Monday, August 04, 2008

One Day in the Life

The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn last week has reminded me of my own first encounter with his writing and the historical context in which it took place.

It must have been around 1963 or '64. That makes it just a year or so after the Cuban Missile Crisis had washed around our South Florida neighborhood like a rising flood. We lived only twelve miles from the Air Force base at Homestead where B-52's were on 24-hour alert for World War Three. We had seen fighter jets flying overhead, anti-aircraft rockets towed down our street, and armed guards walking around a supply depot next to our little local shopping center as the military prepared for a possible invasion of Cuba. That was plenty to bring home the reality of the Cold War.

As a car-less student back then I was a prisoner of my suburb. In the summertime my only source for new books was the drug store in that same little shopping center, because even my school library was too far away.

Now, when I say "suburb" please don't think of one of these modern planned communities with spacious and fashionable homes and swimming pools in the back yards. This was one of the cookie cutter developments stamped out by the thousands during the 1950's for working class families, a vast collection of concrete hovels with a bare amount of floor space carved up into three or four bedrooms the size of jail cells.

And when I say "shopping center" please don't think of a modern air-conditioned mall with music in the air and a huge array of trendy shops. This was an L-shaped collection of half-occupied store fronts arranged around an asphalt parking lot. We had a Food Fair supermarket, a dentist, a bar, a barber shop, a hobby store, and down at the far end a drug store complete with soda fountain counter.

The pharmacist and owner of this drug store was the father of one of the kids in my class. He wore a hearing aid, the result of his military service in World War II, and always impressed me as a nice guy. Often it was he himself who would jump behind the counter to pour us a cherry Coke when we stopped in after school, and he always did it with a smile.

I've since wondered if he was the reason that the book rack by the magazine stand had any good books in it. Thinking about it now, it's hard to understand any other way. We were miles from the nearest decent bookstore in South Miami, even farther from a public library. And in this middle of nowhere the only books for sale occupied a single rotating rack with enough space for maybe three or four dozen titles.

How miraculous is it that I found Dostoevsky there? (Not to mention William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and other examples of current Beat literature.) I had just finished my father's old copy of War and Peace, and there was the even more magnificent Crime and Punishment waiting for me at the drug store.

That was also where I found Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, long before it was made into a movie, and gleaned from it the history of the Bolshevik revolution and what it had meant to the people living in Russia. I was excited to find this example of Russian literature happening now instead of back in the 19th century. And the fact that our two nations might be blowing each other off the face of the earth at any moment gave the experience a degree of urgency.

Then one day I came across One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Solzhenitsyn's first account of life in the gulags. If there had been any doubt about the outcome of the 1917 revolution at the end of Zhivago, this was enough to put it to rest. The book's spare and unflinching prose was like a scalpel autopsying the corpse of the dream of Marxism. Here, the doctor said, in this diseased organ, is where the patient met his doom.

Solzhenitsyn had opened a window into the vast mystery of our Cold War adversary, and other rays of light began to trickle out. Soon afterward I was delighted to find something called Ticket to the Stars, by Vasili Aksenov, who was one of a younger generation of Russian writers. The book was not science fiction, despite the title -- rather it was an account of disaffected Russian youth, coming of age in a time and place that could promise them little in the way of a future. They were Russian Beats! I had found the connection to my own counterparts on the other side -- the ones who would grow up and live through the demise of Communism.

For a time I looked in vain for other examples of this literary phenomenon, but the door soon closed as Soviet censorship was reasserted. In the years that followed, Solzhenitsyn was exiled and made his home in New England until the Soviet Union collapsed. My favorite story about that is that there was a general store in the small town he settled in, and the store posted a sign that said, "No directions to Mr. Solzhenitsyn's house." Don't ask us, leave the old guy his privacy. Sounds like he chose wisely where to live.

So now they can do whatever they want over there and write what they want about it -- at least as long as they stay on Putin's* good side. It remains to be seen what new literature will emerge, and if it will equal or surpass the greatness of Russia's past. But for me, I don't think anything will ever top the arrival of Ivan Denisovitch's brutal winter in the midst of my brutal summer, that breath of chilled air that reached me from the other side of the world.

Isn't that what writing does?

*Footnote: To Mr. Putin's credit he attended the memorial service for Solzhenitsyn and at least paid lip service to the value of his work. According to this story in the New York Times he even went on record suggesting that more of the author's books should be in school libraries. No doubt our own libraries could benefit from the same thing.

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