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.