a man at war, a woman at home, exchange letters about their lives. Each letter is preceded by a rather crudely gender-appropriate symbol: a circle for Sasha, the woman, a square for Volodya, the man. But the ambitions, as the opening lines make clear, are expansive. Two lovers will divide the universe between them; they will collapse all of time and space into a grain of sand. Everything has happened before and will happen again; writing about it will re-animate reality and call it into being, as if for the first time. This is literally true of the novel: as we gradually learn, the lovers are separated by thousands of miles and also by a hundred years. Their correspondence plays out beyond time and space—in China in 1900, in Russia about a century later, and in magical landscapes somewhere in between.
The opening of the book is also, I suppose, a programmatic statement about the power of fiction and the power of love. The novel remakes the whole world and love is the stitch that holds it together, suturing the contradictions of time and place, making the past, present and future continuous in all of their detail.
The title tells us something about the splendors of this approach as well as its infelicities. The English version, The Light and the Dark, is, I assume, translator Andrew Bromfield’s choice. It suggests that the cosmos is divided across monumental dichotomies, the day and the night, but also war and peace, masculine and feminine, the body and the soul, the present and the past, the square and the circle. The extremes of the world are going to be in conjunction in this philosophical novel.
But the gamble is immediately apparent, too: a world of clear divisions is a world without any real congress between its parts, a static allegorical image. To think in binaries is rigid even when those binaries are supposed to collapse, as in this book: any movement that tends toward the light is wholly light; any that sinks into the dark is completely dark. Moving back and forth within this opposition, time grows monotonous and stagnant.
Mikhail Shishkin’s original Russian title, Pismovnik, “letter-book,” is more grounded, but poses its own problems. I think we are supposed to imagine something like a private album, a bundle of letters pasted onto album-pages or bound up in fascicles, spangled with postage stamps and botanical doodles. This shadow book suspended beneath the printed one—which, apart from the squares and circles, is really just a regularly laid-out novel—is suffused with nostalgia, sometimes beautiful, but quickly suffocating. The format recalls Pushkin’s classic description in Eugene Onegin of Mme. Larina writing in album books as a young coquette:
She used to write, with blood, quotations
In maidens’ albums, thought it keen
To speak in singsong intonations,
Would call Praskóvya ‘chère Pauline.’
There is much writing in blood, literal and figurative, in Shishkin’s book. “Sashenka!” is the repeated greeting from Volodya in the field. “Volodenka!” begin the replies from Sasha, who stays at home, tending to her life in the country and in town. The letters contain a great profusion of lyrical imagery and emotional outburst. There are moments of startling beauty: “We watch the bell tower on the opposite shore rinsing its ragged image in the water.” There are expressions of unthinking sentimentality: “My own arms and legs, my own body, have become dear to me only because of you—because you have kissed it, because you love it.” There are disingenuously naïve allusions: “I don’t understand what connection there can be between Marcus Aurelius, who died a million years ago, who everyone has heard about, and me, who no one has heard about, sitting here in my prickly official-issue underpants.”
Each thread in this carefully woven tapestry has an obvious justification, even if the justifications occasionally contradict one another. Lovers do write in overly effusive protestations; to read through dozens of them, you might say, is required for the sake of realism. At the same time, the increasingly fantastical nature of the book—speculative voyages into the kingdom of Prestor John, second-person excursions into the minds of other characters—might perhaps justify the current of philosophical speculation that forces itself into these so-called lovers’ letters. But if that’s so, then what’s the point of those countless protestations (“I bluff and bluster, but in reality without you, without your letters, I would have died ages ago”) overwhelming the more detached musings?
To stake a literary novel on Love’s power to reconcile the universe to itself is not unprecedented, but it is unusual. It is a move more typical of (to consider extremes on a spectrum) a pulp romance or Neo-Platonic treatise. In moments, however, the approach has its advantages. The whole book proceeds by a kind of estranged analogizing in which everything is like everything else, basking in the generous attention of a lover’s eye. This makes for some wonderfully poetic turns of phrase (“Days skitter and scurry past like lizards”) as well as happy moments of ironic pseudo-reasoning—more precisely, lovers’ babble wearing the mask of reason—as when Volodya concludes that clothes were invented because otherwise the genitals of bipeds would hang down for all the world to see.
