Tuesday, August 05, 2008

One Day in the Life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I wonder if he would have selected his last day for a book with that title? I'm ripping off his famous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, of course, a book which captured the odd taste of happiness as extremely relative. As anyone who has been very ill knows, a small reduction in the symptoms can give you the highest high of your life. Similarly, Ivan Denisovich could be happy in his horrible prison experience, because on that particular day there was just a little bit more bread, a little bit more time, a little bit more independence.

Or so I recall that book. I read Solzhenitsyn pretty early in my life, around the age of fifteen. Indeed, my first book essay at school was on the Cancer Ward. I loved writing about death and the gloominess and so on, and the teacher was a bit concerned until he got to the end of the essay which had an ode to the victorious human spirit. So that was all right.

Much has been written about the political meaning of Solzhenitsyn recently and a lot less about his actual talents in writing. His message about the horrors of Soviet communism struck a cord with his co-patriots and obviously with the other side in the Cold War, and his currency soared high. Later the reverse happened, because Solzhenitsyn's forced exile in the West revealed his hatred of the West and because he decided to become a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox on his return to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

These political waves may have brought him first too high and then too low. I tend to think of his actual literary merits as somewhere in the middle. We shall see what the future will say about them. At least he doesn't have to worry about being now forgotten for his gender. (I just had to turn this all into a feminist discussion,didn't I?)

Knowing the opinions of a living author always makes the enjoyment of her or his work more difficult, especially if those opinions are unpleasant. It's a little like being invited to see a wonderful artistic piece of furniture in the context of the workshop. There it stands, beautiful, but surrounded by sawdust and bits of lumber and tools all helter-skelter and the smell of varnish and paint remover and dust everywhere. It's hard not to look at the room instead of the furniture, and it's probably true that the state of the workshop does tell us something about how carefully and well the piece was made. But mostly we'd prefer to see the final work of art against some more neutral background.