One of J's heroes died yesterday. The minute I heard the news, I called him up to mourn with him. More than J's hero, though, this man was one of the great literary/historical/political voices of the 20th century. Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn, dead at 89, of heart failure.
I remember the experience of Solzhenitzyn's books about as clearly as any reading I've ever done. A year or so after The Cancer Ward was published, I did a book report on iit for my 8th grade English class. With sick people lining hallways, and inefficient medical care, a sense of hopelessness, it was stunningly different than the horse novels and silly romances my friends were reading, and affected me so deeply, I began to think about eternity as I never had before. Did we simply cease to exist when we died? I couldn't wrap my brain around not being, but couldn't imagine heaven either.
But because the writing was so breathtaking in its spare truth-telling, I read The First Circle and that most haunting of all books, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. J would tell you that A Day in the Life might well be the best book ever written, and I understand his thinking. Reading that book, one lives that day, that one in a long terrible line of days in a Soviet Gulag. I didn't read A Day in the Life again for 20 years, and when I did, it was on a mission trip with 40 high school students. One afternoon and into the night, the sky poured, the streets were pure mud, and I was stuck in a miniscule church in Hoonah, Alaska, with little to do but read. And somehow, every sentence of that book fit how I felt--sleeping on a pallet, with food that was barely palatable, and of course, trapped on this island with a group of people not of my own choosing. I'm not sure what kind of leader I was to those students, or mother I was to my kids, during that read, but, fortunately, it's a short book, and when I came up for air, I found my place in the world again, even if my writing darkened as I unconsciously mimicked (though never touching) the raw power of those words.
Ultimately, if one reads Solzhenitsyn, one must dwell in the Gulag, not just for a day, but for the length of time it takes to wade through the Gulag Archipelago. I spent months of my first pregnancy residing in the Gulag wiht Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Every morning, after my time with God, I'd set a timer, then open the books, (part one and part two) and read. Without that timer, I would have been late to work every day during my sojourn in that prison. But when the timer went off, and I had to walk down the hill from our apartment to the Christian bookstore where I worked afternoons and evenings, I'd stare at the cars on the streets and the buildings around me, completely disoriented by the wealth and freedom of my 'real' life. I wondered now and then if such painful reading would have any bearing on the child I carried, but when she was born, it was clear that her sunny, calm personality had come through the Gulag unscathed. I wasn't so sure about myself. It was a very difficult place to dwell, but I've never been sorry I went there. It opened my eyes to a world I never imagined. Broke my heart, then expanded the pieces. I couldn't imagine surviving what Solzhenitsyn had survived, what many, many others also didn't survive. Russia today is built on their bones, I think. And it led me to pray for them--those still living in such a land. So when that wall came down, and the Soviet Union was dismantled, I thought first of Solzhenitsyn--of what it must mean to him.
J has read more Solzhenitsyn than I have--political commentary, for one. And everything he reads impacts him. The letter to the west, the things he said to this adopted nation of his, his writing on cause of the Gulag (godlessness), all these things have been provocative in my son's thoughtful head. We aren't only changed and molded by those living in our houses, but by other heroes. For people like J and me, those heroes will always be ones who lead with their pens (or computers, I suppose, these days). So with my son, I mourn a great man, a visionary--who, not surprisingly, given the living death he survived, sometimes veered into a kind of madness. He didn't tolerate those who didn't understand. And who could understand that? Read his books, I say. You'll see what I mean. Let the gulag seep into you and be changed.