In the realm of ideas, and in the realm of art, there are fashions—just as there are in styles of dress, design of cars, idiomatic speech, and more. You may respond that this is a truism so tired as to be insulting to readers. And certainly this reality is often treated in a superficial way—for instance, in dismissive judgments that such-and-such an idea or such-and-such writer is merely fashionable (as if many rich and fascinating ideas, styles, and such have not been fashionable in their time, alongside others that are mere dross). Fashions bear witness to contingency, to the mysteriously unpredictable substratum of our common lives. They come and go in bewildering fashion, providing an opportunity for Big Explainers to explain away (for the credulous) the irreducible strangeness of human existence.
If you are a reader, serious but not humorless, you will have noticed that at this moment you are being told that you must read X, Y, and Z, a different list from what was must-reading ten years ago, different again from twenty years ago, and so on. In the background there is an ever-shifting list of “classics,” that is, books more than five years old. Whatever is in fashion just now will include some things worthy of your attention and some things not, to which we must add the indispensable role of taste.
One useful strategy is to read writers who, not so long ago, were regarded as essential but are now marginalized. A case in point is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1970, exiled to the West in 1974 (he would return to Russia in 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union), he was for a time the most famous writer in the world—widely read, widely admired, and subject to strong criticism, especially for his harsh judgment of Western democracies (and, later in his life, for his supposed anti-Semitism and “fascistic leanings”). Yet when I talk with younger readers today (many of them Christians, as Solzhenitsyn was), I find that most of them, while recognizing his name, have never read him. Was his fame merely an artifact of the Cold War? Or should he be read today (not to mention a hundred years from now)?
A book just out makes a strong case for the latter: Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited by David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson. It is dedicated to the memory of Edward E. Ericson Jr. (1939–2017), who wrote several books on Solzhenitsyn, edited collections of his work, and prepared—with Solzhenitsyn’s collaboration—a one-volume abridgement of the massive Gulag Archipelago (a project that he proposed). Ed was my teacher and dear friend, and I am very glad to see his work thus acknowledged; I’m grateful also for the opportunity to contribute a foreword to this book.
The editors have cast their net wide, so that it will be useful both to those who have read little of Solzhenitsyn (yet are looking for points of entry and orientation before plunging in) and for longtime students of his work—not only scholars (though there is plenty here for them to chew on), but also those blessed souls who read widely on their own dime. Some readers will immediately zero in on the two essays by the Russian-born Orthodox writer Eugene Vodolazkin (author of the novel Laurus, among other books). He’s not my cup of tea, but I have good friends who greatly admire both his fiction and his essays. His pieces in this volume are not about Solzhenitsyn, but rather offer sweeping historical-theological perspectives ranging from the Middle Ages to the present, hence in dialogue (if not explicitly) with Solzhenitsyn’s sense of Russia’s history and destiny.
Without wanting to slight any of the many contributors, I want to suggest that, after the editors’ introduction, the reader might start with Chapter 8 (Jessica Hooten Wilson, “How Fiction Defeats Lies: A Faithful Reading of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle”); Chapter 9 (Gary Saul Morson, “Solzhenitsyn’s Cathedrals”); Chapter 10 (Edward E. Ericson Jr., “Literature of Dissent in the Soviet Union,” an essay first published in 1973); and Chapter 11 (Micah Mattix, “The Example of Prussian Nights”). For me, these four chapters constitute the core of the book, from which the reader can go on to this or that angle on Solzhenitsyn in the sweep of the whole.
In particular, I urge readers not to skip the chapter on Prussian Nights, not much known, though it was (Mattix notes) part of “Solzhenitsyn’s first major work,” a “seven-thousand-line narrative epic . . . composed and committed to memory between 1948 and 1952” while Solzhenitsyn was a prisoner. The section translated in the West as Prussian Nights constitutes the ninth chapter. This part of the poem, focusing on the exceptional brutality of the Red Army’s 1945 conquest of East Prussia, and especially the savage treatment of German women at the hands of Russian soldiers, does not spare the narrator; he too is complicit in this sickening evil. Nor does it spare us as readers: “Prussian Nights asks us—poets and critics in particular—how we victimize others and how we turn away from those in need.” Uncomfortable questions.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.
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