Often, I am often so bogged down in various deadlines that you would have to thwack me with a rolled-up magazine to get my attention. So I’m grateful that my friend and colleague Scott Esposito did precisely that, in a metaphorical, cyberspace sort of way, with Mikhail Shishkin‘s superb collection, Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories, published by Deep Vellum.
I know, I know. I appear to be the last person in the Western world who hadn’t read Shishkin, who 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 Maidenhair (Open Letter, 2012). I still don’t know Shishkin, if it comes to that, since I haven’t read his novels, nor have I had the chance to do more than sample this new collection short stories, memoirs, and studies. Until I put a few more deadlines behind me, it will be one of my many postponed pleasures.
As happens with many Russian writers today, Western journalists tend to situate Shishkin in the middle of Russia’s traumatic present, and interviews tend to focus on news rather than literature, even though Shishkin has been based in faraway Zurich for years. The tendency is reinforced because he is an articulate spokesman for a free Russia, as he shows in this 2013 interview:
“In Russia, before the revolution, after the revolution, the most popular writers were forbidden—it was impossible to buy or sell these books. But these were the most popular writings, so the ideal of writing was not to entertain, was not to sell. The idea of writing was to ask some questions that were very important for the writer himself, with the understanding that his book might never reach a reader.
“But all these questions are very important for everyone: How to live a humiliating situation under the dictatorship, but still preserve human dignity? And this is the question of questions. Russian literature of every generation has to answer it. Every writer has to answer this question, and we are a very strange country. Every generation needs its war and needs its dictatorship.”
The word “genius” has been used, and the Times Literary Supplement had this to say: “Shishkin’s language is wonderfully lucid and concise. Without sounding archaic, it reaches over the heads of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (whose relationship with the Russian language was often uneasy) to the tradition of Pushkin.”
Nothing I read about him, 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. (“And I heard myself breathing, heard my lungs gulping in life.”)
“The Half-Belt Overcoat,” he recalls his “Mum,” a dedicated headmistress humiliated, dismissed, and broken during the Andropov era, and then dying inch-by-inch of cancer. After her death, he discovers among her things a long-ago “ordinary girl’s diary” that gives no traces of the terror that was gripping the Soviet Union during the Stalin years: “Its pages are awash with the unthinking youthful confidence that life will give you more than you asked of it.” The diary and family photographs are stashed away in Moscow after he emigrates, and turn to ashes in a fire, but the persona she left in her youthful diary stays with him: “That girl was born into a prison nation, into darkness, yet she still looked upon her life as a gift, as an opportunity to realize herself in love, to give love, to share her happiness with the world.”
“The world around is cold and dark, but into it has been sent a girl so that, candle-like, she might illuminate the all-pervasive human darkness with her need for love.” It’s the hopeless forever task of life breeding life: “this was not the naïveté and folly of a silly young girl who had failed to understand what was going on around her, this was the wisdom of the one who has sent, does send and always shall send girls into the world, no matter what hell we’ve turned it into.”
And what a hell it is – not only in the Soviet Union. The twentieth century is one of ideologies making a beeline to genocide. Even in peaceful Switzerland offered no refuge from extreme thoughts and incalculable grief. In “The Bell Tower of San Marco,” Shishkin traces the letters of Russian revolutionary Lydia Kochetkova, who writes incessantly to her future husband, Swiss anarchist Fritz Brupbacher – obscure historical figures, but oddly universal. Six thousand letters are preserved in Amsterdam, to give you an idea of the volume of the correspondence. In words that breathe the same infinite hope and aspiration that his Soviet-era Mum had had – before the illness, before the grinding poverty, before the political slap down – Lydia writes at the beginning of her new love in 1898: “‘Be fruitful and multiply!’ Can that really be all that’s bequeathed to us? Why even the mice and Koch’s microbes honor this behest. But man is infinitely greater than his physical self. And how can you reduce all of me, all my untapped resources, the yearning to accomplish something important, essential, that serves mankind, my people, my country – to propagation!”
After the marriage was over, she continued writing letter after unanswered letter to him. We know nothing of her death, presumably around 1915. Alone, alienated, or abandoned by family and friends, her last written words are a muffled cry that will likely meet many of us at life’s end, as lost and frantic as Desdemona’s desperate cry for one more hour: “My darling! Do you know what I regret most of all? I could have given you all the fullness of my love, but I gave you nothing but pain. Forgive me, if you can. And my heart cries out at the thought that my highest calling was just that – to give you affection and tenderness, but instead I squandered my worthless life on phantoms.”