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.
I’m really excited about this year’s list of finalists—it’s a pretty loaded list that includes works from eight different countries, ranging from Russia to Argentina to Djibouti. All ten books have a valid chance of winning the award depending on what criteria you want to emphasize. (Click here to see all the various arguments for why each of these books should win.)
We’ll be posting more commentary about this over the next few weeks, building up to the announcement of the winning title on May 3rd at 5:30pm the PEN World Voices/CLMP Fest taking place at the Washington Mews in New York.
Also, the finalists for poetry are going to be announced on the Poetry Foundation blog, and will be reproduced here as soon as that goes live.
The 2013 Best Translated Book Award Fiction Finalist
The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Open Letter Books; Argentina)
Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (Archipelago Books; France)
The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale (Melville House; Iran)
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (New Directions; Hungary)
Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Lorin Stein (Dalkey Archive Press; France)
A Breath of Life: Pulsations by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz (New Directions; Brazil)
The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Metropolitan Books; Romania)
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Open Letter Books; Russia)
Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by David Ball and Nicole Ball (Indiana University Press; Djibouti)
My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Seagull Books; Switzerland)
Special thanks needs to go out to all of our fine judges: Monica Carter, Salonica; Tess Doering Lewis, translator and critic; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Susan Harris, Words Without Borders; Bill Martin, translator; Bill Marx, Arts Fuse; Michael Orthofer, Complete Review; Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books; and Jenn Witte, Skylight Books.
And we want to thank Amazon.com once again for underwriting the award and providing $25,000 allowing us to give $5,000 cash prizes to both winning authors and translators, along with providing a small honorarium for the judges.
I think I’ve mentioned this once or twice in recent posts, but although Mikhail Shishkin won’t be attending BookExpo America this year he WILL be touring throughout the U.S. this April, starting in San Francisco and hitting up Austin, Boston, and New York City.
Below is a list of all the dates and general information along with links to the event listings themselves. Since he won’t be back in May for BEA, you should catch him—along with Russian translator Marian Schwartz—at one of these events.
AND you should buy his novel. It’s absolutely spectacular.
Thursday, April 4th, 7pm
562 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA
Tickets $10 advance, $15 at the door
Friday, April 5th, 7pm
Green Apple Books
506 Clement St
San Francisco, CA
Monday, April 8th, 7pm
603 N Lamar Blvd
Tuesday, April 9th, 4pm
University of Texas
Texas Governors’ Room 3.116
The Texas Union
Friday, April 12th, 6:30pm
Hamilton Hall 702
New York, NY
Monday, April 15th, 7pm
Reading with Mikhail Shishkin
Hobart and William Smith
Tuesday, April 16th, 5:30pm
University of Rochester
Rush Rhees Library, Welles-Brown Room
Wednesday, April 17th, 7pm
341 Delaware Ave.
Tuesday, April 23rd, 4pm
Burns Library, Thompson Room
Wednesday, April 24th, TBD
Reading by Mikhail Shishkin
College of the Holy Cross
1 College Street
Wednesday, May 1st, 6:30pm
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY10003
If you have any questions, or would like to get in touch with Shishkin to write about his works or one of these events, just contact me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu.
And once again, you really should buy Maidenhair.
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz and published by Open Letter Books
BROMANCE WILL IS IN THE HOUSE.
Mikhail Shishkin’s debut English-language novel Maidenhair deserves to win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because it is not only the best translated book in the best translation to have come out in English—it is the best book that came out in 2012, period. Accomplished translator Marian Schwartz has wrought a miraculous, beautiful, lyrical rendition of Shishkin’s unique poetic language that draws on the grandest narrative traditions of the nineteenth century classics and combines them with the living, breathing Russian language as it exists today.
Language itself, and the importance of the Word in life, love, and history, is at the heart of Maidenhair. The plot, or what semblance there is of a plot, centers on an unnamed interpreter who works for the Swiss immigration office, translating the horrific stories of would-be Russian immigrants describing why they deserve asylum in Switzerland to the interpreter’s boss, a figure described as Peter, guarding the gates of Heaven, determining who is able to enter Paradise within the Swiss borders. The interpreter is the axis on which the narrative magic of Maidenhair spins: he is a narrator who retells the stories of the asylum-seekers; a conduit for the historical stories he is reading about the Persian Wars; a doting father writing letters to his son, all addressed to “My dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!”; the son lives with his former wife, who in one thread travels to Rome with the narrator, only to have their marriage fall apart; he is a would-be biographer of a talented young singer in late tsarist, early Soviet period, Isabella Yurievna.
