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Calligraphy Lesson

Calligraphy Lesson

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By Mikhail Shishkin
Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, Leo Shtutin, Sylvia Maizell, and Mariya Bashkatova

The first English-language collection of short stories by Russia's greatest contemporary author, Mikhail Shishkin, the only author to win all three of Russia's most prestigious literary awards.

Publication Date: May 12, 2015

Paperback: 9781941920039
eBook: 9781941920022


Calligraphy Lesson is the first English-language collection of short stories by Mikhail Shishkin, the most acclaimed contemporary author in Russia.

Often included in discussions of Nobel Prize contenders, Shishkin is a master prose writer in the breathtakingly beautiful style of the greatest Russian authors, known for complex, allusive novels about universal and emotional themes. Shishkin's stories read like modern versions of the eternal literature written by his greatest inspirations: Boris Pasternak, Ivan Bunin, Leo Tolstoy, and Mikhail Bulgakov.

Shishkin's short fiction is the perfect introduction to his breathtaking oeuvre, his stories touch on the same big themes as his novels, spanning discussions of love and loss, death and eternal life, emigration and exile. Calligraphy Lesson spans Shishkin's entire writing career, including his first published story, the 1993 Debut Prize winning "Calligraphy Lesson," and his most recent story "Nabokov's Inkblot," which was written for a dramatic adaptation performed in Zurich in 2013.

Biographical Note

Mikhail Shishkin is one of the most acclaimed contemporary Russian literary figures, and is the only author to win all three major Russian literary prizes (including the Russian Booker Prize). The Guardian said of Shishkin's writing: "richly textured and innovative. . . arguably Russia's greatest living novelist." Born in Moscow 1961, Shishkin studied English and German at Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. After graduation he worked as a street sweeper, road worker, journalist, school teacher, and translator. He debuted as a writer in 1993, when his short story "Calligraphy Lesson" was published in Znamya magazine, which went on to win him the Debut Prize. Since 1995 he has lived in Switzerland. Shishkin's books have been translated into more than ten languages. His prose is universally praised for style, and his novels and stories deal with universal themes like death, resurrection, and love. Shishkin has been compared to numerous great writers, including Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce. Shishkin carries on the tradition of the greatest Russian writers, and admits to their influence in his work, "Bunin taught me not to compromise, and to go on believing in myself. Chekhov passed on his sense of humanity - that there can’t be any wholly negative characters in your text. And from Tolstoy I learned not to be afraid of being naïve."

Marian Schwartz began her career in literary translation in 1978 with her translation of Landmarks, a 1909 collection of essays on the Russian intelligentsia written by some of Russia's most eminent philosophers of the day. In the three decades since then she has published over sixty volumes of fiction and nonfiction, biography, criticism, fine arts, and history. Schwartz studied Russian at Harvard University, Middlebury Russian School, and Leningrad State University and received a Master of Arts in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Texas at Austin in 1975. Schwartz is perhaps best known for her prize-winning translations of works by Russian émigré writer Nina Berberova, including seven volumes of fiction (The Accompanist, The Tattered Cloak, Billancourt Tales, The Revolt, Cape of Storms, The Book of Happiness, and The Ladies from St. Petersburg) and one biography (Moura: The Dangerous Life of the Baroness Budberg, translated with Richard D. Sylvester). Schwartz's translation of Edvard Radzinsky's The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II was on the New York Times' bestseller list for sixteen weeks.

Leo Shtutin is a final-year PhD student at Oxford and a freelance translator with knowledge of several languages and experience of professional translating and interpreting, as well as work at the BBC.

Mariya Bashkatova is a senior at Brown University studying Comparative Literature and Cognitive Neuroscience. At Brown, she writes for the school newspaper and is involved in the Aldus Journal of Translation. Mariya is an avid reader and enjoys translating Russian and French literature.

