Mikhail Shishkin started his session in the SLOVO festival by reading Пальто с хлястиом, which contained many episodes from his own life that then found their way into his novels. And I thought it was very affecting. The combination of cramped setting and illimitable emotion very nearly had me in tears.
After that, he said writing was something that happened to you. You could not sensibly sit down and start writing hoping that in five years’ time you would have a novel and someone would publish it. He could check translations into German and English, but had never felt moved to write stories–as opposed to articles and so on–in German. He could help translators with the background of what a Soviet primary school was like for instance, but each one had to struggle with his enemy–language–alone. When as a schoolboy he had first tried to express his love to a girl he found that the Russian language was not great, mighty, free and truthful as promised by Turgenev, but rather that a writer had to make it so.
Once he had been alarmed that a translation into Bulgarian had been finished without him receiving any queries. Then he had met the translator at the grand ceremonial launch of the translation, and asked him about this.
–And if I had been translating Homer? came the reply.
About his refusal to appear at Book Expo America as a mark of protest against the regime, Shishkin said that you could of course have an argument with people, but saying that your opponent had to be a bad person recalled the Soviet way of doing things. Olga Slavnikova had said that while he was free to say and do what he liked, Russian writers living in Russia were hostages. He had not gone to Switzerland in the first place as an émigré, political or otherwise–he had merely married a Swiss woman and it seemed better for her to have her children in a Swiss hospital. As for being a writer and living abroad, the language was like a train–you got off at a particular station and then there was no point in running after it.
Asked about writers he would recommend, he commended Aleksandr Gol’dshtein to the audience, comparing him with Robert Walser–in times to come, other Russian language writers would merely be regarded as contemporaries of Gol’dshtein.