Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (December 11, 1918 – August 3, 2008)
Why do some words gut-punch you? How does a sentence light-up your landscape so that even long after its reading your path is marked by its memory? What can you do to mourn a man who wrote those kinds of words and wove those kinds of sentences into an art that was a kind of apocalypse, flashing truth across a dark world? How do you grieve the lightning after it’s gone? The First Circle marked the last months of my freshman year in 1971. My mother had brought Cancer Ward home earlier that winter, perhaps hoping to hear in it echoes of her own grizzly mastectomies and long waits in bleach-scoured corridors. But with disease already a daily companion at our dinner table I didn’t want it also infecting the refuge of my reading, so that book stayed on the shelf. But mom had also bought First Circle, and that came to Wheaton with me after Christmas. Innokenty Artemyevich Volodin, dashing State Counselor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the evening of December 24 hunts Moscow for an insolated phone booth from which to call Prof. Dobroumov, warning him of an investigation. The pomp of title, the attractions of professional success, requirements of duty, the tug of that tiny voice that
urges us to do the right thing--even when that right thing grates against title and success and duty--and the inevitable danger of doing the right thing and even the punishment for doing it—the whole mess of my flailing eighteen-year psyche—realities, hope, fantasies-Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn laid bare in those first four and a half pages. I was a young composer, trying to find my way as a son, a Christian, an artist, but as I read those pages I sensed that I was finding my guide.
The language was second hand, the names unpronounceable, the locale bizarrely removed from a Californian whose summer job was spent on the beach renting surfboards, but here was a writer who grabbed me by both ears and compelled me to read. Circle was read, and then read again. Cancer Ward followed that summer. Then Ivan Denisovich and Ward again. The first years of graduate school were accompanied by The Gulag Archipelago, like a Kyrie, each volume of the trilogy read and then re-read twice again. But the great work was “The Red Wheel.” Its first part, August 1914, was translated and published in 1971. Translations of additional chapters were published five years later (Lenin in Zurich) but the author was dissatisfied with his translators and further publications were delayed. I was impatient, but I understood. The translation was the Final Inch, and the Rule of the Final Inch is what he had taught me about art. “And now listen: The rule of the Final Inch! The realm of the Final Inch! In the Language of Maximum Clarity it is immediately clear what that is. The work has been
almost completed, the goal almost attained, everything seems completely right and the difficulties overcome. But the quality of the thing is not quite right. Finishing touches are needed, maybe still more research. In that moment of fatigue and self-satisfaction it is especially tempting to leave the work without having attained the apex of quality. Work in the area of the Final Inch is very, very complex and also especially valuable, because it is executed by the most perfected means. In fact, the rule of the Final Inch consists in this: not to shirk this crucial work. Not to postpone it, for the thoughts of the person performing the task will then stray from the realm of the Final Inch. And not to mind the time spent on it, knowing that one’s purpose lies not in completing things faster but in the attainment of perfection.” (The First Circle, p. 139) What divides the greatest art from the rest is that final inch of effort, that refusal to quit before the last ounce of artistic courage is spent. And with Solzhenitsyn, I had in my hands the fruit of that effort, and in my presence a testimony to that courage. Nights in the Lubyanka (on your back! hands outside the blankets!), the silenced bells of the Solovki monastery (and the hill, with the three hundred steps, down which they rolled prisoners, tied to a log), Georgi Tenno’s escape, Sanya’s visit to Tolstoy, the Baptist Alyoshka urging Ivan Denisovich to pray for his daily bread, the stupidity of Eleanor Roosevelt, the duplicity of William Sloane Coffin Jr., the venality of the Moscow Patriarch, people real and imagined and deeds invented and historic marched across this literature, becoming my ghostly companions. You’re marked by the company you keep. These companions from Ward, and Ivan, Circle, the Gulag and August required a certain mode of living and I know that without them beside me my life very well may have taken different turns. As a musician I was being formed by Victoria, Tallis, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, Ives and Penderecki and Messiaen but as a person I was being formed by Solzhenitsyn. He was shaping my life. When I turned to Ginsburg, and Vidal, Updike, Cheever, Miller, Salinger, Asimov, and Capote how pathetically vapid their works had all become. Gulag was a literature that people had risked their lives to read and some had given their lives to preserve. And for all its brilliance, who would die for Rabbit is Rich? But what was worth dying for in the West anyway? “Nothing,” that famous Princeton protester claimed in 1977. A year later Solzhenitsyn delivered the commencement address at Harvard. There he stands, in my brown clipping from the New York Times (Friday, June 9, 1978) between Harvard president Derek Bok and Ephraim Katzir, under the headline “Solzhenitsyn, in Harvard Speech, Terms West Weak and Cowardly.” The Times wrote: “The physical and spiritual fight for the planet has started, [Solzhenitsyn] said, ‘and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?. . . . After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass-living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.’”
This was not what the age of disco wanted hear. The purposeful dismantling of his reputation by the American intelligentsia began with that speech (in its obituary, the New York Times reminded its readers that “many” in the crowd found the writer’s comments “insensitive, haughty, and snobbish”). But I knew Solzhenitsyn was right and his critics were wrong—they were worse than wrong, that they were fools--and that there was such a thing as truth, and truth was worth that Final Inch of effort--both in the work of art and in a life. We lived in Connecticut then. Family business required me to make regular trips to Quichee, Vermont and on my drives up I would take a detour through Cavendish, where the Solzhenitsyns spent their quiet exile, pausing briefly to pray that Aleksandr Isayevich would be given the time to finish his work and the strength to push it through that Final Inch. And daily thereafter he was part of my own litany of saints, people who I asked that God might strengthen and preserve through their own Final Inch. He is gone now. Historians, the ones who plot graphs and write articles about the evolutions of Zeitgeists, can chart the extent of Solzhenitsyn’s mark on the Twentieth Century. And philosophers can kvetsch over the matter of his relationship with the West (and how I’m troubled by the irony that First Circle revolves around the matters of voice prints and the surveillance of phone calls by a kind of homeland security). And Russians can weigh the impact of his writing upon their literature. I know nothing about any of those grand things. But I do know about his mark upon me. And has been like
lightning, revealing vistas that continue to burn in my memory after the night has swallowed the bolt. But they are not just vistas, but trails that Solzhenitsyn illuminated, paths to be followed and ways in which an artist should live his life. When Solzhenitsyn finally received his Nobel Prize in 1974, he told the assembled guests in Stockholm that the ordinary man was obliged “not to participate in lies,” but that the artist had an even greater responsibility. “It is,” he said, “within the power of writers and artists to do much more, to defeat the lie!” It was a call for more lightning.
August 5, 2008