Early Shishkin.

In my readthrough of Russian literature, I’ve come to another author I’ve been anticipating for years, Mikhail Shishkin. I’ve now read the first three things he published, and while I’m very much looking forward to more, he’s certainly a stranger writer than I suspected.

His first published story was “Урок каллиграфии” («Знамя», Jan. 1993), translated by the wonderful Marian Schwartz as “Calligraphy Lesson” (it’s available in this collection); it made quite a splash, winning the Debut Prize for 1993, and I can see why — in only a couple of dozen pages it presents an entire world of experience and imagery. The protagonist, Evgeny Aleksandrovich, is a court clerk who describes the appalling cases he’s recorded (and, in the end, participated in) to a succession of women who are present only in brief exchanges, prompting him to further revelations, but the realia of the story are (in good modernist fashion) subordinated to the way of the telling, as you can see from the opening paragraph (Schwartz’s translation):

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.

Заглавная буква, Софья Павловна, есть начало всех начал, так что с нее и начнем. Если хотите, это все равно что первое дыханье, крик новорожденного. Еще только что ничего не было, абсолютно ничего, пустота, и еще сто, тысячу лет могло бы ничего не быть, но вот перо, подчиняясь недоступной ему высшей воле, вдруг выводит заглавную букву и остановиться уже не может. Являясь одновременно первым движением пера к точке, это есть знак и надежды и бессмыслицы сущего. В первой букве, как в эмбрионе, затаена вся последующая жизнь до самого конца — и дух, и ритм, и напор, и образ.

This establishes the primacy of writing over everything else, which is a constant theme with Shishkin. Another thing to note is the name Sofia Pavlovna, which happens to be that of the female lead in Griboedov’s immortal play Горе от ума (Woe from Wit); as it turns out, there’s no happenstance about it, because the other named women are Tatyana Dmitrievna (from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin), Nastasya Filippovna (from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot), Anna Arkadievna (the heroine of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina), and Larochka (presumably Zhivago’s Lara). This sort of thing will either send readers running for the hills or enchant them; I am in the latter camp. Shishkin has said that this story contains the germ of everything he has written since, and I believe it.

I then turned to his first novel, Всех ожидает одна ночь [One night awaits us all (from Horace: “omnes una manet nox”)], published in the July and August issues of «Знамя» (and as a book under Shishkin’s original title of Записки Ларионова [Larionov’s notes] in 2010). This was quite a surprise after the short story; it consists of the fictional memoirs of a provincial gentleman named Aleksander Larionov, who (as we learn from the opening words of the novel: “Я родился в третий год нашего странного века”) was born in the third year of the nineteenth century and as an aging man is telling his story to an old friend in three “notebooks” for some reason. It’s told in perfectly straightforward, classical prose, as if it were the memoir it purports to be, and takes its protagonist from his difficult childhood on an estate near Simbirsk (with a misanthropic father who has cut himself off from all his old acquaintances because he resents some past slight) to brutalizing military service, a failed marriage based on pity for a poor, unattractive young woman, tedious government service in Kazan (where he confronts the cholera epidemic and Polish uprising in 1830 — he’s on the side of the Poles but can’t talk about it with anyone because everyone else is caught up in patriotic fervor), hopeless love for the willful, self-punishing Ekaterina, an interrogation by the feared Third Department (the tsarist secret police), unhappy fatherhood (his son turns out to be a cruel young man who has no desire to go to the university as his father insists but wants to join the army and go to the Caucasus to kill people), and sickly old age.

It was perfectly pleasant reading, but I kept asking myself “Why is he telling me all this?” Having immersed myself in classical Russian literature, I picked up all sorts of echoes of Sergei Aksakov, Pushkin, Dostoevsky (both Idiot and Devils), Tolstoy (War and Peace), and others; the novel I was most consistently reminded of, though, was Leskov’s Смех и горе [Laughter and grief], which I wrote about here, and it could be described in the same way as “a series of tales united only by the … thesis that Russian life is full of unpleasant surprises.” Sure, it’s part of modernism to imitate earlier works, but the point is to do something new with them, to distort them in ways that advance the art — think of Joyce in Ulysses, or (in music) Prokofiev’s pseudo-classical First Symphony and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. This is as if a modern composer were to produce a symphony that sounded like a blend of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven; impressive, sure, but why? It occurred to me that if the novel had been published a decade earlier, the Polish uprising in 1830 could have been an allusion to Solidarity, and the Third Department to the KGB, but why use coded allusions in 1993, when for years it had been not only possible but de rigueur (for progressives) to discuss such things openly and by name. I’m not sure what he was up to, but I’m not sorry I read it; it was worth it just to get a feel for the layout of Simbirsk and Kazan (the latter gave me a nice feeling of stereoscopy when combined with the Kazan of a century later described in Kaverin’s Перед зеркалом [Before the mirror] — see this post).

