Every bookseller knows the drill: A famous author dies and the
publishing industry scrambles briefly to exercise its (our) tradition
of retail mourning. Long neglected backlist titles are, momentarily,
hot commodities; shrine-like displays appear on sales floors. It will
happen again this week because Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is dead.
It's how we say goodbye.
And I want to do something as well; to pause and devote a column to Solzhenitsyn, which means that the series on bookstores and politics will have to wait until next week. For me, Solzhenitsyn isn't just another old, somewhat neglected writer riding off into history's sunset. I feel an obligation to tell you a little story about my decades-long connection to him; a reader's story, which inevitably makes it a writer's story and a bookseller's story.
Yesterday, I found myself engaged in a mourning ritual, which steadily grew into an awareness of telling details and memories:
I've been thinking about this curious, long-term writer/reader bond for a long time. In 2006, I wrote an essay, "Solzhenitsyn & My Dad," that began: "Since the early 1970s, I have always had ragged, read-and-reread copies of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, and The First Circle within reach on my desk, wherever that desk has been. How does a reader find an author? Why did a young American reader connect so deeply with a Soviet dissident? I was no student of global politics or Soviet history. I was barely a student of Russian literature then. No, it was personal, as it often is when these connections are made."
A year before that, my review of the H.T. Willetts translation of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (FSG, $13, 9780374529529/0374529523) opened: "Every good reader has a book. You own it as much as the author does. You knew it was yours the first time you read it. Again and again over the years, you've turned to this book when you needed solace, inspiration or perspective. Each time you've read it, each time you have opened at random to a page, you've found something that speaks directly to you. It's your book, after all. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is my book."
I'm not presumptuous enough to think that Solzhenitsyn would have cared about me being his reader. It's quite possible he'd have considered my response a misreading--a typically self-absorbed, Western, Godless, Capitalist co-opting of his intentions. But writers do not choose their readers.
Yesterday, I studied the bookmark in my copy of The First Circle. A folded page from a 35-year-old issue of Time or Newsweek, it features two full-page, color photographs back to back. In one, Solzhenitsyn is in his book-lined Moscow apartment, holding sons Ignat (16 months old) and Yermolai (3) on his lap. In the other, he sits alone on a snow-covered park bench.
I recalled that after he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, Solzhenitsyn eventually landed in Cavendish, Vt., not far from where I live. He remained there for nearly two decades. Since Vermonters understand the need for privacy, we left him alone. The little country store in town pre-empted visitor requests for directions to his place with a sign out front that said, in essence, don't even bother to ask.
I watched my VHS copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a film I first saw in the early 1970s. I am always moved by Tom Courtenay's portrayal of Ivan and Sven Nykvist's stark cinematography.
I wished that I could read now the uncut edition of The First Circle that Harper Perennial will publish next year (Shelf Awareness, July 16, 2008).
I found, in The First Circle, a passage I'd highlighted long ago. As the zek Nerzhin prepares for his imminent removal to a harsher prison camp, he considers a way to preserve his notebooks, then accepts the inevitability his work must be destroyed:
The great library at Alexandria burned. In the monasteries they did not surrender but burned the chronicles. And the soot of the Lubyanka chimneys--soot from burned papers and more and more burned papers--fell upon the zeks led out to stroll in the boxlike area on the prison roof. Perhaps more great thoughts have been burned than have been published. If he managed to survive, he could probably do it all over again from memory anyway.It was a miracle that Solzhenitsyn and his work survived. Who will read him in a hundred years? A thousand? I don't know. I am, however, still his reader now.