Shishkin’s Maidenhair.

Last year I wrote about my experiences with the early work of Mikhail Shishkin, particularly praising his first published story, “Урок каллиграфии” (“Calligraphy Lesson”), and saying of his first novel, Всех ожидает одна ночь (One night awaits us all), “It was perfectly pleasant reading, but I kept asking myself ‘Why is he telling me all this?’” Last April I was cryptic about his second novel, Взятие Измаила (The taking of Izmail): “I find I don’t have anything coherent to say about it except that it’s long and difficult and I’ll doubtless need to reread it to get anything useful from it.” Now that I’ve finished his third, Венерин волос (translated by Marian Schwartz as Maidenhair), I’m starting to feel that that first story will always be my favorite Shishkin; I don’t seem to connect well with his novels. Or they don’t connect with me. Bear with me while I try to sort out my reactions.

I guess I’ll start at the beginning. After an epigraph from 2 Baruch (“And the dust shall be called, and there shall be said to it: ‘Give back that which is not yours, and raise up all that you have kept until its time’”), the first line is “У Дария и Парисатиды было два сына, старший Артаксеркс и младший Кир.” This is the beginning of Xenophon’s Anabasis: “Δαρείου καὶ Παρυσάτιδος γίγνονται παῖδες δύο, πρεσβύτερος μὲν Ἀρταξέρξης, νεώτερος δὲ Κῦρος” (translated by Carleton L. Brownson as “Darius and Parysatis had two sons born to them, of whom the elder was Artaxerxes and the younger Cyrus”). We then get something completely different: “Интервью начинаются в восемь утра” [The interviews begin at eight in the morning], followed by several Q&A exchanges between Russians claiming refugee status in Switzerland and interviewers trying to evaluate their claims, mediated by a толмач [interpreter] who turns out to be the main protagonist of the novel. After a few pages of that, we get the start of a letter from the interpreter to his son, who he calls Навуходонозавр [Nebuchadnezzasaur]; then comes a third-person narration about the interpreter, followed by another Q&A session where the first question goes on for fifteen unparagraphed pages, then some more Xenophon, another letter in which the interpreter tells his son about being commissioned to take down the reminiscences of an aged singer named Isabella, and eventually (almost a hundred pages in) we get the singer’s diary, which begins in her pre-WWI childhood in Rostov-na-Donu and continues through war, revolution, musical education in the capital, a growing career, a visit to Paris, and the loss of an infant son (the last datable entry is from 1936). But the diary, though it forms the largest part of the novel, is frequently interrupted by various other elements, and the reader is sometimes at a loss as to what exactly is going on and who is involved; the book ends with a tissue of fragments consciously modeled on Joyce (José Vergara has a chapter on the novel in his excellent All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature — see this LH post). In short, a defiantly modernist novel that you’d think would be for a limited audience of cognoscenti.

But no! The novel sold well (and in fact won the 2005 National Bestseller prize) and critics raved about it; it comes in at #27 in Polka’s list of the 100 most important Russian books of the 21st century. You can read Lizok’s favorable review here, a detailed discussion by Charles Embry here, and excerpts from a variety of reviews at the complete review, along with their own review by M.A. Orthofer, who gives it an A- (“what seems like an odd mix of narratives works together to surprisingly powerful effect”). So I’m the odd one out, and I’m trying to work out why I found myself so dissatisfied with it, and why it was such a struggle for me to plow through (it took me almost a month, about twice as long as it should have).

