Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ah, Sweet Mysteries of Life: Shishkin’s Maidenhair

I love novels like Mikhail Shishkin’s Венерин волос – the title means, literally, Venus Hair, and Marian Schwartz is translating it as Maidenhair for Open Letter, for the fern the name denotes – that seep into my thoughts and occupy my mind so much that any other reading, whether a newspaper or another book, feels like an intrusion. I’ll try to explain without giving away too much… I enjoyed Maidenhair’s unexpected twists and transitions so was glad I didn’t know many specifics before I began reading.

If forced to summarize, I’d say Maidenhair is an omnibus of life – or maybe Life – that presents full ranges of pain and joy, simplicity and complexity, truth and fiction, love and war, and, of course, Mars and Venus. Maidenhair is relentlessly literary, with references to mythology and history that cross timelines and borders, but it is also relentlessly readable, even suspenseful, if you’re willing to accept its flow. I’ve heard complaints about Maidenhair’s naturalism but I think the book would felt terribly empty without it. In summary:

И всегда так было: кому-то отрубают голову, а у двоих в толпе на площади перед эшафотом в это время первая любовь.”

“And that’s how it’s always been: at the same time someone’s head is being lopped off, two in the crowd, on the square in front of the scaffold, are in love for the first time.”

And that, dear readers – along with attendant marriages, births, bust-ups, ambitions, aging, and finding balance in the world – is how I see the crux of Maidenhair. A richly stitched, multi-layered homage to the coexistence of love and death. (NB: Without Woody Allen.) One other thing: Maidenhair also reminds that we, along with the stories we live and tell, repeat, like doubles. Shishkin reinforces the importance of our written stories in several ways. Characters mention written records and repeat old stories (I’m not telling). And the interpreter visits the remains of St. Cyril, co-creator of Cyrillic, in Rome, because those letters mean so much to him. Rome, as Eternal City, by the way, plays an important role in Maidenhair. So do belly buttons.

Yes, Maidenhair lacks a single unified plot and its story threads, knitted together by history, chance, and archetypes, sometimes wander. A lot, which can make the reading challenging but very rewarding. Two characters anchor the novel: a Russian speaker who interprets immigration interviews for Swiss authorities and a female singer named Izabella. We read Q&A sessions, we read of the interpreter’s family problems, and we read Izabella’s intermittent diaries, where we witness her growth from gushing teenager to a wife resigned to a husband’s infidelities.

Though the book’s structure and histories may sound complicated, despite familiar tropes, even Shishkin says the core is simple. Shishkin says in an interview in Contemporary Russian Fiction: A Short List: Russian Authors Interviewed by Kristina Rotkirch, that Maidenhair presents the concept “that life is not only in Russia, life is not only fear and is not at all to be feared – life is to be enjoyed.” At the 2011 London Book Fair, Shishkin likened Maidenhair and Взятие Измаила (The Taking of Ishmael) to conversations he hadn’t had with his parents. I heard Shishkin say that before I read Maidenhair, and I found the thought particularly moving after I read the book and felt the cathartic effect of its portrayal and cataloguing of the kindnesses and brutalities that life -- and thus our parents -- give us.

With difficult conversations in mind, here’s another line that struck me in its emblematic simplicity. It’s from a letter written by Izabella’s boyfriend, a soldier in World War 1:

Это я с тобой разговариваю обо всем на свете, а здесь, в окопах, вообще никогда не говорят вслух о главном – люди курят, пьют, едят, разговаривают о пустяках, о сапогах, например.

“I can speak with you about anything in the world but here, in the trenches, nobody ever talks out loud about the main thing – people smoke, drink, eat, and speak of trivial things, boots, for example.”

Of course boots are pretty important to a soldier, but his meaning is clear: the minutiae of life are fine but death, the underlying main thing, is off the list. Things probably aren’t so different for civilians.

After staring at Maidenhair’s spine on my shelf for more than a year, a bit afraid of it after hearing its reputation for difficulty, I’m happy I read straight through without researching too much as I read. It’s not that I felt lazy: I think it was important to accept the book’s flow – Maidenhair has such a mesmerizing flow that one friend likened it to a fountain – so I could appreciate the cumulative emotional effect and heady surprises of all those drops, lives, histories, people, stories, and words that Shishkin piles on. Though I picked up plenty of references, I know I missed nuances (and more) because of my lopsided knowledge of history and classics, but I’ll save a detailed analysis of Maidenhair’s shards of history, mythology, language, and, yes, Rome for another reading.

