Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (11-Dec.-1918--3-Aug.-2008), Farewell

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died today, Sunday, 3-August-2008. The most important 20th Century writer in any language, and a great Russian patriot, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn's non-fiction The Gulag Archepelago exposed at length and in harrowing detail the horror of the Soviet labor camps. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970.

Solzhenitsyn first came to the world's attention during Chairman Nikita Krushchev's brief post-Stalin thaw, with the publication in Novy Mir of the short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. The thaw did not last but the publication of One Day... prompted many labor camp survivors to write to Solzhenitsyn and supply him with material for his later work. In his autobiographical works Solzhenitsyn expressed his gratitude to the Novy Mir Editor Aleksandr Tvardovsky for his courage in publishing One Day... and most poignantly at Tvardovsky's funeral, where he kissed the forehead of his departed friend.

Solzhenitsyn's literary range includes short fiction (e.g., For the Good of the Cause, Matryona's Home), novels (e.g., The First Circle, The Cancer Ward, August, 1914), historical non-fiction works (The Gulag Archepelago), autobiography (The Oak and the Calf, Invisible Allies), prose poem sketches (The Easter Procession, Freedom to Breathe), plays (Candle in the Wind, The Love-Girl and the Innocent), and polemics (Warning to the West, Harvard Commencement address). His emotional range was as wide, from towering anger through irony, clinical detachment, and gentle humor, on through gratitude, pity, sorrow, and love. The Gulag Archepelago spans all this range. Love radiates from Matryona's Home, for the old woman who provides the narrator a place to live and for the Russian language.

Solzhenitsyn selected his words with care, with attention to their etymology; in the opening passage of Matryona's Home the narrator contrasts the (Soviet) name of the town to which the parole authorities send him ("Torfoprodukt" = "peat produce") with the village where he settles (Talnovo). Two of his novels became movies: The First Circle and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. In an interview, Solzhenitsyn said he liked the adaptation of One Day... but not The First Circle. The movie "One Day..." was filmed in the middle of the Finland winter, for realism.

I have not read the revised version of August, 1914 or the sequels, November, 1916, March, 1917, in this cycle (the entire cycle is called The Red Wheel), his suppressed and disavowed play The Feast of the Victors, or some essays written for periodicals. The recent Solzhenitsyn Reader contains some new material.

Readers new to Solzhenitsyn will develop a taste for his work if they start with the short stories and shorter novels. I am not a fan of plays by any author, so it may reflect that disposition and not Solzhenitsyn's talents that I find his plays the weakest of his works. People who say that they tried to read Solzhenitsyn but gave up usually made the mistake of starting with the Gulag.... I recommend Matryona's Home or One Day in the Life... to start, then The Cancer Ward or August, 1914. Give yourself a chance to develop a taste for his style before you read The First Circle and The Gulag Archepelago.

Before his exile, friends allowed Solzhenitsyn to stay at a country house where he could work in solitude. In one of his autobiographical works, he describes a daily routine of 16-hour days writing. In The First Circle, and The Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn meditates on the responsibilities of individuals relative to institutions. In The Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn addresses the question: When may one individual prescribe for another? Solzhenitsyn answers: Where there is a bond of love between them, and this love cannot be an abstract, self-congratulatory Marxist "love of the people", but must be personal. The dramatic peak moment in the story occurs when the doctor Vera Gangart persuades the exile Oleg Kostoglotov to pour away a folk remedy for his cancer and to put his life in her hands.

Returning to my preoccupation, the application to US education policy should be obvious.

I used to tell my students that there are few good people on this planet. We cannot be good, but we can aspire to be better: a bit better today than we were yesterday and a bit better tomorrow than we were today. Solzhenitsyn was one of those few good people.

Update (5-Aug.-2008): Please read this.
Update (6-Aug.-2008): Please read this. Thanks to Five Feet of Fury for the link.

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