Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin [An Open Letter Book to Read]
This is the second entry in a series that will eventually feature all of the titles Open Letter has published to date. Catch up on past entries by clicking here. Last week’s entry was about Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno.
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
Original Language: Russian
Author’s Home Country: Shishkin was born in Russia, but moved to Switzerland in 1995. After taking several shits on Putin’s Russia (here and here and I think there are others), it’s probably for the best that he’s living with the bankers.
Original Date of Publication: 2005 (Russian); 2012 (English)
Second Printing: Yes—this is one of a handful of Open Letter titles to go have gone into a second printing. (I wonder if anyone can guess the others. Not all of them are our best-selling titles, but it’s a pretty solid list of books.) It’s somehow very gratifying to open up one of our books and see “Second Printing, 2013” on the copyright page. Which is why I mention it.
Awards Won: Shishkin won three international awards for Maidenhair: the Big Book Award and National Best-Seller Prize in Russia, and the German translation won the International Literature Award. In terms of prizes for the English translations, well, as you can see in the image above, Maidenhair was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award . . . AND WAS ROBBED. Actually, it was up against Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which is fine, OK. Although I still believe Shishkin deserved it, especially given that Krasznahorkai won the following year as well, and New Directions has won like 85% of the BTBA awards to date. (That is just an estimate.)
But beyond not winning the BTBA, there was a moment, in 2013, when Shishkin’s name was being bantered around as a possible Nobel Prize recipient. That would’ve changed Open Letter’s fortunes FOREVER, and possibly turned me into a happy person. Seeing that that obviously hasn’t happened—it’s all depressive episodes alternating with rage over here—it’s clear that he didn’t win. Currently, he’s not even listed over at Ladbrokes, so fuck us. And fuck happy.
Other Books in English: What that possible-Nobel-contender buzz did do is encourage Shishkin’s agent—well, one of them, since he jumped around quite a bit—to sell The Light and the Dark to Quercus.
Interlude. Whoa. WHOA. Before I go on whinging about this or that publishing thing, let’s take a second to consider this cover:
That is HORRIBLE. Like, bad romance novel that’s available for a dime at a library sale, or worse, rotting away in a dank little free library sort of bad. What is it with bigger presses taking our authors and then saddling them with really awkward, tone deaf covers? For example, the new Mathias Enard:
It’s almost like it’s supposed to be the cover of one of those 70s space porn books, but never quite gets there. Those colors and title treatment are straight out of MS Paint. If I didn’t know the history of this book, I’d assume that it’s self-published. And that the author was obliged to use his brother-in-law’s design. (“Jimmy’s co-workers always ask him to design their event posters. He has a real eye for it!”)
Ugh. Agents. The part of the Shishkin debacle that was the worst was the agent—and sub agent—pressuring us to sell our UK rights to Maidenhair to Quercus because “they’re a bigger publisher.” Not once did Quercus make an offer that we could accept or reject, instead we were told repeatedly that we “must do this for the benefit of Quercus . . . and the book.” That’s exactly how shitty agents work: they show you no respect, treat you as a cog in their machine, and can’t ever figure out what’s going on when you don’t see things their way. The handful of good, honest agents—there are a couple, I swear—are so refreshing to work with. The rest are just ambulance-chasing lawyers with literary aspirations. (And this is why we don’t get any good books on submission.) (And is also why there should be a caveat at the top of this post stating that the opinions are solely those of Chad, who is mostly trying to be funny. He actually loves everyone and meditates every day. His blood pressure is within the normal range, and if only you could see the smile on his face when you mention the French Publishers Agency . . .)
Anyway, you can read The Light and the Dark, which most people consider to be not as good as Maidenhair, or you can read Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories, or you can just read Maidenhair, which is one of the best books published this century.
Jacket Copy: Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a history of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timelessness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.
An X Meets Y Comparison: Books like this can’t be put in boxes. The three storyline structure isn’t the most revolutionary thing ever, but the ways in which it twists and winds around itself, with the stability of reality (within the confines of the novel) shifting time and again elevates this into something sui generis. In a pinch, I’d say it’s like Tolstoy mixed with Joyce and a touch of Gogol. So, exactly what fans of Stranger Things are clamoring for.
Other Notes about the Author: He has beautiful, piercing eyes.
A Really Good, Lengthy Blurb: From James Meek in the London Review of Books:
The narrative habit of hopping back and forwards in time, so common in modern novels, is a superficial challenge to chronology. It’s unusual to come across a novel that is neither contingent nor consecutive. Even great monuments of modernist prose, like Ulysses, depend to some degree on the notion of consecutive chronology. To find narrative comparators to Maidenhair, the first novel by Mikhail Shishkin to be translated into English, you have to reach for outliers like Tristram Shandy or Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, where time and contingency have been disassembled. While the texture of Maidenhair is quite different from either, it resembles them in that it stretches the definition of “novel.” The enveloping structure of Shishkin’s work is not so much a story as a prose portfolio, an exhibition you walk through in a particular order because that’s the way the pages are put together, as you might walk clockwise round a gallery.
It sounds forbidding and obscure, but Maidenhair, first published in 2005, was a publishing hit in Russia, where it won two literary prizes, and in Germany. One explanation for this may be that the reading public has a greater appetite for experimental fiction than the cynics believe. Another may be the nature of Shishkin’s experiment, which relates to the enclosure, rather than to the entirety of its contents. Difficult as some passages are, there are long sections embedded within the book that are conventionally dramatic, even romantic, involving the quest for love embodied as grail, elixir, end.
