The Death of Ivan Denisovich

Like most Americans (and Russians, for that matter), I learned a lot from Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. Russia was a mysterious country when I was growing up, and for most of my childhood the only thing I knew about the place was that they might blow me up and that children in Russia didn't get to decide what they were going to do when they grew up, as I got to do. For these very reasons, I couldn't get enough of Russian literature once I tried some. Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, The Master and Margarita, and, indeed, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Russian novels are a treasure, and I have long treasured them. But, like most Americans, I, too, had a very shallow understanding of Solzhenitsyn. When he came to the US, took up residence in Vermont, and began criticizing the US and the modern world, I was surprised, put off, and then lost interest in what the old man had to say.

But recent obituaries have reminded me that Solzhenitsyn was exactly the thing that a writer has to be -- that his life demonstrated a few essential truths about what writers do, and so, along with everyone else, I would like to pay him tribute.

1. When you read three great novels in a row -- To the Lighthouse, Taras Bulba, Robinson Crusoe -- you are never in danger of mixing them up. Each is utterly distinct, not only in setting and time period, characters and themes, but also in approach. When the writer takes up his subject, he or she does so in his or her own way. He or she can't help it. A novel is a package of idiosyncrasy, individuality. It is the closest a reader comes to reading another person's mind and experiencing something outside of himself or herself.

2. Writers are free. Even writers who don't think about freedom, or don't have to fight for their freedom, are free. They can't help being free, because self-expression is a voluntary act. As soon as any writer begins volunteering for that freedom, he gets in the habit, and can't stop. In this way, he or she CAN become a symbol of freedom in a repressed society, but he or she doesn't have to -- play, pleasure, and enjoyment are other aspects of freedom, and writers give us those, too.

3. A writer makes something of circumstances. What strikes me most forcibly about Solzhenitsyn is that he had a particular life to work with -- his own. Like other Russian writers such as Natalia Ginzburg or Nadezhda Mandelstam, he suffered experiences that we in the west can hardly imagine, and they inspired him. In another era and another time, might he have written drawing room comedies? Maybe. But he did the very same thing that Oscar Wilde did -- he looked around, felt his life coalesce into a story, and he wrote it down. He was true to his unique experience, and so when we read his books, they continue to live for us.

4. He didn't conform to anyone's program. No one could make an ally of Solzhenitsyn, at least for very long. He was prickly, he was opinionated, he was independent, he was peculiar. For this, and this alone, I thank him and honor him.