I think the crux of my problem can be found in this passage from the Vergara book:

Shishkin’s characters, too, might be considered little more than similar vessels. In Maidenhair, the author even ironically jokes about this tendency in his writing: “And one other little thing: what kind of heroes can there be without a description of their external appearance?” He effects part of this technique by sharing scant detail regarding their appearances. In interviews, he has provided different explanations for this phenomenon, for example, this one, which suggests the lofty goal of his art is no less than to bring people together: “My main characters never have descriptions of their external appearance. Because our looks are what divide us, disrupt intimacy, mutual understanding, other us and make us foreign to one another. But if you take away external appearance, then it suddenly becomes clear that inside people are unbelievably similar…. My novels are about mutual understanding and human rapprochement.” Who the characters fundamentally are matters very little since they are all essentially the same […]

To me, this is horseshit, and pernicious horseshit at that. Yes, people are similar in many ways, but the job of literature, as distinguished from politics or sociology, is to show how their individuality shines through that similarity. People are not interchangeable, and it’s the idea that they are that leads inexorably to mass repression and killing. I want to get to know characters as people when I read; I don’t mind if they’re described in fragmented, modernist ways as in Joyce or Sokolov, but they need to be individuals, not shapeless examples of H. sapiens given form by the stories they happen to be caught up in. Here are a couple more quotes from Shishkin that exemplify the problem:

“all of my heroes are me. I pluck myself into various characters primarily based on age: the young man who is struggling to figure things out, the adult who is similar to who I am now and the old man that I may become someday. All male heroes are a unified ‘I’, and all female heroes are my perception of a woman. So all of my books are intertwined, leaving only the boundary between man and woman. And in all my novels there are really only two heroes—he and she.”

“Inside, we’re all similar: we fear death and want love. All true texts, films, plays, have the same plot: the transformation of reality, which is made up of cruelty and death, into warmth and light.”

And that’s what his novels read like: extended riffs on the same banal ideas (life is hard and bad things happen, but we can redeem it with love!) with a great deal of essentialist silliness about the sexes; the long, long diary passages of the singer consist to a depressing extent of repetitions of “Oh how I love X! I can’t live without him! Why won’t he come back?” with X replaced by Y and Z as she changes her affections but never grows or learns. (There is a plagiarism scandal involving Shishkin swiping passages from the memoirs of Vera Panova; I wonder if they were the more interesting bits? I’d like to see a collection of the borrowed passages.) At any rate, I compare the treatment of Liza Turaeva’s letters in Kaverin’s Перед зеркалом (Before the mirror). As I wrote in this post, it started with “typical teenage-girl letters full of self-deprecation, exalted feelings, and intricate analysis of emotions,” much like the singer’s early diary. But once Liza became a painter the novel took off: her thoughts and descriptions of her surroundings and the people she knew became gripping, and she is an unforgettable character. Isabella, however, cares only about love and singing, and never becomes memorable in her own right.

I guess I’ll end with the review by a LibraryThing user who goes by stillatim, because it expresses so vividly some of my own reactions:

Rather a disappointment. I liked the essays in ‘Calligraphy Lesson,’ though I wasn’t so keen on the stories, and that should have suggested to me that I wouldn’t want to read 500 pages of ‘story.’ Well, I tried. Others have praised the prose, but I wonder what they were reading: Shishkin do the police in different voices, and he do them so good (here, an interpreter for Russian/Slavic refugees; a singer first as a young girl, then as a woman, then as an older woman; the refugees themselves; and some more distant third narration). But that’s not the same as writing well simpliciter. It doesn’t help that the book’s great climax is in my least favorite literary style that is actually a style, that of stuttering fragments […]

This is a common enough tactic in English, and I’m too old to bother trying to read it anymore, unless it’s in Joyce, who gets a free pass for originality (compare, unfavorably, Joyce Carey, or Eimear McBride). And of course, in Joyce, and for it being one option among many. The same is true for for Shishkin, but the first 450 pages of Maidenhair aren’t quite as rewarding as the non-stuttering pages of Ulysses. I’ll take the long-line of the modernist prose tradition, thanks.