Sylvia Maizell studied Russian Literature at the University of Chicago, in Moscow and in Saint Petersburg, and has taught Russian. For the past decade she has worked as a translator from Russian, including stories by Mikhail Shishkin, Vladimir Makanin, Andrei Gelasimov, Ludmila Petrushevskaya, and Dina Rubina. Her translations have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Best European Fiction 2011, Moscow Noir, Russian Love Stories (Middlebury Studies), Metamorphoses, Partisan Review, and Dance Chronicle: Studies in Dance and Related Arts.


One of World Literature Today's 2015 Summer Reads

"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

"Mikhail Shishkin is arguably Russia's greatest living novelist." The Guardian

“[Shishkin] manages to engage Russia’s literary heritage while at the same time creating something new and altogether original.” World Literature Today

“Shishkin has been described as the heir apparent of the great Russian novelists, and indeed, there are times when he seems to have taken the best from each of them.” The Quarterly Conversation

“Shishkin tends not to be sentimental or idealistic— indeed, he is usually quite the opposite—and this gives the more positive or transcendent moments extra punch." Sibelan Forrester, The Slavic Review

"Shishkin is virtuosic, his subjects move through others' stories in dizzying/awe-inspiring ways. Incredible!" Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion's Gaze

"Though the stories in CALLIGRAPHY LESSON are steeped in Russian history and have a distinctly Russian tone, many of the philosophical quandaries they engage extend beyond language and borders — they are universal problems, and this translation boldly and successfully takes them on." Caroline North, Dallas Observer

"Shishkin is fantastically, magically talented." —Julie Hersh, Music & Literature

"Compact, and at times riveting to read, this collection delivers a well-rounded portrait of Russian’s most acclaimed contemporary writer." Lucy Renner Jones, Words Without Borders

"An ideal introduction to Shishkin and his work." Michael Orthofer, Complete Review

"Nothing I read about [Shishkin], however, quite prepared me for the desperate urgency of CALLIGRAPHY LESSON, as if its lyricism were only a last match struck against the darkness. His prose breathes life – doesn’t breathe it, gasps it, aware of the perishability of words, of worlds dying in each instant, and us dying with them, as life is beaten out of us second by second." Cynthia Haven, The Book Haven

"Characters with great pathos navigate a distinctly post-Soviet bedlam . . . The collection consists of artfully constructed, empathetic tales of people living in the midst cyclonic time." Jacob Kiernan, New Orleans Review

"I highly recommend Calligraphy Lesson for the beautiful language, moving stories and the emotional characters." The Book Binder's Daughter

"Complex and allusive . . . juxtaposed with autobiographical – and at times overtly politicised – narratives . . . [the final story] takes us beyond fiction and into the realm of the philosophical essay . . . the collection stands at the nexus between Shishkin’s novelistic output and his increasingly outspoken forays into the political arena . . .In CALLIGRAPHY LESSON, he celebrates art’s – and, more specifically, language’s – capacity to elevate us to the time-annihilating plateau." Leo Shtutin, Open Democracy

"Shishkin’s life-affirming language posits transcendence." Robert H. McCormick Jr., World Literature Today

"Shishkin’s agile, inventive narration reveals his homeland anew, showing once again why he has become one of Russia’s most valued storytellers—and an important new author in the West." Literalab

"[A] skillful achievement of complex, stylistic prose to evoke poignant themes common to all people, including love, life, family, and death. [Shishkin's] particular style is impressionistic, which matches the characteristics of his dominating theme: language." Daniel P. Haeusser, Reading 1000 Lives



In the beginning there was love, not the word. The child has yet to be conceived, but the mother already loves him. And then, body inside body, love doesn’t need words. After the birth, mother and child still love each other nonverbally. Only with words, when verbal barriers arise between people who love each other, does alienation begin.

Thus, language creates barriers. Once they lost their sacral nature, words turned into a means of misunderstanding. Words don’t mean anything anymore. So you have to do something with these words to restore their original, Divine meaning.

Words are guards that keep out emotion and meaning, sentries at the boundary between people. Either you need to learn to grope your way toward understanding each other, or else be able to escape over the verbal barbed wire.

There is no road to understanding except through words.
Word corpses watch over us. The only way to get past them is to revive them. We have to breathe new life into them, so that love can once again be called love.