Finally I read Слепой музыкант («Знамя», Jan. 1994), translated by Marian Schwartz as “The Blind Musician” and available in the same collection. (Слепой музыкант is also the title of an 1886 Korolenko story I haven’t read, which doubtless is not irrelevant.) This is considerably longer than “Calligraphy Lesson” and considerably weirder; it’s told entirely through dialogue (it’s not always easy to tell who’s speaking or who pronouns refer to), and (much as in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet) you get the same events from different people’s points of view. Selfish Zhenya loves hypocritical Alexei, whose wife is dying; Mika has a thing for her blind son Roman; everybody behaves badly to everybody else, and at one point someone says «Ты, Роман, думаешь, что это ты — слепой музыкант? Дурашка! Это он! […] Он! Бьет по нам, как по клавишам, и так и этак!» [Roman, you think you’re the blind musician? Little fool! It’s him! … Him! He beats on us like on piano keys, this way and that!] (referring to God). It reminded me in style very much of Sokolov’s Школа для дураков (School for Fools — see this post), but with characters out of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s bleak stories in place of Sokolov’s beaten-down but loving protagonists. Oh, and both short stories take place in an undefined setting that has no hint whatever of anything Soviet, which I gather is a consistent feature of Shishkin’s writing. I have no idea where he’ll go next, but I have his next three novels, and I can’t wait to follow him on his path.


  1. David Marjanović says


    Mushroom-eater! What an interesting surname.

  2. I always wondered if foreign (advanced) learners of Russian can enjoy Platonov and Leskov.

    It is not easy for me to tell why Leskov (I need to reread him, and one reason for naming him is that, alongside Platonov, he is the favorite writer of a close friend of mine), for Platonov it is obvious: his very peculiar language is one of the reasons why Russians enjoy his writing.

  3. Mushroom-eater! What an interesting surname.

    Even more striking names with the same N+V template are Grekhovodov ‘someone who leads you to sin’ and Grobozhilov ‘someone who lives in a grave.’

    Other interesting facts about Griboedov: his ancestor Jan Grzybowski moved from Poland to Russia at the start of the 17th century (it was his son Fyodor Ivanovich who changed the family name to Griboedov), and the author’s valet, who was also his foster brother, had the surname Gribov, indicating a degree of family relationship (compare P. N. Repnin’s illegitimate son I. P. Pnin and a certain Shubin’s illegitimate son Nibush).

  4. I always wondered if foreign (advanced) learners of Russian can enjoy Platonov and Leskov.

    Sure! Of course they’re not as popular as Tolstoyevsky and Chekhov, but anyone who enjoys peculiar language (including dialect, skaz, etc.) will get a kick out of them.

  5. Another difficult but enjoyable writer is Remizov, whom I wrote about in this post.

  6. there is a noun греховодник, I think, someone who dedicated his life to the cause of lechery, rather than someone who inspires others …

  7. It is certainly a good sign that you think what you think about Bunin. Not as an achievement (it is not a competition, there must be some Russian speakers who do not like him) — but in terms of penetrability of language barriers in general. It seems obvious why some authors are not as popular as Tolstoyevsky in translation. The langauge is not the only reason why one can like Platonov, but without it reading him will be an entirely (and essentially) different experience.

  8. but anyone who enjoys peculiar language (including dialect, skaz, etc.) will get a kick out of them.
    It is the same question (are there such people?) but you have answered it (Sure!).

    My interest here is egoistic too: my best foreing language is English, but it is one-sided. I do not mean accuracy, I mean, my passive knowlege is one-sided, and I feel it strongly. It is exactly like crossing a meadow in rubber boots vs. barefoot vs. doing it as a ladybug does. Hopefully I can fix that… My other languages are simply not at that level. If it is technically possible to learn to feel the langauge as a native speaker does (and I do not mean accuracy, again, I mean: being able to enjoy it), that is great.

  9. Yeah, it bothers me somewhat that my knowledge is mostly passive (I read great, I can understand Russians talking on YouTube etc. as long as it’s not too fast or slangy, but I have no conversational ability since I have no one to talk with), but not really, since (like Shishkin) I think written language is the most important thing in the world and it gives me tremendous pleasure to read Russian literature fluently and get the allusions and the music of the prose.

  10. a certain Shubin’s illegitimate son Nibush

    Not quite the same, but still:

    Александр Николаевич Драшусов (1816—1890) — русский астроном, директор обсерватории Московского университета.
    Родился в Москве 5 (17) апреля 1816 года (или в 1815[1]). Его отец, Никола-Шарль-Иоанн Сушар(д) (1783—1851), прибыл в Россию во время царствования Александра I и, выдержав в 1818 экзамен в Московском университете, преподавал французский язык в женских институтах — Екатерининском и Александровском. Никола Сушард принял православие и женился на Евгении Антоновне Богданович (умерла 2 марта 1874; вместе с мужем была похоронена на Ваганьковском кладбище[2]) — дочери бригадира, которая имела имение в Смоленской губернии. В 1826 получил разрешение Николая I переменить иностранное имя на русское. Новая фамилия с одобрения императора образовалась путём прочтения старой фамилии — Сушард — справа налево c прибавлением обычного русского окончания «-ов». В числе других учителей его приглашали в дом Достоевских преподавать французский язык детям Михаилу и Фёдору. Ф. М. Достоевский позже вывел Сушарда под фамилией Тушар в романе «Подросток».

    Александр Николаевич Драшусов

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