Monday, May 06, 2013

Two short stories by Mikhail Shishkin

I linked the short story “Calligraphy Lesson” in my post providing an outline/highlights of the May 4th event with Mikhail Shishkin and Marian Schwartz. Schwartz translated Shishkin’s short story and it was published at Words Without Borders. Be sure and read her Translator’s Note since it gives background to some challenging areas on translation. The story follows anecdotes between a court secretary and several women during writing lessons, covering what they have recently seen and done. Or that’s my guess...I may be completely wrong. Their conversations and instructions prove to be the important parts of the story.

In her note Schwartz comments on the story as “highly allusive and attentive to the formal qualities of a story both inventively told and steeped in Russian atmospherics.” There are also plenty of themes and motifs that appear in Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark. The most important theme is the importance of words, in this case especially in writing. Several writing lessons happen in the course of the story, demonstrating that the physical act of writing provides as much importance as the message carried by the symbols. The study of closeness and distance is highlighted: “Take any two points in space, any two objects, and you can draw a line connecting them. There are these invisible strokes between all the things in the world. They make everything interconnected, unseverable. Distance is totally irrelevant.” People live close together often without knowing or understanding the other person. And there are plenty of violent acts reported. It’s a story where characters reveal a lot about themselves whether through their speech, their actions, or, fittingly in the court case at the end, their writing.

The second story is “Of Saucepans and Star-Showers,” translated by Leo Shtutin. You can find this story in the April 2013 issue of Spolia magazine ($5 for the current issue). Once again many of the same themes and motifs emerge but with Shishkin it doesn’t feel repetitive. He approaches them from different angles, emphasizing different aspects or features. Here we have a narrator much like Shishkin (he visits the Norwegian translator for Maidenhair, for example). The narrator is waiting for his adult son to visit, which causes the narrator to reevaluate his relationship with his father as well as the one between his father and grandfather. “It’s so important to be proud of one’s father. But I was ashamed of mine.” It’s a story with plenty of poignant and funny moments, emphasizing the importance of the little things in addition to big events when keeping a person alive in your memory.

Enjoy both stories, whether you’re a fan of Maidenhair or if you would like an introduction to Shishkin’s work.

Update: How's that for timing...the Spoila blog just posted an excerpt from "Of Saucepans and Star-Showers".


Richard said...

This might be the way for me to go with Shishkin since I'm not sure when I'll be able to make time for "Maidenhair." How interesting to think of Schwartz' comment about allusiveness and invention in Russian storytelling--I get what she means (I think much Argentinean lit is the same), but it's still kind of funny to think about those two qualities taking place at the same time within a pre-established "tradition."

Unknown said...

Thanks for this heads up. I've almost finished 'The Light and the Dark', so I'll be keen to give 'Calligraphy Lesson' a go very soon :)

Dwight said...

Richard, both are good examples and places to start. Once you read her note you'll understand one large part of the allusions in the stories are the names (and how they tie in with the stories they tell).

Tony & Richard, be sure to note the update I added--there is an excerpt from "Of Saucepans and Star-Showers" available free, too.