The stories all weave together in head-spinning fashion, the interpreter is the only connection between the separate narratives within the novel, though it takes a while for the reader to piece together how these stories are connected, as the characters’ philosophical monologues and asides demonstrate the grand themes Shishkin is working with. And that reminds me of Shishkin’s own words: that Maidenhair is not a novel to be understood, but rather to be felt; it is a novel that hinges less on plot than on the emotional resonance that connects each separate story. Schwartz handles the narrative shifts within Maidenhair with the grace of a prima ballerina, confident and even-keeled, even as the narration jumps from an early twentieth century language of the Petersburg intelligentsia to the coarse, brutal language of refugees who may or may not be fleeing violence and persecution in their home villages.
And to personally editorialize, to add an element of competition to why Maidenhair in particular deserves to win this year’s BTBA rather than any of the other extremely well-qualified works of translation: I can say in all honesty that Maidenhair is the best Russian novel to come out in English since Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita exploded into the world’s consciousness in the mid-1960s.
Like many others before me, I have suffered an unvanquishable love of Rusisan literature ever since I took a Nineteenth Century Russian Literature course my freshman year at university. And I love it all now, all Russian literature: the grand Russian novels of ideas, the linguistic and stylistic revolutionaries of avant-garde poetry, the mystical philosopher-authors exploring the outer reaches of human existence, the brilliant and brave souls who dared to describe the absurdity of totalitarianism, be it tsarist, Soviet, capitalist . . . but I had been feeling at times like I’d reached the end of the Russian rope, that I’d made my way through all the great Russian works, and all I had left to content myself with were forgotten little gems that slipped between the cracks of the great Masters; but all the while I kept hoping beyond hope that somehow, someway, a contemporary Russian author would emerge to re-engage me with the history of Russian literature, to give hope to the written word in ways I thought I’d never feel again, not since I was introduced to that towering genius of twentieth century Russian letters, Bulgakov (and how wonderful and how tragic it is to be introduced to true works of creative genius like Master and Margarita, wonderful to know greatness on such a level, tragic in the knowledge that such works of genius stand alone, once you meet them, you have drastically winnowed down the number of life-changing novels remaining to be discovered, and nothing can replace the joy of discovery, of opening a novel for the first time not knowing by the end that it would completely change your life, that you would become a different, more fulfilled human being by the time you closed that novel. And yes, you can re-read, revisit, re-engage with these classics, these works of creative genius, and you can develop a deeper relationship between the text and the characters and the author behind it all, but you cannot replace the joy that comes from that first reading, the joy of discovery).
Maidenhair is the novel I have been waiting for; a powerful, moving novel that combines everything I love about literature in general, the beauty of language, the power of ideas, the love of characters, the genius of the Author as Master. I believe in the ability of the written word to change and transform physical reality outside of the textual vessel. I know I am not alone in these loves, these beliefs, and I know now that Russian literature is alive and well in so many ways, for there is an author who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest of Russian writers in history, who can craft the most beautifully-woven novels of ideas, because I have read Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, and I was able to feel it all again, the pure, unadulterated joy of discovery, of a truly great work of literary fiction, as if for the first time.