One evening after dinner I act all the parts in the fable I learned at school, “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” not doubting that everyone is going to applaud me, thrilled over my acting talents, the moment I point a moralizing finger up and say, “Now go dance your dance!” But Aunt Olya jumps up without waiting for the end, interrupting me, and exclaims, “This is all wrong! Wrong, Bellochka!” Aunt Olya explains to me the right way to understand the fable’s meaning. “The grasshopper is cheerful and sweet and lived the way one should both being good and relying on the kindness of others! She served beauty, do you see? But the ant is a scoundrel and greedy, like all the rich, a vulgar petty bourgeois!”
Longer Sample: Apparently when we updated our website, the old samples didn’t get pulled over . . . So there’s nothing to link to except for the excerpt that appeared in N+1. Unfortunately, if you’re not a subscriber, you can’t access this. So subscribe. Actually, no, fuck that. Buy the book and get a 506-page excerpt.
Personal Pitch: When we first published this book, I had two go to reasons for why I thought it was incredible: One was that Marian Schwartz—one of the best translators ever—didn’t fully get it. Over lunch once she told me about translating a section toward the end that was completely baffling until she realized it was a series of palindromes. Palindromes! I love books that keep the reader on their toes.
I’ve been thinking about death a lot recently. That’s not all that unusual for me, but it’s probably heightened by my upcoming birthday. (I’m going to turn 41. Never turn 41.) Mostly I’ve been thinking about the number of books I have left to read in my life. Let’s pretend that technological advances and my recent trend of healthy living (I lost 23 pounds since May and am svelte for the first time in ever) allows me to get to 80. Before my mind shits out on me. (Which is asking a lot, I know.) If I read one book a week and take a couple weeks off to be with other human beings (like my kids) every year, that gives me almost 2,000 books left to read in my lifetime. Which is a pretty solid number, but one that gets smaller every year. And my “to read” bookshelf already contains at least 400 titles.
When I think about this though, my first instinct is to try and maximize which books I read. Which, I know, is dumb. Whatever the afterlife entails, I’m pretty sure it’s not better or worse based on whether you read Bottom’s Dream or not. But if I have 40 years left to think and experience literature, I want to make it count. One approach would be to read all new books in hopes of being part of some ongoing conversation. Or simply to read books that are just supposed to be entertaining. Filled with spies, murders, and sex. Beach books.
Or, I could go in the opposite direction—the professorial direction. Read the same twenty books—all agreed upon classics—over and again, and burn up 500 of the 2,000 books I have left keeping up with monographs on these Great Books.
Described like that, the rereading option sounds smug and awful. But there is something appealing—to me, at least—about finding a book or author that you need to reread every so often. I’m pretty sure all serious readers have these books/authors who they consider to be foundational to their life, and who they revisit every so often. I want to pretend that I actually live this way. That I go back to The Crying of Lot 49 or Julio Cortázar or Absalom, Absalom! or Ulysses every so often, but that’s a utter lie. I wish I did. Instead, I feel like I have to keep up with things—the books we’re publishing, the ones we’re thinking about publishing, the catalogs of my favorite presses, etc. Even now, thinking about rereading 62: A Model Kit (which I’ve been meaning to do for years so that I can then get some sort of related tattoo) feels like it would take away from reading something else that I should be reading. What’s sadder is that this compulsion to read certain new books is mostly driven by the hope of being able to interact with the cool literary kids on the Twitter. Fuck me, fuck my brain.
For the class that I’m teaching this spring—which I’ll talk about in more detail in a separate post—I’ve decided to teach mostly books that I don’t understand. Books that more or less require a second reading. Books like Maidenhair. Books that you can understand in the moment, but that necessitate a second reading—one in which you start out much more informed about the overall scope or structure. At this moment in my life, there’s something really compelling about reading books that beg me to reread them. Books that aren’t direct and obvious and meant to be immediately grasped. That excites me. Books that don’t conform to expectations or pre-determined ideas. Books like Maidenhair.
(That’s not to dismiss books—or movies, or TV shows, or comics—that are solely entertaining. Those things are totally cool as well, and definitely have a place in my life.)
Instead of constantly rushing forward, trying to get the next thing, enjoy the newest book, share the coolest new tweet before everyone else, I’d like to let some ideas develop in my mind over multiple readings or viewings. One reason translators can be so fun to talk with is because they’re one of a handful of people who read a particular book more than once. There aren’t that many serious readers left in the world with enough time to read, reread, digest, and think about particular books. At the same time, there aren’t that many books that really need to be reread and digested in that way . . .
Maidenhair IS one of those books though. Reading this once is basically just preparation. It demands something more. And even though it’s not the current trend to publish or support books that aren’t obvious and immediate, this is exactly why I got into publishing. To bring out books that you have to struggle with. In 100 years when I’m dead and forgotten, hopefully some college kid will come across Maidenhair and will have their mind changed through the struggle to really “get” it.
So buy it for that reason. And read it twice.
The second reason I used to cite for why this book is so good is the thread of the journals of the young opera singer and how the whole book is questioning how to preserve her innocence and unmitigated joy about being alive while being surrounded by the horror that is the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. That’s a great goal for living, and something that hits deep inside every time I look at my kids. How can you keep that happiness alive?
Buy it: Obviously, you can get this from your local bookshop or online retailer, but you can also buy it directly from us by clicking here. Or you can always subscribe to Open Letter—the best way to receive some of the most varied and interesting voices of international literature, delivered right to your door each and every month.