Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gulag Literature

A lot of you out there are asking why I haven’t spent much time discussing the gulag. You’re saying, Fur Coat, Soviet history is nothing if not gulag history. Truth be told, I haven’t dabbled too deeply in the literature, perhaps because the subject is so vast, perhaps because it’s just too depressing to contemplate so many spent lives.

I did read the first of Solzhenitsyn’s trilogy, the Gulag Archipelago. It’s fantastic. One could be forgiven for wondering whether the book deserves the literary attention it received back in the 1970s. Its role in publicizing Soviet moral depravity was obviously necessary, but, in the words of Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous, Is it Art, Eddie?

Well, it turns out it is. It’s a beautiful book. Its sarcasm and wit and dark humor are extraordinary effective. And the book takes you through every phase of Soviet tyranny, from illegal arrest, to brutal and absurd interrogation, to flawed trial, to crushing sentencing, to torturous journey into Siberian exile, to destructive and deadly time-served. The book reveals an awesome mind and Nobel-worthy writing.

On a sentence-by-sentence basis, it’s perfect, but its power stems from the magnitude of the indictment. Or, put another way, it’s power stems from the way in which Solzhenitsyn links a personal story of degradation to a national story of extreme totalitarianism. The wonder is that Solzhenitsyn experienced the Gulag first-hand, paying for his own military service with years of hard labor and official persecution, and yet lived to write a coherent and still-artistic condemnation of the system.

Some literary critics have said that the Holocaust produced few great works of art because it was simply too horrifying to portray. At some level, the suffering was too great to produce great art. There seems to be something too that. Books like Survival in Auschwitz and Night are excellent, but they are rare and are probably more prose than literature. In Lydia Ginsburg’s opinion, art depends on some degree of optimism, even in the midst of darkness. Tragedy, after all, depends upon genuine hope, however submerged. Auschwitz, in this sense, seems beyond tragedy in this sentence, as Levi must have felt when he committed suicide after wrestling with the memory of Auschwitz in his books.

This is what is ultimately most impressive about Solzhenitsyn. He seems to have retained the ability to portray tragedy in the sense that he retained a real attachment to life as it should be in the midst of physical and psychological and spiritual oppression. So the book takes the reader through every phase in the destruction of the human soul. However, the author retains a sense of his own inherent superiority to all things Soviet.

1 comment:

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