Following on yesterday’s announcement of Mikhail Shishkin’s April tour, here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote for The Independent, A Revolution for Russia’s Words:
My departure from the language, the loss of Russian murmuring in my ears, forced me to stop, to be silent. On the rare occasions when we meet, writers from Russia are amazed. “How can you write in this boring Switzerland? Without the language, without the tension?”
They are right – the atmospheric pressure in Russian letters is heightened. And the language is changing rapidly. My exit from Russian speech forced me to turn around and face it. Work on my text came to a halt. Just as there are rests in music, so are there silences in a text. Perhaps they are its most important part.
What is the language I left behind? What did I take with me? Where do the words go from here? A labour of silence. If I was to go further, I had to understand where the essence of writing in Russian actually lay. Being at once creator and creature of the fatherland’s reality, the Russian language is a form of existence, the body of a totalitarian consciousness. Daily life has always muddled through without words: with bellowing, interjections, and gag lines from film comedies. It is the state and literature that require coherent words.
Russian literature is not a form of existence for the language, but a way of existing in Russia for the non-totalitarian consciousness. The totalitarian consciousness has been amply served by decrees and prayers. Decrees from above, prayers from below. The latter are usually more original than the former. Swearing is the vital prayer of a prison country.
Edicts and cursing are the nation’s yin and yang, its rain and field, phallus and vagina; the verbal conception of Russian civilisation. Over the generations, prison reality produced a prison consciousness whose governing principle was that the strongest gets the best bunk. This consciousness was expressed in a language called up to serve Russian life, maintaining it in a state of continuous, unending civil war. When everyone lives by prison camp laws, the mission of language is a cold war between everyone and his neighbour. If the strong must inevitably beat the feeble, it is the mission of language to do this verbally. Humiliate him, insult him and steal his ration. Language as a form of disrespect for the individual.
Russian reality produced a language of unbridled power and abasement. The language of the Kremlin and the prison camp slang of the street share one and the same nature. In a country that lives by an unwritten but distinct law – the place of the weakest is by the slop bucket – the dialect suits the reality. Words rape. Words abuse. Had the borders always been under lock and key, there would be no Russian literature.
The whole piece is worth reading and can be found here.
The Independent ran an interview with Lars Saabye Christensen last week that’s definitely worth reading.
Although he’s been publishing books in Norway since 1976, it wasn’t until the English publication of The Half Brother in 2002 that British and American readers really found out about him. The Half Brother won the Nordic Prize and was highly regarded as a masterpiece among Scandinavian readers. When Arcadia brought it out in the UK, it received a ton of praise, and was a finalist for the IMPAC prize.
In typical publishing fashion, this book sparked off a bidding war among some of the big New York houses, where it found a home at Arcade. Reviews here were positive, but I don’t think the book sold nearly as well as it did overseas, allowing for more European slams about the philistine nature of the American reading public. Which we deserve, but whatever.
Anyway, the paperback of The Half Brother is available (for now at least) and is highly recommended. His new book—The Mode, which sounds brilliant—is just out in the UK, but doesn’t have a U.S. publisher yet.
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