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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Light and the Dark

Mikhail Shishkin

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To purchase The Light and the Dark

Title: The Light and the Dark
Author: Mikhail Shishkin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 312 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Light and the Dark - US
The Light and the Dark - UK
The Light and the Dark - Canada
The Light and the Dark - India
Deux heures moins dix - France
Briefsteller - Deutschland
  • Russian title: Письмовник
  • Translated by Andrew Bromfield

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Our Assessment:

A- : curious approach, but ultimately effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 26/11/2012 Sabine Berking
The Guardian . 13/3/2013 Phoebe Taplin
The Independent . 15/5/2013 Anna Aslanyan
NZZ . 24/11/2012 Jörg Plath
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/1/2014 Boris Fishman
Sunday Times . 14/4/2013 Phil Baker
TLS . 8/10/2010 Victor Sonkin
Wall Street Journal . 20/1/2014 Sam Sacks
Die Zeit . 13/3/2013 Fokke Joel

  From the Reviews:
  • "Man möchte gar nicht aufhören zu lesen ! (...) Manch einer wird denken, das sei Esoterik, andere dagegen: So schön kann es nur ein Russe schreiben." - Sabine Berking, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Shishkin's writing is both philosophically ambitious and sensually specific" - Phoebe Taplin, The Guardian

  • "It really does not matter if the lovers have ever met in person. The only witness who counts is the author -- or, more precisely, his prose. Having dismissed the plot, Shishkin is free to say what he wants" - Anna Aslanyan, The Independent

  • "Vor allem aber entwickelt sich der Briefwechsel nach dem Tod Wolodjas zu zwei Prosastimmen, die nicht wie Briefe aufeinander Bezug nehmen können, jedoch auch nicht die volle Freiheit gewinnen. Jeder erzählt sein Leben, fragt jedoch nicht nach, spinnt nicht weiter. Sascha und Wolodja missverstehen sich auch nicht. Sie monologisieren. Zwei Erzählungen laufen nebeneinanderher, und es entsteht kein Band zwischen ihnen, das aus der Vergangenheit in die Zukunft führt." - Jörg Plath, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "However, if The Light and the Dark is so excellent -- some reviewers have linked Shishkin to Joyce and Nabokov, though these days generic play seems to be enough to earn the first comparison and a vague readiness for trickery the second -- why did I slog through it like Volodya trudging through China ? Perhaps because, alongside genuine erudition and insight, Shishkin regularly subjects us to observations that would embarrass college freshmen ? (...) Is it that the narrative, while not quite free of plot, is indifferent to storytelling, that for all their exhalations, I never cared how things turned out for Sasha and Volodya ?" - Boris Fishman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Shishkin’s language is wonderfully lucid and concise. Without sounding archaic, it reaches over the heads of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (whose relationship with the Russian language was often uneasy) to the tradition of Pushkin. Mikhail Shishkin’s previous novels were collages of different genres and styles; the structure of Pis’movnik is more straightforward, but its apparent simplicity (though no more than a literary device) only adds to its gravity and conviction." - Victor Sonkin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Even more mysteriously ambiguous is the precise relationship of these two characters. On a literal level, their letters are simply candid diary entries addressed to figments of the imagination. But the novel keeps drawing readers toward intangible connections formed outside what Volodya calls the world's shell. It is remarkable how many reverberating subtleties and plaintive, lingering questions Mr. Shishkin evokes through his lovers' indirect dialogue. (...) Mr. Shishkin has created a bewitching potion of reality and fantasy, of history and fable, and of lonely need and joyful consolation." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Michail Schischkin gelingt es, das Leben seiner Briefsteller überzeugend in seiner ganzen Vielfältigkeit zu erzählen." - Fokke Joel, Die Zeit

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:

