There was a crowd of lushes at the bar of the Hotel Rex, so I was a few minutes late to the reading in the Salon. One of the most respected writers in Russia, Mikhail Shishkin, was reading passages in Russian from his novel Maidenhair. They were then read in English by his translator, Marian Schwartz. The Salon was full – it seats 75 and there are sketches of some “ink-stained wretches” on the wall. Poe was staring over the Russian writer’s shoulder while he read.

Evgeniya Frolkova

photo by Evgeniya Frolkova

The event was put on by the Center for the Art of Translation. After 20 minutes of hearing from the book, the moderator, Scott Esposito, asked the author and translator questions. He began by referring to the novel as a success, but Shishkin questioned the premise, asking if he meant the American way of success — in other words, numbers of books sold. That would put him on the level of a supermarket romance novel. He noted that crime stories sold better in Russia, and that a certain critic said he would “eat his underpants in public” if the book sold more than 50,000 copies in one year. It did, but he didn’t.

The moderator said something about it being a difficult book, which Shishkin took issue with. Maybe it was difficult to translate, but not to read. He has a good voice, and hearing him speak Russian reminded me of when I saw the poet Joseph Brodsky back in the 1980’s. A foreign language is another dimension, it’s like visiting a country where the fundamentals of life are similar but everything has a different name. Shishkin has spent many years living in Zurich and Berlin (he was born in 1961) and advises writers to spend long periods of time outside of their country. It puts things in perspective when you get some distance on where you grew up, finding out what other countries have in common or not. When politicians take credit for the sun coming up, and that it rises better in this country than anywhere else, it’s good to find out for yourself and know the sun also rises in other countries. I spent a year in Europe when I was 24, which may have had something to do with my not being the most patriotic person around.

There was much ado about translation. Shishkin studied German and English at the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. The entry in Wikipedia goes on to say, “After graduation he worked as a street sweeper, road worker, journalist, school teacher, and translator.” He married a Swiss woman, they lived in Moscow for a while, then moved to Switzerland where he got a job as an interpreter on the border. He worked with Russians seeking asylum. It was a bad job, rather depressing, but much of his novel incorporates that experience. He said he doesn’t make things up.

Shishkin wondered how a Russian writer could live in a “boring” country like Switzerland, being uprooted from the conditions which had formed him:

But there is a long tradition of writers in exile, whether forced or voluntary, including Henry Miller, Nabokov, and Hemingway. He also referred to previous generations as being slaves, for whom “singing was more important than money…” because that is how you got your dignity back. People in Russia in the 1930’s through the 1950’s were “so afraid,” constantly worried that something from their past might incriminate them with the authorities, that they kept no journals and wrote few books.

Schwartz decided to translate his book because they had a “stylistic affinity.” There are a lot of neologisms and some wordplay. He told her if it didn’t work in English to leave it out, but she usually found a way to make it work. She made four passes through the book (later saying it was more) where the translation was read aloud by someone while she compared it to the Russian text.

shishkin_maidenhairWhen asked how long he spent on the novel, Shishkin said he is not a professional writer. He doesn’t turn out a book every year (more like every five years). There are two kinds of writers: a master of the novel, who writes on schedule and knows where it is going, and the servant of the novel, who is constantly waiting for the bell to start. That is Shishkin. He doesn’t invent stories. In a sense, he has been writing the book all his life, inasmuch as the stories – based on his own experiences and on those of others – have been accumulating for a long time. He noted that the Russian language is his enemy. He hates it, and has been struggling against it his whole life. “Words are dead,” but it is up to the writer to “resurrect words” and bring them back to life.

He told an anecdote about his Bulgarian translator (he has been translated into ten languages). He never got any questions from him and was worried. He finally met him, an older man whose knowledge of the Russian language and literature surpassed his own. The translator said, “What if I were translating Homer?” In other words, the best writer to translate is a dead one.

Shishkin was asked about Book Expo America, which he backed out of. He was supposed to represent Russia, reading his work under a portrait of Putin who he dislikes immensely. He explained that a writer shouldn’t write on political themes — that’s for journalists. However, that didn’t mean he had to put a “human face” on a corrupt regime. There were fake elections in a system where the authorities steal money from the people, and the mass media are used for brainwashing by the state. The country is heading into the middle ages with the assumption of a “Holy Russia” surrounded by enemies. The politicians are impostors. He was saying all of this with a quiet determination. He could no longer represent Russia at international literary events. It was a huge controversy, but most of the people supported him. The government responded with defamation, saying he is a foreign agent living in the west. He referred to the czar and the poet, saying the poet always wins in the end.

The moderator opened it up to questions from the audience, and I raised my hand. I brought up Solzhenitsyn, who spent years in exile in the U.S. (which he criticized for being decadent), and asked what Solzhenitsyn had meant to him. He had a long response, saying The Gulag Archipelago had ruined the communists. He also said that “No one wants a revolution.” There are two Russias: one is educated and liberal, with an internet ghetto for the intellectuals; the other is poor and provincial, getting their information from the state-controlled television.

When Shishkin was young, he was told he lived in a free country. Eventually he realized it was a prison. He said the revolution of 1917 failed because of the world war. It failed again in the early 1990’s because they did not have a third class. He referred to the “catastrophe of the 20th century,” which is how many Russians see it.

A woman asked about demonstrations, why there were more in Russia than here. He didn’t know what she was talking about, and if that was even true. He finally said that civil society is very young in Russia, and referred to Gogol’s Dead Souls, which was written outside of Russia.

The discussion was interrupted by someone saying we had to end the event after barely 90 minutes. However, a few of us hung around and were able to speak with Shishkin. I told him there was an eerie resemblance to this country when he was describing the evils of the Putin regime. Others agreed, and he was a little surprised that we thought in those terms. I asked him about Nabokov. He thought his best book as a Russian writer was The Gift. A Romanian fellow questioned him about the necessity of leaving one’s country for a “boring” one. Isn’t that like dying? Shishkin didn’t think so. I noticed how his hands were soft and delicate, a friendly man who doesn’t drink.

This is what I believe: If somewhere on earth the wounded are finished off with rifle butts, that means somewhere else people have to be singing and rejoicing in life! The more death there is around, the more important to counter it with life, love, and beauty!

Maidenhair, by Mikhail Shishkin