It is no exaggeration to describe Mikhail Shiskin as the greatest living Russian writer. Shishkin is already renowned in Russia as the first author to win all three of the big literary awards there: the Russian Booker, the Big Book, and the National Bestseller. I read and fell in love with Maidenhair before Shishkin withdrew from the official Russian delegation to the 2013 Book Expo America, in effect making him a dissident author. And if there is one thing history has shown, it is that the West loves dissident Russian literature. Think of the Russians who have won the Nobel Prize: Ivan Bunin (the most underrated of the great Russian authors, won the Nobel in 1933), Boris Pasternak (1958), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970), Joseph Brodsky (1987)—all officially dissidents, yet all deserving for the quality of their writing, the eternal nature of their ideas. Even before his recent political stance, Mikhail Shishkin was a worthy candidate for future Nobel laureate, and the appearance of Maidenhair in English translation started generating Nobel buzz immediately. Some say it takes a few works in English to catapult an author to global status worthy of Nobel recognition: Maidenhair is Shishkin’s first novel to appear in English, published by Open Letter Books, while his second English novel, The Light and the Dark, will be published by Quercus in November 2013. Shishkin’s Nobel future is unknown, his present candidacy for BTBA is more clear. He deserves to win, Maidenhair is a book of uncommon, exceptional genius, and its win would reserve its rightful place as the best translated book of 2012.
If this piece doesn’t convince you that Maidenhair should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, or if you can’t be bothered to read a 900-word love letter to Maidenhair, take the advice of the brilliant booksellers at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, they say what I am trying to say in far fewer words, with their own style of poetic genius:
So, our author Mikhail Shishkin (whose Maidenhair is the most important book I’ve ever published) cause a bit of a stir over the weekend, when he decided against participating in the Read Russia delegation to BookExpo America this summer.
Here’s the complete text of his letter declining the invitation, as translated from the Russia by Marian Schwartz:
To the Federal Agency for the Press and Mass Communications and the International Office of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center
February 27, 2013
Thank you for your invitation to take part in the activities of the official Russian delegation at BookExpo America 2013, the international book fair in New York being held from May 30 to June 1 of this year.
I understand how important participation in this kind of book fair is for a writer and for promoting his books in America and other countries. This is a unique opportunity to make contact with American publishers and readers, since the English-language book market remains virtually closed to writers from countries like Russia. Especially since all expenses for traveling to and staying in the United States (and this is no small sum) are taken on by the official Russian side.
Nonetheless, I am declining. Not because “my schedule doesn’t permit it,” but out of ethical considerations.
I have accepted similar proposals from you many times in the past and have participated in international book fairs as part of the Russian writers delegation, but in the last year the situation has changed.
In any self-respecting country, the state, through various foundations and organizations, supports the advancement of its writers abroad, pays for translations, invites writers to participate in international book fairs, and so on. For example, in Norway this is done by Norla; in Switzerland, Pro Helvetia. Naturally, by taking part in an official delegation, the writers represents not only himself personally and his books but also his country, his state.
Russia’s political development, and the events of last year in particular, have created a situation in the country that is absolutely unacceptable and demeaning for its people and its great culture. What is happening in my country makes me, as a Russian and a citizen of Russia, ashamed. By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me as a writer, I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.
A country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves, where elections have become farce, where courts serve the authorities, not the law, where there are political prisoners, where state television has become a prostitute, where packs of impostors pass insane laws that are returning everyone to the Middle Ages—such a country cannot be my Russia. I cannot and do not want to participate in an official Russian delegation representing that Russia.
I want to and will represent another Russia, my Russia, a country free of impostors, a country with a state structure that defends the right of the individual, not the right to corruption, a country with a free media, free elections, and free people.
Naturally, this is my personal decision and has not been made in consultation with other writers invited to New York; each is free to act in accordance with his or her own notions of ethics and reasonability.
Of course, Russia’s deputy minister of the press, Vladimir Grigoryev (who gives the most boring of all boring speeches) came out against Shishkin, using some really Sovietesque language:
We regret this. This sort of thing happens when a Russian writer spends many years away from the motherland. There are many examples of this in history.”
Yeah, gee, I wonder why . . .
And also of course, a bunch of other Russian writers are piling on Shishkin, talking about how he’s able to criticize the government from the “safety of Switzerland,” which is where Shishkin now lives.
All of this—along with the gripes that he’s doing this to get publicity for The Letter-Book, which is coming out in the UK sometime soon, or that he’s angling for the Nobel Prize—is fucking irritating. Since when is it not OK to criticize Russia and Putin’s never-ending reign? Any half-informed hipster in Brooklyn can get politico cred and free skinny jeans for yelling “Free Pussy Riot!,” but a writer being asked to represent Russia’s tyrannical, fairly insane government can only decline if he’s living in the country where Pussy Riot is jailed and Putin Youth flush away books they don’t agree with? What the fuck sense does that even make?
