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Between Two Millstones, Book 1:
Sketches of Exile, 1974–1978

by aleksandr solzhenitsyn
notre dame, 452 pages, $35.00 

It would have been much better for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s posthumous reputation if the KGB had killed him just before or shortly after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in February 1974. Had that happened, he would have been a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we have just celebrated: above criticism, a martyr of sorts.

Not that being “above criticism” is really an enviable state. Solzhenitsyn, like King, was a genuinely great man and an inspiration to millions, but also all too human—as we all are. We should be able to talk about such a figure without lurching between hagiography and drive-by character assassination.

The year just gone, 2018, marked Solzhenitsyn’s centenary: He was born on December 11, 1918 (an event I celebrate each year). You might suppose that this milestone would have prompted a number of meaty assessments considering many different aspects of Solzhenitsyn’s life and work from various (by no means uniform!) literary, political, and religious viewpoints.

In fact, what we got was pretty thin gruel. Some pieces did appear, of course, and more may come, but there was no sense of a lively conversation equal to the richness of the subject. Many of the pieces that were published brought to mind Solzhenitsyn’s own over-the-top invective against the spiritual and intellectual decadence of the West. (How did that line about “sewage” go?) He was a “fascist,” you see, or a man with “fascistic leanings,” a harbinger of the dark turn in Europe and in the United States toward the “far right.” Even among the more nuanced pieces, there was rarely any reflection on Solzhenitsyn as a writer.

We can be thankful to the University of Notre Dame Press for publishing, late last year, Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974–1978, translated by Peter Constantine and with an introduction by the Solzhenitsyn scholar Daniel J. Mahoney. The year before, Notre Dame published March 1917, a long-awaited volume in Solzhenitsyn’s late-life magnum opus The Red Wheel. That book, like the centenary just celebrated (or not celebrated), has so far received only a fraction of the attention deserved, especially in a year that saw scores of pieces devoted to the centenary of the Russian Revolution. That lack of conversation was in its own way even more depressing, though I’ll admit that the physical layout of March 1917—tiny print and the typographic devices required to distinguish the distinct narrative threads, following Solzhenitsyn’s intent—combined with stylistic challenges to daunt all but the most dedicated readers. If you persist, you will be rewarded!

Between Two Millstones is in an entirely different category. While March 1917 is a crucial episode in the work that Solzhenitsyn relentlessly devoted himself to for decades of research and writing, the former is much more casual—not a journal, precisely, but full of incident. It is even chatty at times, with accounts of meetings, intrigues (to get Solzhenitsyn’s archive out of Russia, for example), frustrations with translators and publishers, and so on. This volume and its sequel (which will continue the story from 1978 to 1994) will be must-reads for anyone who has followed Solzhenitsyn over the years.

Some readers will turn immediately to the index, in search of Solzhenitsyn’s passing comments and pithy judgments on other writers—Nabokov, for instance—often negative and often superficial but sometimes with shafts of insight. Typical, alas, are Solzhenitsyn’s remarks on his fellow writer-in-exile, Andrei Sinyavsky, whom I wrote about here last summer. In that piece, I mentioned that I’ve had a photo of Sinyavsky on one of my bookshelves for decades. Quite near that photo, as it happens, is a photo of Solzhenitsyn. They are both among my favorite writers. Though they were both Orthodox Christians (in Solzhenitsyn’s case a midlife shift in orientation that took place over a period of years), they were utterly different in temperament and outlook, and they rubbed each other the wrong way. Such is life. I trust they’ve made peace under the larches of paradise.

Without requiring our conscious intent, memory has a way of suppressing embarrassments from the past. While I was reading Between Two Millstones, I remembered for the first time in ages my first encounter with Solzhenitsyn’s work. I was a junior in high school (academic year 1964–1965), and I checked out from the public library One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I found it rather dreary (as it was intended to be, of course) and wasn’t at all receptive.

Fortunately, four years later, as a junior at Westmont College in Santa Barbara (to which I’d just transferred), I encountered a professor who was to become a lifelong friend, Edward E. Ericson, Jr. (who would go on to spend most of his teaching career at Calvin College). Ed, whose specialties had been John Milton and George Herbert, had discovered Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov and before long taught a class (was it a special inter-term course?) that had as big an impact on me as any in my eccentric wanderings as a student.

Ericson went on to write several books on Solzhenitsyn and was responsible (with the author’s blessing) for the one-volume abridgement of The Gulag Archipelago. I wished repeatedly while reading March 1917 and Between Two Millstones that I could call Ed on the phone for one of our long conversations. Even so, we knew each other so well that I could hear his voice in my head, commenting, as I read. 

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.

Photo by Evstafiev via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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