Mikhail Shishkin’s Calligraphy Lesson, a gathering of essays, short stories, and semiautobiographical digressions, is, as one of the narrators says in “The Blind Musician,” “fragrant with lilac and iodine.” It is made of the grotesque, the disgusting, the prosaically dead right next to the sublime, star-showers, frogs come back to life, love, and God. Shishkin takes these juxtapositions as his theme, and displays every kind of life as well as every kind of Russia; he lets us see underneath his own writing to the unmagical, unoriginal everyday.
In the beginning of “The Half-Belt Overcoat,” the autobiographical story that opens the book, Shishkin writes, “Suddenly comes the realization that there’s no need to cling on to life, because I am life.” In “The Blind Musician,” by far the strongest story in the collection, this realization seems almost self-evident: the way Shishkin writes encompasses so many feelings, so many glories and lives, that it is easy to see him towering over the universe; it is easy to see him as “a saucepan big enough to hold . . . the entire universe.” As such, the collection’s unevenness is disheartening; in its most banal moments, its stories resemble more an ordinary saucepan, a pond with far more iodine than lilac.
Shishkin is a sort of post-Soviet dissident. Born in 1961, he was part of the last generation of Soviets, of whom the majority never really believed in the Soviet project. He’s an accidental expatriate—he left Russia not for political reasons but because his then-wife, his translator, was Swiss. He remained in Switzerland after they divorced, remaining tied to his native Russia while, perhaps, indulging his luck at being able to live elsewhere: in an interview, he has said that living abroad has helped his writing, giving him “a different perspective [that] helps in understanding your own country and yourself” and allowing him to “create [his] own language.”
Shishkin is strongly anti-Putin: he famously refused to attend Book Expo America in 2013 because he didn’t want to represent the Russian state then, and he often writes anti-Putin articles for the Western media, including about the situation in Ukraine. Shishkin’s novels are only tangentially political, but the stories in Calligraphy Lesson do underscore politics, often by connoting the differences between the real Russia—the “Motherland”—and the regime, as Shishkin puts it in “The Half-Belt Overcoat.” There is a long tradition in Russian literature and thought of separating the government—from empire to Soviet Union to the post-Soviet Russian system—from the people; the people are seen as beautifully pure, morally ideal, with exalted souls, whereas the regime is an alternative, less-Russian Russianness. The real Russia is tied to literature—the land of Pushkin—and it’s represented in its forests, earth, smells, and spirit. The other Russia is merely the one we read about in the newspapers. In Shishkin’s statement expressing his refusal to come to BEA with the Russian delegation, he wrote, “I should and will represent a different Russia, my Russia, a country free of imposters.” His Russia is that of Gogol, Turgenev, and—notwithstanding his current locale—himself. This real Russia is the one of “the living languages . . . the language of one’s own kind”; the false Russia is represented by a dead language, “the language of royal decrees, of communist ideology.”
Throughout the collection, Shishkin draws divides between the humble and the sacred, the earthly and the spiritual; the Russia/Russia divide is another one of these. Two of the essays in this collection consider politics obliquely through the realm of language. Shishkin sees Russia as expressed through the different Russian languages: the one of official discourse and the one of the everyday, which often doesn’t even use words, just “interjections [and] jokes.” Shishkin expresses his political qualms with Russia by pointing at the use of language, both in the Soviet era and in present-day Russia: he says that “the Russian language is the form of existence, the body, of the totalitarian consciousness,” but literature is “the non-totalitarian consciousness’s form of existence in Russia,” “human dignity’s form of existence.” In the essays, “Language Saved” and “In a Boat Scratched on a Wall,” Shishkin discusses the idea of language as a tool of miscommunication. The essays are opaque, as if, true to their topic, he actually hopes to resist clarity. In “Language Saved,” his verbal flourishes are distracting rather than beautiful, giving the reader neither a satisfying literary experience nor real insight into Shishkin’s opinions. In contrast, “In a Boat” is stronger, both in its argument and its reading experience. By the end this almost backfires: Shishkin writes that “after taking in this world, the author at the other end must counter with something equivalent in force. For this, he must create a world without death.” Reading Shishkin’s essays is like hovering between the real world and this world without death—we are told that this greater world exists, and we even, through the occasional beauty of the prose in this essay, see what it might look like; but the essay’s close leaves us in the painfully real world. He tells us how he does what he does, but he doesn’t take us “out of this lonely life . . . [to] where we are all loved and waited.” We don’t need to be told that this boat, the novel, exists; we just need to get into it. Reading Shishkin’s Maidenhair, his first novel to be translated into English, provides this experience: it’s a work that, in its beauty, humanity, and fullness of soul, epitomizes every single thing Shishkin has said about the power and importance of literature, both in these essays and in interviews he has given. But “In a Boat” functions, really, as a harbor from which we view the boat that has sailed away.
