Calligraphy Lesson


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 Mikhail Shishkin, Russia’s greatest and most acclaimed contemporary author.

“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

Published: 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. Spanning his entire writing career, from his first published story, “Calligraphy Lesson,” which heralded an entirely new voice in post-Soviet Russian literature and won him Russia’s prestigious Debut Prize in 1993, to “Nabokov’s Inkblot,” written in 2013 for dramatic adaptation by a theater in Zurich. Shishkin is a master prose writer, a completely unique stylist, and heir to the greatest Russian writers, such as Tolstoy, Bunin, and Pasternak.

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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.


“Mikhail Shishkin is arguably Russia’s greatest living novelist.” — The Guardian

“One of the most prominent names in modern Russian literature.” — Publisher’s Weekly

“[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 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 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 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

“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