I’m so glad that Masha Gessen takes a lot of this to task in her NY Times piece today:
Prominent opposition writers also condemned Shishkin. Dmitry Bykov, a liberal writer and poet, suggested that Shishkin may be angling for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Eduard Limonov, a nationalist writer and poet, was more blunt: “So he is barking from Switzerland. Yes, my dear, Russia is a shameful paternalistic medieval state. But you have no right to say anything from the safety of Switzerland.”
All of this sounds painfully familiar. As a Russian journalist who speaks out against the regime, I am often told to get out of the country if I don’t like it — and just as often that, as someone who has lived in the United States and could live there again, I have no right to talk or write about Russia. By this logic, only those who have no choice but to live in Russia are entitled to criticize its regime. These arguments are old anti-dissident demagogic standbys, hardly unique to Russia, and they barely deserve attention.
But there is something else that the debate over Shishkin’s statement has exposed. The Russian state thinks it owns its citizens, including its writers, and many of its citizens, including its writers, appear instinctively to agree. To them, the very act of asserting one’s autonomy is suspect, which is why when someone does they look for ulterior motives. Shishkin must have fallen out of touch, or into bad company, or have a bigger plan, they reason — as though just claiming the right to choose one’s allegiances was not both the most basic and the most ambitious goal of all.
What really pleases me about all this is that Shishkin will be spending the month of April in the U.S., teaching at Columbia, doing events in Austin, San Francisco, Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, and as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. This tour is brought to you by Open Letter Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, the University of Buffalo, the University of Rochester, Columbia University, Holy Cross, the University of Texas, and other organizations not part of the Russian government. (More details coming soon.)
And to end on a high note, here’s a good review of the book at Slightly Bookist:
The first reading of Maidenhair is like tipping the pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw out of the box and turning them all picture-side up. It’s quite the endeavour, requiring dedication to a fiddly and time-consuming task. Once the pieces are all out, there’s a vague sense of what the finished puzzle might look like: some sky, some grass, a white poodle with a red ribbon, a Bavarian castle standing grimly above a river. In no way, though, is your task complete. The same is true of a single reading of Maidenhair: once through is simply not enough to really appreciate it. The most you can hope for is to catch sight of some particularly attractive individual pieces, a fuzzy idea of the bigger picture, some parts that look really interesting, and the occasional group of pieces that could be anything. [. . .]
Maidenhair has stayed with me in the two months since I’ve read it. It’s a book that confirms Open Letter’s excellence in curation (except, of course, for a slight gender imbalance).1 If I say it’s worth persevering with, it sounds as though reading it is unenjoyable, which is far from true. But Maidenhair is a book that demands and then rewards attention, so it’s not one to read if you’ve turned into a gadget and can’t even concentrate long enough to read a single tweet without checking your email halfway through.
Also, World Literature Today also has a positive review that reinforces the difficultly/payoff of disentangling Maidenhair:
This array of connections forms a complex puzzle that can at times be dizzyingly intricate and even baffling. But disentangling Shishkin’s structure is one of the principal pleasures of reading Maidenhair. It is not only aesthetically satisfying but also reveals Shishkin’s unique worldview, which manages to engage Russia’s literary heritage while at the same time creating something new and altogether original.
Controversy and counter-controversy aside, you should just buy and read this book. Your life will be better for it.
1 We’re always trying to change this. And although still representing only 40% of our list, over the next 15 titles, we’re bringing out 6 books written by women and two anthologies including both male and female writers. It’s never perfect, but at least that’s a bit better . . .
Sales rep superstar and international literature enthusiast George Carroll just posted a “destination guide” at NW Book Lovers that highlights a number of great presses, organizations, and books worth checking out.
Many of these—like Three Percent, New Directions, the Center for the Art of Translation—you’re probably already familiar with, but it’s always fun to see someone else talking about your books and/or the reasons for reading international literature in the first place.