“The Bell Tower of San Marco” provides a different lens through which to see this collection, and suggests why some of the magic of his novels may be absent from it. The story/essay is a compilation of letters and diary entries from two minor early-twentieth-century revolutionaries, Lydia Kochetkova and Fritz Brupbacher, calling to mind The Light and the Dark, the second of Shishkin’s novels to be translated into English, which is also written in letters. The story expresses a moment of crisis: though the characters are fighting for and then expressing their disillusionment with socialism, the story can be seen as a parable for the later Russian “revolution”—the one that collapsed communism and eventually led to the ascent of Putin. When Lydia writes, “This isn’t the same people they meant when they said Socialism lives in the heart of our people. So where is this Russian people. Take me to them!” she brings to mind Shishkin’s distinctions between the Russian state and the Russian people, and how he fears that it is dissolving, as shown by many Russians’ support for Putin. At the end of the story, Lydia writes, “Lofty ideas are a lie. The revolution is a lie. The people are a lie. All the beautiful words are a lie, a lie, a lie.” Here there is none of the contrast found among Shishkin’s fiction—none of the beauty found next to the banal. The beauty is banal, or worse: the lilacs are just more iodine. The saucepan may hold the whole universe, but the whole universe is cold soup.
The loss of those ideals appears again in the present day in “Nabokov’s Inkblot,” a story about Shishkin’s (or the fictionalized Shishkin’s) recent past in which he served briefly as a lackey for a New Russian, one of those who dishonestly made massive sums of money in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The story contrasts Shishkin—who has lived honestly, written beautiful novels, and had no money—with Kovalev—the greedy, extremely wealthy businessman who loves his daughter with all his heart. It doesn’t add up to much; the climactic moment, in which the narrator touches an inkblot left in a desk by Nabokov but feels nothing, has little resonance. The writing is unflourished, matter-of-fact, with none of the stylistic trills or “verbal technique” that in “In a Boat” Shishkin points out as his defining feature. Perhaps this is because it was written in order to be adapted into a drama, which was performed in Zurich. It certainly gives the flavor of Russia in a way we can all understand; it just doesn’t stand up well on its own.
In the end, all this—the political commentary, the philosophizing about language, the semiautobiography—feels like, as Lydia Kochetkova put it, “phantoms.” She writes in her last letter, “I could have given you all the fullness of my love, but I gave you nothing but pain . . . instead I squandered my worthless life on phantoms.” Shishkin is fantastically, magically talented, and his novels are the fullness of his love. The essays in this collection are something less. But perhaps they are, in a way, the iodine that makes the lilacs of this collection’s fictions all the more brilliant.
For it is “The Calligraphy Lesson” and “The Blind Musician” that carry the weight of the collection. They are the most Shishkin-esque, the most compelling. (They and “In a Boat”—the stories with the most beautiful, poetic language—are translated gloriously by Marian Schwartz.) While they both, to different extents, provide insight into Shishkin as a writer and Russia as place both mythical and real, they are also, more importantly, works of lyric literature. Situated within the collection as a whole, they glitter like example sentences in a grammar textbook—giving purpose to the rest of the collection. “The Calligraphy Lesson” is about art, both the art of writing and the visual art of letters; it is about the beauty of horrible things, and how these make art possible. The narrator is a court stenographer who uses the texts he writes laboriously by hand to cope with the tragedies he listens to and mechanically transcribes on a keyboard every day: writing, for him, is almost diametrically opposed to what Shishkin does —the concrete physical beauty of the stories, not the narrative, is what makes them bearable. In turning the words into hand-crafted images, he is able to strip them of their meanings. The story is told through the conversations he has with the students to whom he teaches calligraphy: he tells them about his court experiences while also giving them a chance to aestheticize their own lives through writing. Writing is a way of maintaining order in the world, and even existence.
