Aleksander Isayevich was for me the most influential living writer. Influential on me I mean, not on literature or the world.

I was born into a house full of books and read incessantly starting at age six or so. I could always read exceptionally fast. In my teens I settled into a diet of high-velocity pulp; sci-fi mostly, and not the best either. But whatever, as long as the plot moved right along and it had sex or violence or shiny machines.

I can’t remember how, or in what year of high school, I picked up One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I can remember sitting in the school library, entirely entranced while a corner of my mind wondered why; there were no gunfights or rockets. Only twice in my life have I finished a book and immediately turned back to Page One to start again.

Regrets · A mild one; there are several English translations of course and I can’t believe I’ve ever run across the one I read in the school library. I remember, as I read, feeling in the core of my soul Shukhov’s joy upon scoring the sausage after lights-out, and none of the versions I’ve looked at in later years capture it. Probably one of the many illusions of memory.

Here’s a severe regret: the human mind’s ability to learn new languages degrades severely with the passing decades, and the language I’ve always most wanted to learn was Russian. Now I probably never will.

One Day · For me, the power of the book is that it is full, entirely full, of critical lessons concerning life and how to live it; while never slipping into a mode of preaching or teaching; remaining always true to its title, the plainly-told story of an ordinary (but still, dramatic) day in the life of an ordinary person in a really lousy situation. Jesus taught by parable, but each had a single simple lesson; this is richer stuff by far.

The Person · Like many authors, Solzhenitsyn was less attractive than the stories he told. Many of us who’d flirted with the red flag saw him as a symbol of principled opposition, something to cling to when we fell out of love with Scientific Socialism. When he turned out to have a dim view of democracy and to regard free speech as, generally speaking, dangerous, it hurt. But the silly things artists often say shouldn’t be held against the works they leave behind them, so I won’t.

Other Works · There’s not much consensus about Solzhenitsyn once you get past One Day in the Life; I personally enjoyed The Cancer Ward and August 1914, and there several of his books I haven’t read yet but hope to.

I entirely and unhesitatingly recommend One Day in the Life; forty years or so after I discovered it, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a better book.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: ferg (Aug 05 2008, at 03:23)

"One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich'is a very fine book. I read it after a bout of trying to elevate my general reading above the normal trash scifi I'd been reading for the past 10 years. I'd read The Gulag Archipelago before, and did hesitate before reading this one. However, regardless of the harsh subject matter it's a very easily readable book, and I think I read it in just two sessions. Everybody should read this as a harsh lesson of what will happen if we forget that Politics are too important to be left to the Politicians.


From: steve j (Aug 05 2008, at 06:34)

"the human mind’s ability to learn new languages degrades severely with the passing decades"

Probably, but if you have the time, the $, and a good tutor, you may be able to do it.


From: pjm (Aug 05 2008, at 06:37)

The Master and Margarita?

The summer I spent in Petersburg, my host-father insisted Bulgakov's novel was the best novel ever written in any language, period.


From: Terry Jones (Aug 06 2008, at 00:46)

Hi Tim

I read A Day in The Life early too, and also loved it. Also Cancer Ward.

But my favorite was the slender For The Good Of The Cause.

It's harder than usual be be objective though when looking back at books one read decades ago. If you read one at 12 and one at 18 and you're now nearly 50, what can reliably be said? I'm not sure. I do think there's such a thing as reading too early. I regret having read Solzhenitsyn, and many other things, so early. I may return to them, but probably wont.

OTOH, I read Proust at 43 and totally loved it. I'm so happy my earlier attempts didn't get so far. And I plan to re-read.....



From: MikeP (Aug 06 2008, at 06:05)

"Here’s a severe regret: the human mind’s ability to learn new languages degrades severely with the passing decades, and the language I’ve always most wanted to learn was Russian. Now I probably never will."

Tim, last year while trotting back to work from my CogSci seminar, I met a Distinguished Professor Emeritus here - you would probably know his name if I wrote it. I asked him what he was doing that had him headed for Modern Languages, and he said he was taking RUS101. I wasn't surprised he was taking it, just that he didn't already know it.

If he can do it, I'm sure you can. I don't know if you know French like many Canucks, but I expect it's easier to pick up new languages the more you know already.


From: Thomas (Sep 02 2008, at 14:07)

I agree with a previous commenter: There's no "age limit" to learning a new language. Between the ages of 15 and 25 I learned 4. Now I'm 54, and all 4 stayed with me. I'm planning, after 30 years, to learn a new language - an asian language - I just haven't decided yet whether it will be Mandarin, Japanese, or Korean.


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