Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the great men and writers of all times. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. One might think that being published internationally and winning the Nobel Prize would secure a writer’s fame and reputation. But many Nobel Prize winners are quickly forgotten. Some are unknown at the time of winning the prize. Some are thought unworthy of the honor. And, many great writers never earned the honor of a Nobel Prize.
I recently acquired a wonderful older set of books called The Nobel Prize Library. It consists of 20 volumes, each containing 2 or more authors’ shorter works and acceptance speeches. This set only goes up to 1970. I was amazed at how many winners were completely unknown to me. Can you name the winners from the last ten years? Or five years? I have become familiar with Canadian short story writer Alice Munro who won the prize in 2013, and I enjoy the work of Seamus Heaney, who won in 1995, but those two are among the very few recent winners that I know.
But Solzhenitsyn stands above even his peers in the realm of Nobel Prize winners. In many cases, the lives of writers are relatively dull stories. A writer, by definition, has a life-long love affair with a typewriter. He or she is an observer. The writing craft is solitary and the confrontation with the world and events happen primarily in the writer’s mind and imagination.
Solzhenitsyn was one writer, however, whose life story is as fascinating, adventurous, and dangerous as the greatest thriller novels of all time. He was a soldier in World War II, a prisoner in the Soviet prisoner camps, an exile within his own country, a published author whose first book created a sensation, a covert smuggler of critical information (one could say, state secrets), a watched man, a cancer survivor, a man who loved and lost and loved again, a religious believer in an atheistic world, a religious pilgrim, an exile from his own country, a reclusive author in a foreign land, a center-point of political controversy, a cultural critic, a returning hero, and an overlooked and often forgotten author.
He survived ordeals that destroyed many others along the way. And he kept on writing. Many of his writings have yet to appear in English.
He was a novelist and a poet. But Solzhenitsyn was also a moral and political philosopher, a historian, and, in a certain sense, a prophet and preacher. While writers commonly create imaginary worlds, Solzhenitsyn stands alone for having destroyed a real and ugly world. Solzhenitsyn joins a handful of people, such as Pope John Paul II, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan, who clearly saw the issues of the Cold War and the evils of Communism and who acted to bring down the Soviet Empire.
Too many of Solzhenitsyn’s beliefs are rooted in tradition, morality, moral absolutes, “old verities” (to use Faulkner’s words), and Christian doctrine to please the modern world. Some of the more liberal folk who protested in his behalf, and liberals were once strong defenders of the written word, shied away from the Solzhenitsyn who spoke critcally to the West and its decaying values.
Invited to Harvard in 1978 to give a commencement address, Solzhenitsyn gave a defining speech called “A World Split Apart.” That world split even more as many distanced themselves from his pronouncements. A few years earlier, the opportunity arose for President Gerald Ford to invite Solzhenitsyn to the White House so to honor this opponent of Communism. Ford quaked at the political ramifications of appearing with the Russian exile.
The world of literature, especially the subset of literary critics and scholars, have all too frequently ignored, misrepresented, or attacked Solzhenitsyn. He was not an easy man to peg, define, or limit. He was wordy and nuanced in his ideas. He wrote literature, not bullet points. So, he was accused of being a Czarist and a proponent of the worst of Old Russia. He was thought to be against progress, modernity, and new ideas. It was implied that he was anti-Semitic. He was, undoubtedly, strongly Christian in his fundamental worldview.
The misconceptions, falsehoods, and distortions compelled Daniel J. Mahoney to write The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker. This book is published by St. Augustine Press, one of my favorite publishers. There have been some fine biographies written about Solzhenitsyn. A worthy lengthy one is by Michael Scammel, and the best discussion of Solzhenitsyn’s faith can be found in Joseph Pearce’s Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile.
Mahoney’s book, however, is not a biography. It is a study of the Solzhenitsyn’s writings and thought. It is an answer to his critics and a call to read the man’s writings. This book provides commentary on Solzhenitsyn’s works and motivation for those like me who need to read more of him and re-read what I have already read. The book ends with a talk that Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalia, gave. From beginning to end, this is a powerful and inspiring book.
I must admit that when I started reading The Other Solzhenitsyn, I found it hard to get into. Then I started reading two books by Solzhenitsyn. One is a shorter work titled The Russian Question of the Twentieth Century. The larger portion of that book is a survey of Russian history where Solzhenitsyn discerns trends and faults in the country he loved so dearly. That is followed by an address given to the International Academy of Philosphy in 1993. The speech deals with the spiritual and moral crises of our times. (It is a good window into Solzhenitsyn’s thought.)
The other book I read is called Apricot Jam and Other Stories. Several of his stories appear in this posthumous book for the first time. Like so much of his writing, these stories echo the pains, failures, and survival of humans caught in the Russian Civil War, the years of Stalinism, and the corruption of post-Communist Russia. These are painful stories in many cases, but a testament to the soul and survival of man.
Both of these books helped me navigate back into the ideas of Solzhenitsyn. Both Solzhenitsyn books helped me understand the book The Other Solzhenitsyn, and that book helped me understand Solzhenitsyn writings. It was like having Dr. Mahoney in my living room explaining to me what I was reading. One could also read some of Solzhenitsyn other works, such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or A World Split Apart for the same effect.
At this point, my next goal will be to tackle one of the longer Solzhenitsyn works that have too long occupied the shelves unread.