There’s an opinion in publishing that literature in translation doesn’t sell— that the books are dense and unapproachable, and that Americans won’t read authors whose names we can’t pronounce. Norman Manea (The Lair, Yale Margellos) says books in translation are thought to be “too ‘complicated,’ which is another way of saying that literature should deal with simple issues in a simple way.”
Haruki Murakami once said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” If that’s true, people who read international literature are true iconoclasts. Only about three percent of all books published in the United States are works in translation. In terms of literary fiction and poetry, that number drops below one percent. And mainstream reviewers ignore most of the books that make it through the translation process into print.
I also want to point out that his three recommendations—Satantango by Laszlo Krashnahorkai, Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, and Almost Never by Daniel Sada—are three of my favorite books from 2012 . . .
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.”
Every year, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the foundation “Elementarteilchen” award the International Literature Award to the best book translated into German. This year, they gave the prize (25,000 Euro for the author and 10,000 for the translator) to Mikhail Shishkin and Andreas Tretner for the translation of Venushaar Maidenhair, available from DVA.
There are a few things about this particular award that really interest me:
1) We’re publishing Maidenhair next fall in Marian Schwartz’s translation, so kudos to us!
2) The description of this award is really interesting:
The award spotlights the diversity of contemporary lilterature around the world and the intercultural mediation performed by translators – a function that is increasingly important in a globalized society.
The prize is awarded to contemporary literary narrators who are outstanding in the international world of literature production and whose work is characterized by thematic diversity and new literary forms. Hence, the award is also an instrument of cultural policy, dedicated to the translation aspect of global cultural output and promoting interplay between international literature and a ‘literary canon’ still perceived from a national point of view.
3) I think it’s interesting how many European countries (see earlier post about the European Translation Prize) have large prizes for literature in translation.
4) The shortlist for this particular award is solid, and includes Zone, another Open Letter title (double kudos!):
José Eduardo Agualusa: Barroco tropical
A1 Verlag 2011, translated from the Portuguese by Michael Kegler
Joanna Bator: Sandberg
Suhrkamp Verlag 2011, translated from the Polish by Esther Kinsky
Edwidge Danticat: Der verlorene Vater
Edition Büchergilde 2010, translated from the English by Susann Urban
Mathias Énard: Zone“
Bloomsbury/Berlin-Verlag 2010 , translated from the French by Holger Fock and Sabine Müller
Elias Khoury: Yalo
Suhrkamp Verlag 2011, translated from the Arabic by Leila Chammaa
Michail Schischkin: Venushaar
Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt 2011, translated from the Russian by Andreas Tretner
Congrats to Shishkin, Andreas Tretner, DVA, and all the other shortlisted authors and translators.
And for more info about Maidenhair (which may well be available for next year’s Russia-centric BEA and possibly a Shiskin visit to the States), here’s an excerpt from a great post by Lisa Hayden Espenschade from her blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf:
If forced to summarize, I’d say Maidenhair is an omnibus of life – or maybe Life – that presents full ranges of pain and joy, simplicity and complexity, truth and fiction, love and war, and, of course, Mars and Venus. Maidenhair is relentlessly literary, with references to mythology and history that cross timelines and borders, but it is also relentlessly readable, even suspenseful, if you’re willing to accept its flow. [. . .]
A richly stitched, multi-layered homage to the coexistence of love and death. (NB: Without Woody Allen.) One other thing: Maidenhair also reminds that we, along with the stories we live and tell, repeat, like doubles. Shishkin reinforces the importance of our written stories in several ways. Characters mention written records and repeat old stories (I’m not telling). And the interpreter visits the remains of St. Cyril, co-creator of Cyrillic, in Rome, because those letters mean so much to him. Rome, as Eternal City, by the way, plays an important role in Maidenhair. So do belly buttons.
Yes, Maidenhair lacks a single unified plot and its story threads, knitted together by history, chance, and archetypes, sometimes wander. A lot, which can make the reading challenging but very rewarding. Two characters anchor the novel: a Russian speaker who interprets immigration interviews for Swiss authorities and a female singer named Izabella. We read Q&A sessions, we read of the interpreter’s family problems, and we read Izabella’s intermittent diaries, where we witness her growth from gushing teenager to a wife resigned to a husband’s infidelities.
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