I’m in the middle of “The First Circle” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (review to come, hopefully this month). Concurrently – although unrelated – I’ve been somewhat discouraged of late. Success is a crafty little minx; at once flirtatious and elusive. And I’m getting a little tired of writing books nobody reads. Alas, of course I know that nothing comes easily – nor should it, lest how would we be worthy of it? Would you want to live in a skyscraper if the architect had skated through some Ivy League school on their family name, drinking and fornicating their way to a diploma? How about being the first patient of an affirmative action medical school graduate? For sure not – we want people to compete for the right to our business, even if we ourselves would like success handed to us.
At any rate – I’m reading Solzhenitsyn; whose obstacles to success seem incredible up against my whiny generation. We have social media where we can connect with the world; we can publish our own works (books and blogs and articles) in the hopes of gaining an ear. Our education systems are – well not great but they are what we make of them. Most of us can go to university. We have the great books at our fingertips to read (if we were only to bother) – all translated into English as the only world language. Now consider Solzhenitsyn. I surely can’t imagine that he wanted to be born in Stalinist Russia. Or to spend years in the gulag; didn’t want to be banished to teach primary school in Kazakhstan and certainly didn’t want to waste his time negotiating with some mindless censor the ‘acceptable’ content of his novels.
Yet he wrote.
And he wrote. And he wrote more. He wrote without the hope of leaving that oxygen-less country. He wrote without dreaming of being published – of being widely read. And he wrote in a great deal of fear – his first visit to the gulag was because of what he had put in a private letter; to say nothing of a novel. But he wrote anyway. About what he thought. He made fun of Stalin; he created a world where the people around him were flesh and blood with problems and pain but also dreams and passions. He told the stories of the gulag, and peoples’ eternal fight to be free not in an epic way but more an everyday fight for occasional dignity in a world denied self.
So how could such a powerless man – a nobody, born behind a curtain of iron, become a somebody? A Nobel Prize winner? The answer is I don’t know. I’m supposed to say “It’s because of the raw power of his talent.” Except is it? Was there nobody else in Russia in the 1960s with so great a prose? Are his ideas so monumental that they cut through the double-speak and rendered even his minders mute?
I sort of wonder if there isn’t a new type of curtain these days. There’s so much being written, by so many people, that it’s also difficult for great minds to be ‘found’. Not in the same way as for Solzhenitsyn; an impenetrable insurmountable obstacle between himself and the free word. Today it’s more like Murkwood forest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination. The darkness of irrationality in our post-truth world; the swamp of “celebrity” like a sort of toxic sponge sucking up pages and word counts and column inches; the spiders’ webs of political correctness where our fearlessness gets snagged and sucked dry – our new censors all.
But I guess that’s the point – and perhaps the answer. Solzhenitsyn is who he became, first and foremost, because of his persistence; I think. And therein lies the lesson for the rest of us.
As Burroughs wrote, as one who knew, “Shoot your way to freedom, kid.”
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