“Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.”
Contemporary Russian literature all too often falls into a ghettoized section of world literature that keep fans of translated and international literature from fully enjoying the best works of the last twenty years. One problem is a tendency for Western sources to focus on the political elements in a Russian text that inevitably denigrates the quality of the literature itself. At the same time, too many scholars of Russian literature place contemporary Russian literature into a different ghetto altogether, with the predominant sentiment in American universities being that great Russian literature died once upon a time with Bulgakov or Pasternak. This fact is, of course, 100% not true. Both of these problems keep Russian literature from its proper place in discussions of world literature. We appreciate so many of the Russian classics as above politics and existent outside of but wholly influenced by the passage of historical time, while their themes are inherently but subtly political as they discuss the contradictions and distortions in the daily realities of the Russian society that combine to make the stories so timeless and powerful.
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.
Since his first novel came out in 1994, Shishkin has won Russia’s three most prestigious literary prizes: the Russian Booker, the National Bestseller, and the Big Book. Despite his prodigious and award-winning talents, Maidenhair is his first novel published in English, and will be formally released on October 23, 2012 by Open Letter Books. Shishkin’s former day job was as an interpreter in Switzerland; and he splits his time these days between Zurich and Moscow – both facts play in to the characters in Maidenhair. He has previously taught for a semester at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, and is returning to the USA in spring 2013 to teach a seminar at Columbia and to give talks across the country relating to Maidenhair. The international nature of Shishkin himself plays in to the narrative structure of Maidenhair, as his characters inhabit positions across the globe and throughout history all at once; the émigré Russian writer of the past has given way to the globalized Russian writer of the 21st century, wherein borders are insignificant, the author is at once entirely Russian and at the same time entirely a global citizen.
At its core, Maidenhair is a novel of ideas that reads like a 21st-century Tolstoy, concerned with the big questions of life, death, love, and everything in between:
…here, in the trenches, people never talk out loud about the main thing. People smoke, drink, eat, and talk about trivial things, boots, for instance… (251)
Maidenhair is a novel that talks about the main things constantly: faith and spirituality; the importance of enjoying fleeting moments of beauty in the face of death; throughout, the quest for love, affection, and human ethics touches on every character, and make themselves apparent in philosophical dialogue, mythological references, and spiritual ruminations:
Life is a string and death is the air. A string makes no sound without air. (150)
Maidenhair is at the same time, like the great works of Russian literature, above politics and timeless. Its narrative grace and the power of its ideas would feel every bit at home in literary salons alongside Tolstoy and Chekhov 1902, though it was written a full century later.
To discuss the plot of Maidenhair feels vulgar. It is hard to describe and seemingly banal. But as Zakhar Prilepin (another incredible contemporary Russian author who is awaiting his first published translation in America) discussed at a recent Read Russia event at Book Expo America, the plots of the greatest works of Russian literature are all exceedingly banal: young man kills a pawnbroker and an investigation follows; a young woman cheats on her husband with a young officer. What makes these stories original is not their plot but the presentation of the author’s ideas and their critiques of social mores that exist at once across the globe. So it is with Maidenhair. The plot is, in fact, rather banal; four narratives are interwoven throughout the novel: stories told by Russian refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland to a Russian interpreter working for the Swiss government; the interpreter’s trips to Italy and his subsequent estrangement from his wife and son; letters written by the interpreter to his son, addressing him as an emperor of a far-off made-up land, all starting out with, “Dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!” and incorporating elements of historical and mythological texts the interpreter is reading on his breaks from work; and diary entries written by an Isabella on whom the interpreter was supposed to write a biography, who the not-so-average Western reader might not know is the famous Russian singer of the first half of the 20th-century, Isabella Yurieva*.
The interpreter is the only character that ties the four narratives together. The reader lives inside the nameless interpreter’s head, with the narratives combining throughout as a mixture of things that he is reading at the time (a lot of mythology and classical history), things he is working on (including the diary entries and the extensive Q&A sections with asylum-seekers), and things he is doing (trips to Italy, writing letters to his son). The style is confusing to discuss, but easy to read, because Shishkin repeats the themes of humanity’s interconnectedness throughout history and fate.
