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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Calligraphy Lesson

Mikhail Shishkin

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To purchase Calligraphy Lesson

Title: Calligraphy Lesson
Author: Mikhail Shishkin
Genre: Stories
Written: (Eng. 2015)
Length: 169 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Calligraphy Lesson - US
Calligraphy Lesson - UK
Calligraphy Lesson - Canada
Calligraphy Lesson - India
  • Originally written between 1993 and 2013
  • The Collected Stories
  • Translated by Marian Schwartz, Leo Shtutin, Sylvia Maizell, and Mariya Bashkatova

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Our Assessment:

B : fine and revealing collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 17/7/2015 James Womack
Wall St. Journal . 15/5/2015 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "This extremely well-translated collection of fiction, memoirs and essays provides a useful point of entry, a summary of Shishkin's abiding themese and approaches over the first twenty years of his career." - James Womack, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) welcome volume of stories from Russia’s finest contemporary fiction writer, Mikhail Shishkin, full of his typical fusing of mysticism and modernist experimentation." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Calligraphy Lesson collects eight stories by Mikhail Shishkin written over some two decades, including his 1993 breakout story, the title piece. They fall into two main categories: the personal, in which Shishkin recounts or reflects on personal experience, and the polyphonic, such as the title-piece and 'The Blind Musician', in which an overlap of voices makes for a tapestry-story -- with 'The Bell Tower of San Marco' teetering between the two, Shishkin describing a relationship from over a century ago and quoting extensively from the correspondence of the two lovers.
       Several personal stories offer insight into Shishkin's life and path. 'The Half-Belt Overcoat' revolves around the passing of his mother, allowing for a look back to his Soviet childhood and youth and his relationship with his mother. Shishkin repeatedly deals with memory -- recorded, remembered, and reconstructed: several times in the collection he mentions the loss of most of the family memorabilia (including, as he notes here, a diary of his mother's) in a fire at his brother's house, and here he describes how he came to write Maidenhair -- observing that there was little personal record to go on in his (re)construction of the central character, since during the long Soviet era she sensibly acted like most people:

In those years people were afraid of their own past -- it was impossible to tell what might later put you in mortal danger.
       Shishkin moved to Switzerland, and several of the stories are set there, as he deals with holding onto his language and heritage in this very different environment. He recognizes that Russianness is hard to translate or understand away from the homeland, that so much goes into language and literature, and so much is informed by experience; he sees that he has to reposition himself in order to manage for himself. Meanwhile, it's eye-opening to him that:
     The students in the Zurich Slavic seminar read Kharms (with a dictionary and delight), but it's not the same Kharms. The Swiss Kharms is about something else. Ours is Platonov's identical twin. Their words, their Russian substance, cast on the Alpine wind, are pure.
       Both 'Language Saved' and the concluding piece, 'In a Boat Scratched on the Wall', seem more like personal essays than pieces of fiction, as Shishkin explains his relationship to the Russian language, and to holding onto it and finding a way to reclaim it for himself (after first enduring a descent into silence) -- forced to build his own "Russian literary ark" away from the corrupted country.
       In 'Nabokov's Inkblot' Shishkin accompanies Kovalev, a typical 'New Russian' -- ridiculously wealthy, part of the new corrupt system -- visiting Switzerland with his wife and young daughter. Ostensibly hired as an interpreter, Shishkin realizes that he's being paid to be: "a lackey, not an interpreter". The man doesn't recognize him, but Shishkin remembers Kovalev from their student days, when Kovalev had loudly toed the Soviet line. The job does give Shishkin the opportunity to visit Nabokov's room in the hotel in Montreux where the master and his wife lived so long -- and to see and touch the famous inkblot in Nabokov's desk-drawer -- a simple pleasure in which Shishkin wants to see meaning, but being in the company of privileged Kovalev can make it difficult -- at least in the moment -- to fully appreciate what is truly meaningful and memorable. Yet even Kovalev, who can provide any and all material comforts for the family he genuinely seems to love -- while Shishkin struggles to get by --, understand (very well, it turns out) that his own position is precarious.
       In 'Calligraphy Lesson', 'The Blind Musician', and, to a slightly lesser extent, 'The Bell Tower of San Marco', Shishkin uses a variety of voices to construct his counterpoint stories.
       It's noteworthy that much here is epistolary, or at least documentary: Shishkin specifically relying on the written word, in letters or documents, and not merely the easier-lost spoken one. As if writing -- right down to the form (as in the calligraphy) itself -- can be determinative and shape any content, one of these characters suggests:
Even if you only write one word, to say nothing of a page, make it harmony itself, so that its regularity and beauty offer that whole crazy world, that whole caveman mindset.
       With its manageable size and its variety -- and the personal background revealed in some of the pieces --, Calligraphy Lesson is an ideal introduction to Shishkin and his work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 June 2015

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Calligraphy Lesson: Reviews: Other books by Mikhail Shishkin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Mikhail Shishkin (Михаил Шишкин; Mikhaïl Chichkine; Michail Schischkin) was born in 1961.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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