Russia's Best-Kept Literary Secret is an Open Letter Author [We Rule]
Russia Beyond the Headlines has a great piece about (and interview with) Mikhail Shishkin, the only Russian novelist to have won have won the Russian Booker, Big Book, and National Bestseller awards, and whose Maidenhair is coming out from Open Letter this summer in Marian Schwartz’s translation.
Shishkin has been compared to numerous great writers, including Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce. He laughs at critics’ need to find literary similarities, but admits that Chekhov has been influential, along with Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Bunin, from whom Shishkin said he learned not to compromise as an author. “If you say to yourself ‘I will write for such-and-such a readership’ – you immediately stop being a writer and become a servant,” Shishkin said in explanation.
According to Shishkin, the literary accolades that continue to greet his novels confirm “what was important to you is also important to someone else.”
Marian Schwartz has just finished translating the award-winning “Maidenhair,” first published in Russian in 2006. The novel draws on Shishkin’s own experience of working as an interpreter for asylum seekers in the Swiss immigration office.
“Shishkin’s is a voice I not only can hear in English but also find very amenable to being transformed into English. I’m very excited that readers here, too, are going to have the chance to hear it now,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz describes the book as “extremely ambitious and daring, but ultimately tremendously rewarding.” She admits that translating it was a challenge.
“I remember all too well how confusing it was the first time I read it. Shishkin’s array of voices is dizzying in the best kind of way,” she said
Translation of this rich and allusive novel was further complicated by extensive literary references ranging from Xenephon to Agatha Christie, as well as by neologisms and wordplay, including “an entire page that is at least half palindromes.”
YES to all of this. And unless something goes haywire, he’s going to be in the States right around the time of BookExpo America for a series of readings and other events to promote the launch of Maidenhair.
And I know this is a long excerpt from the interview RBTH did with Shishkin, but I think it’s well worth it, and that these few answers will excite any and all literature fans reading this post:
Russia Beyond the Headlines:You seem to be a writer for whom linguistic concerns are crucial. Do you think this makes translating your work particularly challenging?
Mikhail Shishkin: If you’ve read my books, then you know that the problems of love, death, human dignity, brutality, humiliation are all no less important for me than the linguistic aspects of prose. Text is only the means. Simply, it has long been the case that you can’t say anything with the usual words; they lead nowhere. You have to pave your own unique road. Of course, some things vanish in translation – word games, rhymes – but there are things that are translatable and understandable in all languages, for example, the need for love. Words are glass. You need to look not at the glass, but through it to God’s world. Words, like glass, exist so that light can pass through them.
RBTH: You have said that a writer’s language should diverge from the norm. Can you say a bit more about what you meant by this?
M.S.: Would you be interested in reading a novel constructed wholly according to the textbook of how to speak and write correctly? Imagine a play entirely built of phrases from an Anglo-Russian phrasebook for tourists? It would drive you crazy! The art of prose writing consists of irregularities. There are no rules. No one can explain why one incorrect phrase can be simply wrong, and another – in the work of Brodsky or Alexander Goldstein – becomes a great line.
RBTH: You have been compared to Nabokov, Chekhov and Joyce, among others. Are there any writers you feel have particularly influenced you?
M.S.: It’s funny that critics have to compare an author to someone or other. It’s interesting. Who did Pushkin get compared with? Or Tolstoy? With age the past itself changes, and the literary influences. Previously I would have answered the question about who influenced me, thus: Sasha Sokolov, Max Frisch, Nabokov. But now it seems to me that Tolstoy, Chekhov, [Ivan] Bunin exerted the most important influences on me. Bunin taught me not to compromise, and to go on believing in myself. Chekhov passed on his sense of humanity – that there can’t be any wholly negative characters in your text. And from Tolstoy I learned not to be afraid of being naïve.
RBTH: Which contemporary writers do you find interesting?
M.S.: Definitely, Alexander Goldstein. Sadly, this writer died a few years ago. Literary critics will all one day call us his contemporaries. Russian authors write beautiful texts: Vladimir Sharov’s “Rehearsals,” Dmitry Ragozin’s “Battlefield,” Maya Kucherskaya’s “Modern Paterik.”