Dispatches | August 04, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died yesterday, apparently of heart failure, at age 89.  When I saw the news last night and mentioned it to my husband, he said it was incredible that the author had lived so long, given that the average Russian lifespan must be shorter than ours (I looked it up; it’s about 67) and that Solzhenitsyn had endured harsh labor-camp conditions for so many years of his early life and survived cancer in his thirties.  Almost miraculous that he’d lived so long, but it is even more incredible that out of the happenstance of being arrested and sentenced for writing a letter containing a few negative remarks about Stalin, a man who had not initially trained in the field of literature was launched into a career that would culminate in his Nobel Prize for literature.  In between the arrest and the novels were years of forced labor—the experience that compelled him to write.


I’m ashamed to say that his short novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is the only novel by Solzhenitsyn that I’ve read in its entirety.  In the seventies, after The Gulag Archipelago was published in this country, I read substantial portions of that work and later a bit of The Cancer Ward.  I was old enough to be interested but too young and self-absorbed for the things he was writing about to seem quite real or important to me, though I knew they ought to seem important.  Moral vision is not something teenagers look for in their reading material. For whatever reason, after I got old enough to want it, I never went back and read either book.  Maybe now I will.


Both those books—Gulag and Cancer Ward—were on my parents’ family room bookshelves.  Book club editions?  Probably.  Or maybe they had been recommended by friends, or my dad had read reviews of them.  My family was a reading and book-buying family but not necessarily a literary one, and there was a lot of forgettable popular fiction on those shelves, along with other, stronger works that have lasted.  


It gives one hope, doesn’t it?  Solzhenitsyn’s death will not dominate the popular media the way celebrities do, but at the height of the Cold War his name and vision dominated the literary scene, and his importance as a chronicler of totalitarianism will not evaporate with his death.