       The Light and the Dark is an epistolary novel, consisting entirely of the letters Volodya/Volodenka and Sashka/Sashenka write to each other -- he from his military duty in China (mainly in Tientsin/Tianjin, at the turn of the last century, during the Boxer Rebellion), she from back home in Russia. They are clearly writing to each other, yet their letters are not the usual back-and-forth of correspondence; indeed, it appears practically none of their communications actually reach each other. Their letters are not responsive but rather stand on their own, as each alternately tells their own stories. Not only that: eventually the timelines diverge (as Sashka notes in one of her letters -- taking relativity a step further --: "It has also been demonstrated experimentally that there's something funny going on with time. Events can take place in any sequence and happen to anybody at all"). While Volodya's letters are all from his time during the military campaign, Sashka's timeframe advances years ahead. And less than a third of the way through, Sashka reports on the news Volodya's parents received: that he died on the front.
       The Light and the Dark isn't much of a love story: the pair was only briefly together, and though there is an obvious deep bond between them -- Sashka continues to write to Volodya even after she moves on (becoming involved with a married man with a daughter, for one) -- there is no future for it. Still, even across the void and unresponsiveness Volodya can feel:

     You and I have been one whole for a long time. You are me. I am you. What can separate us ? There is nothing that could separate us.
       Neither space, nor time separate the essence they cling to -- even if that means being without any tangible connection. And one of the things that connects them is this need to write -- obviously so in the case of Sashka, who continues to write to Volodya years after his death, but also for him. Mortality-obsessed -- terrifyingly so already in his mid-teens -- writing gives him a hold:
Only words can somehow justify the existence of the existent, give meaning to the momentary, make the unreal real, make me me.
       In revealing themselves, describing their pasts (they dredge up a lot of unhappy family history) and presents, they are defining themselves. For Volodya, it also means reassuring himself (and Sashka) -- even as he realizes that the letters are and offer an after-life, too:
Look, if I'm writing these lines, it means that nothing has happened to me. I'm writing, so I'm still alive.
     Only when will you get this letter ? And will you get it at all ? But you know what they say: The only letters that don't get there are the ones that are never written.
       In one letter Sashka writes:
     He explained to you why it was all right to read other people's letters:
     "Because we're going to die too. And from the letters' point of view we're already dead. There are no letters that are someone else's.
       Mortality is a central theme in the novel, with Volodya confronting it at every turn in China (and, as he notes, he was already deeply concerned with it earlier) -- and finding that here, facing death, the feeling is one: "As if I had been living in some unreal world, but now I am beginning -- the real me." This search for the very essence seems to drive both of them. As Volodya suggests:
     You know, Sashka, the way it is is probably this: the corporeal, visible shell of the world -- the material -- gets stretched and greasy, chafed and worn into holes, and then the essence pokes out, like a toe sticking through a hole in a sock.
       She, in turn, finds:
     Everything around me is message and messenger at the same time.
       The Light and the Dark is a sad novel -- not because of the lost, impossible love (indeed, much as Sashka and Volodya long for each other, they manage reasonably well, given the circumstances) but because of everything else in their lives, from their unpleasant childhoods to Sashka's unfulfilled affair and attempts at playing the mother-role (and, of course, in Volodya's case, his own death). Lots of people around both of them die, for one thing -- or, for the main thing, in this mortality-obsessed story that suggests what carries beyond death is art -- even as art is a complete negation. Volodya suggests: "To be a writer is to be no one" -- but, as mortals, we are all eventually 'no one': to write is to immortalize, to reach a universal plane.
       Shishkin has the talents that his novel -- story, conversation, philosophical text -- conveys all this (and more). It's an odd novel in both its embrace of some conventions and then its refusal to hew to them. It reads, on a level, like a conventional romance -- yet the romance is only part of it (and the romance is also anything but conventional).
       Separated from his true love, Volodya finds in the war-zone:
     This feeling of happiness comes from the realization that none of all this around me is real.
       Tangible 'reality' is not what matters most, but rather what they make of memory and imagination. Even direct communication is not the highest priority: they hope to get each other's letters, but what matters is the writing of them.
       It all makes for a fascinating, rich read -- not as the story of a love affair, but as a meditation on the human condition itself.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 January 2014

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The Light and the Dark: Reviews: Other books by Mikhail Shishkin under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of literature from Russia

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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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