Some of the book’s most marvelous passages are written in a pastiche of medieval world-chronicle: idiosyncratic origin-myths for animals and habits, outlandish and analogical taxonomies, catalogues of inscrutable artifacts from the Orient and Arctic, cartographies of lands where the rivers flow one direction by day and the opposite by night (such passages, like the dreams produced by the consumption of illustrated children’s history books, also shimmer in Shishkin’s earlier novel Maidenhair).
But none of this can be quite liberated from the book’s impenetrable inertia. Every passage seems trapped in itself, a solipsism. Even the few consistent narrative arcs are quickly severed by the book’s formal structure. A few letters into the correspondence of Sasha and Volodya, it becomes clear that they are not really writing to each other at all. The few cursory references to one another’s letters fall away, and the book becomes two alternating narratives without any real direct address. Most of this has to do, it seems, with the rupture in time. We learn of it almost by accident, when for an instant the voyages to the kingdom of Prester John suddenly touch down in history, and Volodya reveals himself to be a soldier on his way across the Gobi Desert to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Meanwhile, Sasha is taking street-cars, using telephones, reading by electric lamps, and contemplating an abortion to avoid a miscarriage.
Shishkin missed the chance to pursue an intriguing thought experiment. What would it actually look like for lovers to write one another across a hundred years? In what state of absurdity might jealousy manifest itself as a foot-soldier on the way to Peking tried to wrestle with the facts of a late twentieth-century love affair? How might a woman in a sheltered, urban world with its local miseries (dying parents, jealous stepchildren, aging lovers) respond to a direct report from an atavistic war fought with Mausers and pikes?
But we get nothing from this connection. When Sasha becomes engaged to another man, there is no reaction from Volodya. But nor does Sasha make any sense of the miseries of the campaign, as much as it might be tempting to imagine her writing in response to a bundle of letters addressed to some other Sasha 100 years ago and kept safe until then in the attic. Presumably we are meant to focus always on the timelessness of the story, rather than specifics; but this deadens the pleasure of the unfolding stories.
It is because of this inertia that Shishkin’s sentimentality is embarrassing (“Divide one half of the universe by the other? You’ll get me. And you with me”). There is no development, no forward thrust, no fluctuation. The sentiment is never challenged, betrayed, questioned, re-made, reflected upon. This apparently dialogic novel is actually two monologues. It becomes like a greeting card: unchanging, intended for everyone and no one (“I’ll tell you what’s been happening to me in a moment, but first the most important thing—you are very dear to me. And the longer we are not together, the more powerfully I sense you”).
Critics have sometimes compared Shishkin to Pushkin, the primal source of Russian literature. Certainly Pushkin had no fear of sentiment (but then again, neither did his successors Tolstoy and Dostoevsky). Certainly Shishkin’s limpid, clipped prose owes something to the lean style of the Russian arch-poet.
But the lessons learned cannot compensate for the lessons ignored. Where is the urbane irony that tempers love in Pushkin? Where is the mocking world-weariness that rejects feeling and suffers from it all the more as a result? And, above all, where is the galloping rhythmic pull of Pushkin’s work, the ballet of iambs in Eugene Onegin, or the equally hypnotic charge of the uncanny in prose stories like Queen of Spades and The Captain’s Daughter?
That war is terrible; that life is beautiful; that sadness and joy suffuse the world in equal measure—these are the lessons of this complex but, once unraveled, unconvincing book. It offers in abundance the peculiarity of the concrete detail and the portentous weight of the universal claim. It alternates between the two with subtlety. But The Light and the Dark is unwilling to weigh anchor in the flow of narrative time—and equally unwilling to resist it actively or experimentally. To borrow one of Shishkin’s favorite images, each moment, no matter how precious or grave, is tossed on an empty sea, already water under the keel.
Matthew Spellberg studies the literature and anthropology of dreaming at Princeton. He also writes on opera and architecture. His work has most recently appeared in the Yale Review, L.A. Review of Books, and Southwest Review.