Also: Maidenhair won the National Bestseller prize in 2005.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: Close to top difficulty, though some portions, particularly the diary, are easy reading in terms of bare vocabulary.

Up Next: A BookExpo America news post. Vsevolod Benigsen’s ГенАцид (GenAcide).

Disclosures: The standard stuff applies. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting and talking with author Mikhail Shishkin and translator Marian Schwartz. I’ll be meeting publisher Chad Post of Open Letter for the first time next week at Book Expo America; I’ve enjoyed several books I’ve received from Open Letter, including Charlotte Mandell’s translation of Mathias Énard’s ZoneMaidenhair reminds me a bit (or even a lot, depending on my mood) of Zone. Finally, Natasha Perova, with whom I’ve collaborated, gave me a copy of Contemporary Russian Fiction, which I’m finding very useful.

Image credit: Maidenhair fern in Parco dei Nebrodi, Sicily, from tato grasso, via Wikipedia.


  1. A great blog post, Liza! I met Mikhail Shishkin briefly at a book signing for Venerin volos two years ago; he appeared to me then as a very genuine, friendly person - a writer who doesn't patronise or pre-judge his public. I'm ashamed to say that my beautiful hardback, bought that night, has been sitting unread on my shelf ever since. Your blog may encourage me to finally get started...

  2. Thanks so much, Russian Dinosaur -- I'm glad that post worked! I truly was thankful I didn't realize how Maidenhair was structured before I started reading, thus I didn't want to explain or expose too much. I'm looking forward to hearing what you think of it. From what I've seen, it's the kind of book that generates highly varied reader responses and reading methods!

    I agree with what you say about Shishkin: it was lots of fun talking with him in London.

  3. Thanks for the post; I just got a copy of Взятие Измаила and this makes me even more eager to read it. If I enjoy it as much as I expect, I'll be buying more of his work -- he sounds like exactly the kind of writer I like best.

    (Confidential to RD: I keep going to your blog, hoping for a new post...)

  4. Languagehat, I can't speak for Взятие Измаила (yet... it's waiting on the shelf...) but definitely think you'll enjoy reading Shishkin.

    Russian Dinosaur, I'm also looking forward to your next post...

  5. Lisa, thank you for, as usual, a great post! It just confirmed my desire to own Шишкин. I just read his short stories in a сборник "Лауреаты ведущих литературных премий". At least one of the stories - "Слепой музыкант" was written in the same style as "Венерин волос". It was pretty good.

    I was thinking that Шишкин's books would make good plays and was intrigued to find out that there was a play "Самое важное" based on "Венерин волос". It would be interesting to see it.

  6. Спасибо всем за доброе слово! As it's term-time (and a hectic term at that), I've had no time for anything extracurricular recently. Don't worry, this dinosaur is not extinct.
    Very intrigued by Dolgormaa's information that Venerin volos has been produced as a play... I wonder if there is a translation in the works for Western performance?

  7. Thank you, Dolgormaa and Russian Dinosaur for your comments. A few things:

    Dolgormaa, you are right that Shishkin is a good writer to own! His writing is so complex and loaded that I'm sure I'll be looking back at Венерин волос more than once... I made a lot of notes in the book. And thank you for mentioning the play. What a perfect novel to adapt for stage. Anyone who's interested can find links on the Shishkin Wikipedia page. Alas, I'm in travel exhaustion mode so haven't looked at them yet!

    Russian Dinosaur, I hope all the term-time work goes well! I'll ask about the play translation this week: I'll be seeing both Marian Schwartz and Chad Post (publisher of the translated novel) this week. It's an intriguing idea...

  8. Доброе слово и динозавру приятно, as they say!

  9. Translated version is on its way to me. Can't wait to read it!

    1. It's nice to hear from you, Dwight! I hope you enjoy the book.

  10. I want to add that Dwight's post about Maidenhair, available here, covers some threads in the novel that I did not... there's so much to choose from! He also includes a nice list of links to reviews and other articles, none of which existed when I wrote this post last year!

  11. Great to find somebody blogging about Russian literature at such a level and to such an extent. I wonder how you compare Shishkin's Ismail novel to Maidenhair. I found the former to be superior what with all the Joycean language experiments.

    1. I haven't yet read Ismail/... it's been patiently waiting on my shelf for some years!