Maidenhair’s other problem, from my humble corner, is that I’m also done reading books that give us narrative fragments and then expect us to connect said fragments together. That doesn’t mean I’m done reading difficult books; it means I’m done reading books in which the difficulty is invented by the author for no real purpose, rather than actually inhering in the topic or approach of the book (see also: Dodge Rose). I’m most particularly of all done reading books in which the payoff for all that laborious connecting is something as daft as “Life sucks, mostly, but love is good.” Thanks, Mikhail. I never would have known without you.

That said, Shishkin is trying to write good books, he wants to write important books, he has good ideas (assimilating the refugees’ stories to literary myths was a great one, though the execution wasn’t so perfect), and he cares about literature and the literary tradition. So even though I’ll never try to read this beginning to end again, I’m glad to have it, and I’ll flick through it from time to time.

I own Shishkin’s fourth (and so far last) novel, Письмовник (Letter-writing manual, translated as The Light and the Dark), and maybe I’ll get around to it one day (it placed even higher on the Polka list), but I can’t say I feel much enthusiasm for it at the moment. Onward, to fresh woods and pastures new!


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    Small quibble– maybe change translation of vosem’ to eight (or explain for us dummies why this is nine here, i.e., is 12 am to 1 am the “zero” hour for some people?)

  2. Woops! Sheer brain-fart (it’s hard to proofread these long posts), and I’ve fixed it now — thanks!

  3. (Probably subconscious “the workday begins at nine” residue.)

  4. That’s the only novel by Shishkin I’ve read so far. Underwhelming, to sum it up. At times, pretentious. Some good stuff inside, no doubt, but any Russian intellectual with literary inclinations can produce a dozen well-written pages of fiction. Also, Shishkin got accused of copying large chunks of Vera Panova’s memoirs (Mine and Mine Only – gotta love the irony) and pasting them into the novel.

    A few months ago, Shishkin wrote this in The Atlantic:

    But this [quiescence] has been their survival strategy for generations—as the last line of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov puts it, “The people are silent.” Silence is safer.”

    But Boris Godunov is a play about a civil war, an uprising against Boris Godunov. When he dies, the people of Moscow seem quite happy – until they witness the brutal murder of Godunov’s widow and son by a group of nobles loyal to False Dimitry. The murderers walk out of Godunov’s house, announce that “Maria and Fedor Godunov have poisoned themselves,” and tell the crowd to chant, “Long live tsar Dimitry!” The people refuse – they are silent. It can signify shock or disapproval but it’s not a “survival strategy.”

  5. Excellent points all, and I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who was underwhelmed.

  6. “The people are silent.”

    I agree with this reading of Pushkin’s line, but whether Alex K. and I agree with it or not, the hackneyed phrase does mean now that people are passive. Put differently, in Boris the people are silent because of shock, in current parlance, they are silent because of disengagement.

  7. January First-of-May says

    and tell the crowd to chant, “Long live tsar Dimitry!” The people refuse – they are silent.

    Apparently in the original draft of the play the people agree and chant.

  8. @D.O.: “whether Alex K. and I agree with it or not, the hackneyed phrase does mean now that people are passive.”

    To me, it means the speaker doesn’t know his Pushkin or doesn’t care. It’s OK for most people – but Shishkin isn’t some random member of the Russian intelligentsia. “Mikhail Shishkin is arguably Russia’s greatest living novelist” (Phoebe Taplin in the Guardian), and he owes a great deal to the Russian literary tradition. Since he has chosen to speak out, it is incumbent on him to avoid cliches and, where possible, to clear up accumulated misunderstandings.

    I’m tempted to claim that this sloppiness leads to bad history. The whole Russian 17th century was a time of great popular upheavals, some of them violent. To name some, the Time of Troubles (1604-13), Russia’s first civil war; the “salt riot” (1648) and the “copper riot” (1662); the Razin rebellion (1667-71); the Schism, which started in the 1650s and led among other things to the Solovky uprising (1667-71); and the Streltsy mutinies later in the century.

  9. That’s an excellent point, and it feels to me as if Shishkin is aspiring to a mantle he doesn’t have the stature to wear.

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