You just have to understand destiny’s language and its cooing. We’re blind from birth. We don’t see anything and don’t pick up on the connection between events, the oneness of things, like a mole digging its tunnel… (268)
Rather than discuss the plot structure and the “action” in the book, so as not to give away any of the brilliance in the text, it must be said that Maidenhair is a novel not to be understood (to use Shishkin’s own quote), but to be felt at every turn of the page, a novel to be processed as the narrative progresses, though the further you read, the less time matters, and you find yourself living inside a narrative world where everything is connected, and everything is happening all at once:
Before I just couldn’t understand how all this could be happening to me simultaneously, but I am now, loupe in hand, and at the same time I’m there, holding him close and feeling that I’m about to pass out, dying, I can’t catch my breath. But now I understand that it’s all so simple. Everything is always happening simultaneously. Here you are writing this line now, while I’m reading it. Here you are putting a period at the end of this sentence, while I reach it at the very same time. It’s not a matter of hands on the clock! They can be moved forward and back. It’s a matter of time zones. Steps of the dial. Everything is happening simultaneously, it’s just that the hands have gone every which way on all the clocks. (497)
Shishkin has declared in Russian-language interviews that Maidenhair is a novel about everything, and in more recent novels he attempts to solve humanity’s crisis of life and death. Maidenhair is no different.
This is what I believe: If somewhere on earth the wounded are finished off with rifle butts, that means somewhere else people have to be singing and rejoicing in life! The more death there is around, the more important to counter it with life, love, and beauty! (328)
Everything in the book makes sense together, even when reading and the narrative shifts from the singer’s diary in the 1920s to the interpreter’s mystical Q&A session with a refugee to Rome and to letters, everything is connected to the greater whole of what Shishkin is attempting to create, an entire universe of beauty, of yearning for love, of life in the face of death, of the history in everything, all tied in to the much greater questions of God’s role in everything:
The divine idea of the river is the river itself. (24)
The title of the book is emblematic of Shishkin’s themes of God and love at the same time: maidenhair is a type of fern that grows wild in Rome, the Eternal City that plays such a central role in the novel. Yet in Russia, maidenhair is a house plant that cannot grow without human care and affection:
For us, this is a house plant, otherwise it wouldn’t survive, without human warmth, but here it’s a weed. So you see, this is in a dead language, signifying something alive: Adiantum capillus veneris. Venus hair, genus Adiantum. Maidenhair. God of life. The wind barely stirs. As if nodding, yes yes, that’s true: this is my temple, my land, my wind, my life. The greenest of grasses. It grew here before your Eternal City and will grow here after. (500)
Even the epigraph to Maidenhair is so significant to the work that it deserves to be quoted, for it contains the essence of what Shishkin is up to:
And your ashes will be called, and will be told:
“Return that which does not belong to you;
reveal what you have kept to this time.”
For by the word was the world created, and by the word shall we be resurrected.
–Revelation of Baruch ben Neriah. 4, XLII
The theme of the word is one of the big themes that recur throughout Maidenhair in each narrative, with the importance of the recorded dialogue in the interpreter’s mission or in the diary entries of Isabella. The themes are complex and deep, but the sentiments expressed in them, the emotion of the characters that come through in the text, are all human and completely relatable. The most important themes that are discussed throughout the work include God (faith and spirituality), fate (and the individual), time (and time/space), war (across time and history), history (or the power of memory), diaspora (especially interesting as Shishkin spends much of his time outside of Russia, yet remains a quintessentially Russian writer), intertextuality (as a narrative and rhetorical style, and for the novel’s use of text-in-text-in-text), Russia’s role in the world (and their view of themselves in the world), the role of art in human society (the power of beauty to transcend the mundane day-to-day), migration/immigration (and the connection to paradise myths), mythology (of all stripes), Rome (after all, it is the Eternal City, so emblematic of humanity’s Eternal Problems) . . . The list could go on forever, the themes are huge, the book is a page-turner, not in the sense of plot-twists, but in the sense that every page contains a new revelation.
May I make one recommendation to you, the future reader of this brilliant novel? If so, please be an active reader while you read this book: keep a pen in hand, Post-It notes at the ready, or your e-book highlighting function at the ready, because every single page in this book contains ideas encapsulated in perfect quotes that you will want to revisit, along with the entirety of the novel, time and time again.
Maidenhair is the first Russian book of the 21st-century to appear in English translation that can be truly counted as an instant classic in the broad field of world literature, capable of being taught in university classrooms and discussed in book clubs for centuries to come. Every individual, every emotion, every idea that humanity has ever generated and will forever generate is encapsulated in the 500 pages of Maidenhair. With its perfect combination of style and substance, Maidenhair might just be the book you’ve been waiting your entire life to read.
*Editor’s note: The original review post listed Isabella Yurieva’s name incorrectly as Isabella St. George.