September 2008

Richard Wirick

features

Solzhenitsyn: The Last Giant

I never really took to him until The Oak and the Calf began its serialization in The New Yorker. By then, the monumental struggles and triumphs -- Siberia and the exile system, the Nobel Prize, the sensation of The Gulag Archipelago -- were solidly behind him, and he seemed to want to creep back into the narrow cellars of captivity to find, once again, the memoirist’s muse.

The first passages tell of writing on bits of toilet paper, rare enough a luxury in the camps to ensure, were he discovered, his death at the hands of another zek. He tore each segment into quarters, wrote a few sentences, rolled it into a ball sealed by the perspiration of his palms, and placed it with its fellow "pearls" in the lining of his cap or issue stripes. They would go out in mailed laundry, and only after he had committed their contents to memory like the characters do, one for each book, in Farenheit 451.

Privation, he reminded us, is creation’s most excellent and necessary source. No art is worth the death of a child or the confinement of a people, but all art is the testament of at least one spirit’s pilgrimage to freedom. He wouldn’t deny the genius of certain "capon preists" of literature, the comfortable, plumped-up Prousts and Whartons and Henry Jameses. But they were anomalies, place-holders, blue sky "filler space" in the landscape canvas of the human imagination. Like the young Einstein, warming his hands before an oil lamp and inventing algebras on the backs of rejected patent applications (his only paper), Solzhenitsyn echoed the Swiss clerk’s edict: "the things for which we remember a man are done in the dark and cold."

Tradition, the individual talent, the forces of political history. How were they ever more perfectly fused than in A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich? Like Grendel standing in front of a "flaweless mirrore," tyranny was forced to acknowledge its ugliness, its recklessness, its indecency. Krushchev was said to have nearly fallen out of his chair when he read it; like all the greatest stories, his hands trembled as he put it down. The Novy Mir editor, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, called him to say that, like Joyce, "You have described only one day, and yet everything there is to say about prison has been said." It was a miracle, and timed for a miraculous moment -- when it could be published in Moscow, in Russian, the presses running on top of a soil littered with 20 million human bones. It was 1963, and a candle had been lit in Babylon.

The flame was not permitted to kindle. The First Circle and Cancer Ward were too damning in their portraits of how the regime gutted souls, pitted family members against one another other, sent its intelligentsia East in cattle cars and just like the German fascists it had lost half its army to defeat. The First Circle conveys an almost grudging thanks for his assignment to a sharashka -- a camp for the scientifically trained -- but still the landscape he painted was like something out of Dore, figures and buildings and words themselves made out of ash.

Solzhenitsyn had marched the Soviet regime out into its own prison yard, bringing the bodies of deception down with steady, concentrated volleys. Then, with exile and the stripping of his citizenship, came the coup de grace of The Gulag Archipelago: 300,000 words of stupefying revelations -- silent, aghast, a simply endless witnessing. Its didacticism, the repetitious parade of exclamations, gave a stylistic excuse for dismissal by the last of the Soviet Union’s true believers, many of them old socialist parents of my friends. And its excesses, its catalogings are cloying, even if we have to be reminded that quantity sometimes becomes quality, that the sheer numbers murdered -- and of a country’s own people -- requires a special category of inimitable evil. But Joseph Brodsky, in the same breath he professed irritation at Solzhenitsyn’s ranting, told Susan Sontag that "[E]verything he says about the Soviet Union is true. Really, all those numbers -- 60 million victims -- it’s all true."

After his nonfiction forays, and while setting about his Red Wheel cycle of novels, Solzhenitsyn made fair mockery of our expectations of him. If we were going to invite him to give commencement addresses, we were going to be reminded, once again, of the special spiritual advantages of privation. We weren’t going to hear praise of our excesses, our shallowness, our engulfing vacuity. [Appropriately, I read his famous, scolding Harvard commencement address through a newspaper vending box in the Las Vegas bus station, the red lights of slot machines blinking on his face.] His message was no different than the prophet Isaiah’s: without the rudder and keel of discipline, and perhaps faith, freedom leads to its own paradoxical imprisonment: a torpor, a hollowness, a Selbstmord as real as the clang of a prison door. He wanted to put some of the dark and cold back into our brain-dissolving American sunshine.

Great figures can, cut from a certain angle, outlive their better selves. Tolstoy certainly did. Another good example is Hardy, who feared he had survived twenty or thirty years past any productive purpose. Sure Solzhenitsyn had his wheel spinning episodes of eccentricity, his crank pronouncements, his cancelled, audience-less radio talk shows. In his book Resurrection, and after some testy dinners with the great man at the Cavendish farm, David Remnick said simply: "In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the 20th century. Who else compares? Orwell? Koestler? And yet when his name comes up now, it is more often than not as a freak... a has been." So S. outlived himself only by a little. An entirely understandable and forgivable little.

And yet there he was. After Borges and Beckett, Calvino and Bellow, the man pretty much stood by himself out on the landscape: a chipped, fierce, creaking monument, taunting the wind for its shuddering fall. On the night it came, and a friend called with the news, I closed my eyes and saw my favorite photograph of him, I believe by Harry Benson. It’s the one where he is deeply breathing, hands on chest, the nearly Russian air of his whitened Vermont pastures. It’s a picture that shows a lot more wisdom and self-deprecation than most people see. The surficial view takes the smile on his face and closed eyes to be saying how "happy" he is to finally be in a "free" country. I see him saying something at once richer and lighter, playful and more complex: "I’m a writer. I’m a ham. I make mistakes. I just happen to straddle the age like Abi Yoyo. But it is always only a step, as Mr. Nabokov said, from the hallelujah to the hoot. I welcome your snowballs."