The meanings of the words are murky anyway—they change meaning so often in “The Calligraphy Lesson” that they really only make sense when viewed as a whole, as a piece of abstract art. The narrator’s wife seems to be going blind, but is instead falling in love: she tells her husband that she never wants to see him again. A girl who accuses three men of rape is both telling the truth and a deranged liar. The same words express a thousand different stories, but, written down, their “regularity and beauty offset that whole crazy world”—despite the fact that their very existence, their telling, is what shows the world to be crazy. A woman’s suicidal pain is transformed into “a light, graceful line,” “an eyelash stroke,” “the illusion of this free soaring.” The beautiful lines Shishkin writes distract from the crimes he mentions, putting us in the scribe’s position.
Yet because we are not court scribes, the stories he mentions and then ignores feel more compelling and more valuable: it feels cruel to dismiss the rapes, murders, the sorrows of having committed horrible crimes and instead focusing on the scribe’s sorrows and consolations. Of course, the crimes are not the point in this case, but it feels dishonest in another way as well—Nabokov’s inkblot didn’t change one narrator’s life, which suggests (retrospectively) that the “Calligraphy Lesson” narrator’s art may also be less meaningful than his reality. When the power of writing is questioned, it is hard to fully fall into it.
“The Blind Musician” escapes some of these pitfalls by not asking questions about writing, choosing rather to provide a more absorbing narrative and more musical melodies. It pulls together several strands from other stories in the collection and also feels like a more fully realized work of literature that reveals its complexity under sustained investigation. First, there is Shishkin’s emblematic trope of the disgusting, boring, mundane right next to the sublime: the “lilac and iodine,” of course, but also the “hymn to vulgarity” and some longer passages: “I live in a world where there is no light or dark, and that means there’s nothing awful about it. My God, you should have warned me there was a sidewalk here.” The main narrator of the story chooses between two men. One combines the grotesque with the magnificent; he cannot see her and so sees her through smells, particularly her “smell of apple soap,” perhaps the apple peels she has used as bracelets a few pages earlier. He transforms her into a purer version of herself, taking her whims, the cast-offs she has tried to fashion into beauty, and making them an integral part of her, which she adopts as part of her identity. She uses the grotesque to make herself better. The second man is equally less grotesque and less beautiful, and beautifying.
The content of the story might be the iodine that mingles with that lilac. But there is another possibility: that somehow all of Russian literature is in this story (as it was in “The Calligraphy Lesson,” according to Schwartz’s afterword to that story). Anna Karenina appears briefly in a train accident; one of the narrators quotes Gogol (“the teenth of Martober”). There are also many references to myths and life intertwining and being confused for each other: Psyche “lifts the lamp, expecting to see on her bed a god or a beast—but it’s you.” Shishkin has insisted in interviews that his writing is affected by the politics of Russia; it seems to come out in his depictions of duality. In this story as well as in Maidenhair, he makes frequent reference to Greek mythology, combining the traditions of humanism with his Russian names and settings and thus making them seem more universal—reminding his readers that they are in a world of common humanity. But the reality is something else: not a god or a beast, not a symbol or a representation, but just a very simple you. The profound and magical is reshaped into the everyday, neither as good or as terrible as was expected. Perhaps the real Russia is Alexei Pavlovich, the less interesting, less moral, less poetic person the narrator is in love with: he lives with dignity, sometimes; he does the wrong thing, sometimes. If he, Psyche’s husband, is Russia, Russia is neither of its dualities but one whole, a whole Shishkin would deny.
There is an odd image in the first story in the collection, “The Half-Belt Overcoat,” that explains everything. The narrator is relating a story he has heard: “he and other boys would sometimes happen upon frogs frozen into ice. If you peed on them they’d come to life and start moving.” In this moment, readers are confronted with the unliterary, the prosaic, the unpleasant creating life—iodine turning into lilac; lilac, in fact, being unable to come into being without iodine. It’s the thrown-away part of life saving life; an accident or a joke. It’s a bizarre comparison, but only a few pages later, the narrator discovers his first burst of inspiration—his realization that he is the entire universe—while peeing on a bush in the middle of the night. This mundane act, both here and at the pond, creates inspiration, creates life; something about the human body can save. In “The Calligraphy Lesson,” the human hand, not the mind, creates the literature that “clamp[s] an unraveling world together”: “If the hand was true, if the pen didn’t shake once, if everything came together, then, you won’t believe it, a miracle takes place.” Literature makes life; it just comes from a surprising source.
Julie Hersh is a Master's student in Russian, Central, and Eastern European Studies at the University of Glasgow and the University of Tartu, Estonia. A native New Yorker who worked in publishing for four years, she is now researching gendered forms of everyday dissent among women in late Soviet Russia.