Another reading of Solzhenitsyn

Last month, I marked the passage of a writer for the ages by appropriating a line from one of his novels and applying it to the ancestral domain controversy in Mindanao. But I was working in the office with a quote from one of the many wire stories on the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. When I got home, I looked him up in Pritchett (a photocopy of the 1,300-page Complete Essays, bound in two volumes — possibly the most important thing I have in my library, but that's another story), to see what my favorite critic had written about the Russian dissident.

Pritchett, as it turns out, thought very highly of Solzhenitsyn. "As a novelist Solzhenitsyn is very much in the powerful tradition of the nineteenth-century Russian novel as it appears in the prophet-preacher writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, now one, now the other; as a polemical writer, in the tradition of Belinsky and Herzen." And again: "And now [apropos of Cancer Ward] we see Solzhenitsyn's mastery as a novelist: he is able to see the consoling contradictions of human nature and how they fertilize character." And yet again: "The density of Solzhenitsyn's texture owes everything to the ingenious interlocking of incidents that are really short stories. This is the form in which he excels."

But Pritchett's review used a different translation of the key passage from First Circle ("a secret government") I dared to use in my column. The difference is slight, but instructive.

"… a great writer — forgive me, perhaps I shouldn't say this, I'll lower my voice — a great writer is so to speak a second government, that's why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers only its minor ones."

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Filed under Notes on Readings, Spiral Notebook

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