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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Mikhail Shishkin

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To purchase Maidenhair

Title: Maidenhair
Author: Mikhail Shishkin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 506 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Maidenhair - US
Maidenhair - UK
Maidenhair - Canada
Maidenhair - India
Le cheveu de Vénus - France
Venushaar - Deutschland
Capelvenere - Italia
  • Russian title: Венерин волос
  • Translated by Marian Schwartz

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Our Assessment:

A- : what seems like an odd mix of narratives works together to surprisingly powerful effect

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Dallas Morning News A+ 26/11/2012 Daniel Kalder
FAZ . 14/6/2011 Sabine Berking
The Harvard Crimson . 6/11/2012 Grace E. Huckins
London Rev. of Books . 22/11/2012 James Meek
NZZ A+ 12/3/2011 Ulrich M. Schmid
Publishers Weekly . 20/8/2012 .
TLS . 29/3/2013 Boris Dralyuk

  From the Reviews:
  • "The first thing to stress about Maidenhair is that any attempt at summarizing the novelís extraordinary complexity will fail miserably. (...) Maidenhair is neither dry nor difficult. It is a delight to read. (...) Maidenhair is the best post-Soviet Russian novel I have read. Simply put, it is true literature, a phenomenon we encounter too rarely in any language." - Daniel Kalder, Dallas Morning News

  • "Michail Schischkin ist ein Sprachvirtuose, dessen surreale, apokalyptische Szenarien an die Filme seines Landsmannes Andrei Tarkowski erinnern. Andreas Tretner hat diese Sprachkraft meisterhaft ins Deutsche übertragen. Dennoch erweist sich die Lektüre als ermüdender Kraftakt. Die umfangreichen, umsichtigen Anmerkungen des Übersetzers zu den zahllosen historischen und literarischen Anspielungen erleichtern die Rezeption nur bedingt. Denn allzu oft erschöpft sich die postmoderne Komplexität im Manierismus -- und der Leser verliert in der Kakophonie der Stimmen die Orientierung." - Sabine Berking, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Maidenhair is as a whole a success, a potent, encyclopedic exploration of the art of storytelling. (...) Shishkin possesses an acute sense of the length of time he can spend in artful, fantastical language, and knows when he instead needs to tell a story that is easily comprehensible. His balancing of multiple narrative styles is perhaps the greatest feat of his narrative. For all that Shishkin does to craft a profound, beautiful work of literature, a potentially subpar translation occasionally disrupt the reader." - Grace E. Huckins, The Harvard Crimson

  • "Venushaar ist einer der wichtigsten Romane der russischen Gegenwartsliteratur. Literarisches Stilempfinden, psychologischer Scharfblick und kompositorisches Gefühl bilden gemeinsam die Grundlage für einen meisterhaften Text, der das Romangenre neu definiert. Michail Schischkin verfügt über ein feines Gehör für die Selbsttäuschungen seiner Protagonisten (inklusive der Erzählerfigur) und verbindet ihre Geschichten zu einer raffinierten Konstruktion, bei der auch ein Vladimir Nabokov vor Neid erblassen könnte." - Ulrich M. Schmid, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Shishkin boldly manipulates his various materials (.....) Despite this potentially dehumanizing perspective, Shishkin finds faith of sorts in the next iteration of the story. A curiously beguiling, if exhausting, novel." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Marian Schwartz's brilliant translation (.....) Shishkin's prodigious erudition, lapidary phrasing and penchant for generic play are conspicuous components of his art in both Maidenhair and the earlier novels" - Boris Dralyuk, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Maidenhair seems like an unusual novel, first offering one thing then another, and certainly not offering some story with a nice arc from beginning to end. The protagonist is known only as 'the interpreter'. He lives in Switzerland and is employed as a translator for Russian-speaking asylum-seekers (and the occasional prisoner) when they deal with the authorities. Years earlier, when he was still living in Russia (where he was 'the teacher'), he had been hired by a publisher to write the biography of long-lived singer Bella Dmitrievna, born in Czarist Russia and surviving well past the downfall of the Soviet empire; the project collapsed, but long excerpts from her reminiscences and diaries -- the raw material he was to use -- are included in the novel. There are also the letters he writes to his son, whom he calls his Nebuchadnezzasaurus, as well as some episodes from his own life.
       Maidenhair consists of a variety of life-accounts. The biggest chunk is devoted to Bella's life, but there are also transcriptions of many of the interviews with asylum-seekers where the interpreter is the middle-man (neither posing nor answering questions, and yet an essential conduit). The Swiss official the interpreter works for, Peter Fischer, is the: "Master of fates", determining what becomes of the asylum-seekers. As he explains about the interrogations:

It's about clarifying circumstances. In order to keep them out of paradise, we have to ferret out what really happened. But how can you of people become the stories they tell ? You just can't. That means it's all very simple. Since you can't clarify the truth, you at least need to clarify the lie.
       The stories Peter and the interpreter hear are often horrible -- yet clearly, too, the asylum-seekers are manipulating the facts or in some cases even simply inventing stories which they know will make their applications more likely to be accepted. Doubting Peter has seen most of the tricks, and sees through most of these -- but Shishkin presents these encounters largely simply in Q & A form, with little embellishment or interpretation: the stories as given.
       Early on an asylum seeker explains:
Those speaking may be fictitious, but what they say is real. Truth lies only in where it is concealed. Fine, the people aren't real but the stories, oh the stories are ! [...] What difference does it make who it happened to ? It's always a sure thing. The people here are irrelevant. It's the stories that can be authentic or not. You just need to tell an authentic story. Just the way it happened. And not invent anything. We are what we say. A freshly planned destiny is packed with people no one needs, like an ark; all the rest is the floodgates of heaven. We become what is written in the transcript. The words.
       Indeed, the focus is on the stories -- and so, for example, the interpreter also has little sense of what become of these people after their interviews, regardless of the outcome: the people are reduced to these brief life-summaries that they have tailored for themselves (for this specific purpose).
       Maidenhair presents this array of life-stories, that range from appropriated ones to the ones people fashion for themselves out of their own facts. The interpreter is desperate for stories: he constantly whinges in his letters to his son that he hears so little from him -- i.e. complains that he doesn't have the son's own narrative, allowing him to form a better picture of the distant boy. Foolishly, too, he would occasionally look into his wife's diary -- and find there the alternative narratives she toyed with, as she clearly never entirely got over the loss of her first love in a tragic accident. Aside from Bella's diaries and reminiscences, the interpreter also retreats into historical accounts -- adapting them to his own reality: stories from Xenophon, Tristan and Isolde, Daphnis and Chloe (which comes up in one of the interrogations), and the like.
       The interpreter meets a former teacher while in Rome, and she complains to him:
You're mixing everything up ! You've always mixed everything up ! You're a bungler.
       Maidenhair displays that confusion -- yet the bungling is as revealing as any ostensible clarity.
       Bella wonders in her reminiscences, looking far, far back:
     But why do I remember it ? Who needs to know about a nonexistent number in a nonexistent cloakroom ? After all, no one is going to hang my coat, the hand-me-down from my sisters, on that hook. And never again in winter after classes will I go down to the cloakroom and pull on the detested thick trousers under my school dress and tie my hood before setting off for home. My home doesn't even exist. Nothing I once had now exists. No one and nothing.
    Or maybe it does. Here it is, before my eyes, the auditorium on the second floor where the windows' reflections can snake so over the parquet floor.
       Shishkin is fascinated by the concept of the narratives we create for ourselves, whether entirely imagined, or based on what we think is memory and fact. Yet he doesn't ram that idea down readers' throats; he merely offers it here, in many variations, but also allows the stories themselves to be spun out. It makes for an unusual novel -- unusual in the sense that it is unlike what one has encountered before, and unlike what one has come to expect. It expands, in a small but significant way, our understanding of what the novel can be and do -- quite a remarkable achievement.
       A big, odd novel, well worth experiencing.

       Note that the German edition of Maidenhair comes with nearly two-hundred endnotes, while the English version offers little more than footnotes that translate phrases and the like that are in other languages (although one also finds the odd lone explanatory footnote 20: "A reference to Gogol's 'Diary of a Madman'") -- and additional foot- or endnotes might have been helpful with regards to some (or many ...) of the references. (Oddly, too, for all the translated German, Latin, French, and Italian names and exchanges, the shout: "Eloi ! Eloi ! Lama sabachthani ?" at the book's closing remains unfootnoted or translated; is that really such a given ?)

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 November 2012

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Maidenhair: 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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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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