Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is one of the Nobel Laureates whose name recognition is huge. In spite of the weightiness of his subject matter and the efforts made to subdue him and his works, this is quite an accolade. Truth: in drilling down the list of Nobel Literature Laureates, I have been skipping over his name as I have found it daunting to tackle his work. It is January 2019, time to get over it and check a book out of the library. I found two pieces of his work at the main branch of the Charleston County Library. Cancer Ward and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were wedged between Blood and Milk by Sharon Solwitz, a Pushcart Prize recipient, and Chum, A Novel by Jeff Somers. Association by alphabetical order is quirky and interesting to me — just something to ponder.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is my choice maybe because the book is only 159 pages and that seems doable to overcome daunting, or maybe because the book has a woven gold thread bookmark — a delightful accent for a library book. Another delight, it was a fast, entertaining and amazing read. But I jump ahead.
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”
The intensity that surrounded his life began in the womb. His mother, Taisiya Shcherbak (née) Solzhenitsyn was widowed shortly after learning of her pregnancy.
Born in 1918 in Kislovodsk, Russia, he was raised by his mother and an aunt in very humble circumstances. Nevertheless, Taisiya was an educated woman and encouraged Solzhenitsyn’s studies in literature and science. Solzhenitsyn married in 1940 while at university. Five years later, he would be arrested while serving in the Red Army in East Prussia for writing derogatory comments in communications with his friends. This would escalate to charges of creating anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58, paragraph 10 of the criminal code. In July of 1945 he was sentenced to work camps for eight years. His experience in the camp located in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan was the experiential “inspiration” behind One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the novella published in 1962 — interesting that this was my choice.
John Bayley’s introduction presents the reader a beautiful ten-page window into this quasi-autobiographical work: “For the greatest strength of Ivan Denisovich is its exemplary force, its total commitment to a vital and heroic purpose. Russian speakers, readers of Novy Mir, were at once bowled over by the confidence, forcefulness and brilliance of its style, a wholly new amalgam of simple Russian narrative (Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe affords us some sort of English parallel) blended with colloquialisms, pungent slang and prison-camp jargon, the whole giving that unmistakable impression of the new which is decisive in the authority of a literary masterpiece of this kind. Ordinary reportage about the real nature of the camp system would have had some effect on the reading public, of course; but the shock achieved by Solzhenitsyn was a literary shock as well as a social one.” He continues…. “There is something altogether admirable about Solzhenitsyn’s obsession with discovering what went wrong in Russia, and devoting his great literary talents to an elaborate postmortem. Yet it must also be admitted that The Red Wheel was, in a sense, out of date before it appeared, whereas Ivan Denisovich still has the air of changeless freshness — the shock of the present — which it had when it first broke upon the Russian public.”
H.T. Willetts provided the English translation for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as well as a few other of Solzhenitsyn’s works.
Now for a few intriguing excerpts of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov’s day from the early morning when he rises to eat, then assembles for the morning work detail, to the minutia of the arduous labor, assembling to return for the evening mess, and then to retire. Every detail and thought is shared.
“Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing? The frost was cruel. A stinging haze wrapped around him and set him coughing. The air temperature was twenty-seven below and Shukhov’s temperature was thirty-seven above. No holds barred!”
“For two months the Power Station had stood abandoned, a grey skeleton out in the snow. But now Gang 104 had arrived. What kept body and soul together in these men was a mystery. Canvas belts were drawn tight round empty bellies. The frost was cracking merrily. Not a warm spot, not a spark of fire anywhere. All the same — Gang 104 had arrived, and life was beginning all over again.”
“Shukhov was eating his supper without bread: two portions with bread as well would be a bit too rich. The bread would come in useful tomorrow. The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favours, it always wants more tomorrow.”
“The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.
Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three were for leap years.”
The day is over.