The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin
One does not need to know any Russian to recognize that Andrew Bromfield’s translation is a phenomenal achievement. Shishkin and Bromfield flex an astonishing mastery of erudite prose and colloquial familiarity, and drift seamlessly between sweetness and grand, complicated themes. In one early letter, Sashka asks Vovka: “Do you know what you’ll get if you divide the starry numerator by the denominator? Divide one half of the universe by the other? You’ll get me. And you with me.”
Shishkin works repeatedly with this concept of dividing the world between love and death, a cosmic mathematics that equals something close to timelessness, an instant of eternity. Vovka, later, takes a more scholarly approach. “How amusing is it that for Democritus the body is divisible as far as the soul – the soul is the final, indivisible item, like the atom. There’s always a space between atoms…bodies can touch, but there will always be a gap between souls, a void.”
There’s so much to discuss in The Light and the Dark and seemingly endless passages to underline and reread. The book effortlessly exists somewhere between Nabokovian cosmology and a saccharine romance novel, passionate in both its ideas and the lovesick memories in which its characters revel. A critical reader may fault Sashka’s and Vovka’s letters for lacking in conversation, but that’s exactly what Shishkin intends: as these letters go on, it becomes clear that they’re not being delivered. And, as readers grapple with the sadness of that idea and marvel at Sashka and Vovka’s steadfastness, Shishkin introduces another genius twist: the timelines of these lovers don’t actually remain in sync. The present-tense from which Vovka writes is stuck somewhere in China, while Sashka, still writing, grows beyond. “The silver tongue of all ages and all people had affirmed that writing knows no death,” Vovka writes. “I believed that words were my body, for when I didn’t exist.”
The conceit of The Light and the Dark is breathtaking and deserving of much adulation. However, once the novel’s universe divides its timelines, the story becomes somewhat stale. Letters begin to run for about twice as many pages, and often deal with tangential memories and sub-plots about family strife. After a few of these passionless exchanges, it begins to feel like Shishkin just starts his novel again with each new letter. Sashka and Vovka’s love fades into repetitive expository memories that don’t contribute as finely to the novel’s grand ideas. The story sputters out. While there’s something beautiful that can be said about “instants of eternity” and remembrance as Sashka and Vovka endure a cosmic rut, writing across the void, The Light and the Dark ends arbitrarily. While, theoretically, the book could go on forever, it could have also been edited down into something consistently powerful, into a book that carries its early moments of genius and glory through to the end.