Monday, August 04, 2008

Solzhenitsyn R.I.P.

I spent a fair chunk of my spendthrift youth reading Russian novels, among them those by Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (which had one of the great last lines in all of literature), "The First Circle," "Cancer Ward," "August 1914." I stopped after the first volume of "The Gulag Archipelago," which was important and necessary work but lacked the sweep of the novels.

When Solzhenitsyn was exiled to Vermont, Americans tended to greet him as a reincarnation of George Washington and James Madison. But he was nothing of the kind. His dissent was of a different sort: spiritual and intense, deep and emotional. He was in the same league, if not quite at the same level, as Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoevsky, and a worthy successor to them, with all of their profound depth and drive for redemption. He was as much a critic of the West as of his own country, from which he was ultimately inseparable: a great, brave and uncompromising man.

UPDATE 1: You will want to read Montana Headlines on this topic.

UPDATE 2: I just remembered that when I was in the Army I used to have this quote from "Denisovich" on the barracks wall: "The great thing about prison camp was you had a hell of a lot of freedom."

3 comments:

pstanmt said...

Solzhenitsyn was much more anti-Soviet than he was pro-democracy. He was a throwback to monarchists that wanted to clean up the Russian police system but change little else because that "suited" the Russian people and the Russian elites. Ultimately this is seeking the impossible.

Zac said...

I bought the Gulag Archipelago when I was in college. It was one of the most unreadable and boring books I've ever encountered, and I haven't had any luck unloading it on any used bookstore in five years. Solzhenitsyn was a patriot, but he wasn't a great writer. He's not in the same league as your 19th century novelists, but I guess Russia's got to have something to its hat on for the last century.

David said...

Zac, Don't judge the writer based on the "Gulag." He was trying to get history down, under difficult conditions and with little access to sources. It can be slow going.

To judge the writer, start with "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." If that grabs you, try "Cancer Ward," which is my favorite. It holds its own, in my opinion, with Dostoevsky's mid-range novels.