Monday, August 4, 2008

Death of a Giant

A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.

So ends One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the great novella of life in the Soviet gulags by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died today in Moscow at the age of 89.

Most people come across Solzhenitsyn in high school (usually around Year 10) when they are set Ivan Denisovich to read. It was one of the great works of the 20th Century, and due to its easy length I have read it I think more times than any other book. When I am stumped for something to read, quite often I will get it out, knowing it will take at most two nights.

Solzhenitsyn was an odd sort. A darling of the right because he revealed Stalinist Russia for all its crimes. A darling of the left because he didn't exactly fawn over the wonders of capitalism (and also because he revealed the crimes of Stalinist Russia).

His works are great because of their subjects, because he wrote from personal experience of the gulags, because of the personal risk he took to write them, and because he wrote them so well.

Ivan Denisovich is brilliant, but my favourite of his novels is The First Circle. It's longish (as all good Russian novels must be), but is truly amazing in its distillation of the fear in Soviet society and the will of those in its prison system to survive.

Cancer Ward I found less impressive, a poor man's The Magic Mountain. His August 1914 sits on my bookshelf as yet unread, but near the top of my "to-read" list.

His true legacy however will be The Gulag Archipelago: a work of incredible breadth and excruciating depth. He reveals that Kafka was far too prescient. His depictions of the trials and interrogations of those caught in the Stalinist net are harrowing and life changing.

An amazing author, an amazing life. Do yourself a favour; read him.

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