Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My obsession with Russian Lit

I love Russian Literature! So when I read a couple of weeks ago that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (see Biography) had died I was just a little sad. This guy was a true life hero. He, like many during Russia's infamous purges, was thrown into prison for defaming Stalin (he called him "the whiskered one"...I know shocking!). The guy spent 8 years in Russian labour camps or gulags. If that wasn't bad enough, he was diagnosed with cancer while there. During his exile following his release, Solzhenitsyn wrote and published his first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, his masterpiece. For it he received the Nobel Prize in 1970, an honor that was short lived. In 1974 he was formally stripped of his citizenship and forced to leave indefinitely. He would not be allowed to return to his beloved home until the collapse of Soviet Union in 1994.

We read the above novel for my Russian Lit class my last semester. It was the last book we read, a fitting end to what was a very dark set of novels. If you have read any Russian literature, you probably know what I mean. Not often does one expect to find happy ending. Reading Russian lit is tortuous, it really is. So why read it? Because, I would counter, life is tortuous. Sometimes our lives don't end happily. The hero in real life does not always make it out alive. Good does not always trump the bad. I wrote the following in my reading journal about the experience of reading Russian lit:

Russian literature does not ignore the dirty, cold, and horrible; instead it embraces them and acknowledges them as a legitimate and often ignored reality. In so doing, even it (and by that I mean all the dirty, cold, and horrible) becomes art, worthy of some form of aesthetic beauty and grandeur.
My particular reaction to One Day in the Life was much the same.

The thing that struck me more than anything else was the constant sense of fear that pervaded the novel. To live a life of fear is perhaps one of the most horrible things that I can imagine...

It seems so brutal to me, so demeaning, that the only choice one makes, and that the only living one does is surrounded by the fear of death. This fear makes a person obsessed with life, with just surviving...Such a life is demeaning because we lose what makes us human. We become our fear, and that alone is the only thing that survives.

Solzhenitsyn experienced the cold, dirty, and the horrible. He described what it was like to live with the constant fear of death surrounding every action and reaction, every decision, controlling every emotion. I didn't know what that feels like. But, in a small way, I do understand now what it must be like. And that is what makes this book, and others like it, semblances of a more experientially connected life.

"Remember, there is such a thing as good and evil."

"How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?"

"You can have power over people as long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything, he's no longer in your power."

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