Quick Study: Mikhail Shishkin may be best known for becoming the first writer to win all three of Russia’s major book awards—the Russian Booker, Big Book Award, and National Bestseller Award—thanks to complex, allusive novels about universal and emotional themes.
The Shishkin File: Mikhail Shishkin’s literary debut came with the 1993 publication of the short story “Calligraphy Lesson” in the Russian “thick journal” Znamia; the journal published his first novel, One Night Befalls Us All, later in 1993. Shishkin’s novel The Taking of Ishmael was serialized in two issues of Znamia in 1999 then went on to win the Russian Booker Prize in 2000. Shishkin has continued to rack up awards, winning the National Bestseller in 2005 for Maidenhair and the 2011 Big Book Award for Letter-Book, which won Big Book’s top jury and reader awards.
Psssst………: Shishkin’s jobs have included working as an interpreter for refugees in Switzerland.
Shishkin’s Places: Moscow, where Shishkin was born and attended the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. Zurich, Switzerland.
The Word on Shishkin: After Shishkin won the Big Book award in 2011, critic Lev Danilkin praised him, calling him, among other things, a living classic, “an ideal compromise between the realistic and postmodern canon,” and the “Main Writer of Our Time.”
Shishkin on Shishkin: In interviews and public appearances, Shishkin often speaks about his books as his way of addressing questions about death that he began asking as a child. He also stresses the importance of writing about universal topics, like love and death, that are important to readers everywhere, not just in Russia. In a 2012 Publishing Perspectives interview with Daniel Kalder, when asked if his “experience living outside Russia somehow makes [his] books more readily accessible to non-Russians,” Shishkin said, “Yes, I think so. Several Russian generations in the 20th century spent their lifetime in jail. They developed their own way of thinking and speaking. The leakproof prison reality gave birth to a very special subculture. And Western readers cannot identify themselves with Russian exotica. It is time for writers to bring Russia back to the world, as it was in the 19th century. Russian literature is worth it.”
On Writing: In a 2010 interview with Russkiy Mir Foundation, Shishkin described how he gets ideas for his novels: “A novel appears out of a black hole, out of failure, from some sort of bottomless barrel that you fall into after finishing your previous text. A novel begins from a feeling of complete mediocrity, from the sense that you have been used. In the previous novel you created the Cosmos, but you cannot create the Cosmos again.”
Shishkin Recommends: Shishkin has mentioned influences and favorite writers including Heinrich von Kliest, Alexander Goldstein, Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Bunin.
Translating Mikhail Shishkin: “Translating Shishkin means maintaining his virtuosic tension between complex detail and deeply felt emotion.” Marian Schwartz, as quoted on Words Without Borders.
Photo credit: EFrolkina, Creative Commons