Great writing comes from great tragedy, from the deep suffering of a people.
It’s always risky to figure out what “cultural artifacts” will endure: what is the great writing of today? What will we pass on to centuries yet to come? Some of you know this is why I half-jokingly say I have not read much past the 4th century; it saves me from worrying about whether what I am reading and spending time on is just a waste of time, because it will be quickly forgotten. I remember a fellow college freshman telling me he thought Midnight Oil would be remembered just like Beethoven... So I won’t have much of an answer for you about Rob Bell or Francis Chan-- not just because I suspect they are hipsters, but will what they write matter in 5 years? Will you read the book again 25 years from now?
Literary critics have spent an inordinate amount of time on Joyce, Faulkner, and Proust (to name a few), only to find that Steinbeck--who was relegated to the second tier-- gains more ground as time passes; that precisely because Steinbeck was not navel-gazing (which, whatever the stylistic merits of the aforementioned Trinity may be, they were navel-gazers), his works continue to speak to readers. There’s a big difference between reading obsessive Oedipal memories and experiencing the cultural pain of something like the Dust Bowl and labor unrest from 1920-40.
It makes me wonder if there is not some great Chinese writing to be discovered for us English speakers, detailing the horrors of that nation’s experiments with socialism. I know we have not paid enough attention to the African American Diaspora from the South...
And then there is Solzhenitsyn. A titan. Someone who is not only a brilliant stylist--Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf and others imitated each other, but what Solzhenitsyn created in GULag Archipelago, we are still sorting through what to call that “style.” A new style, a new genre, had to be created to deal with something unprecedented: the systematic torture and destruction, over a period of 40 years of people in Lenin and Stalin’s death camps.
I first read GULag Archipelago when I was 12. It’s a testament to Solzhenitsyn’s power that even a 12 year-old can understand the book! I remember the Preface, which I suppose is indicative of what Solzhenitsyn was about to unleash over the next 1400 pages... To this day, I think it is the greatest opening in all of literature:
“In 1949 some friends and I came upon a noteworthy news item in Nature, a magazine of the Academy of Sciences. It reported in tiny type that in the course of excavations on the Kolyma River a subterranean ice lens had been discovered which was actually a frozen stream--and in it were found frozen specimens of prehistoric fauna some tens of thousnads of years old. Whether fish or salamander, these were preserved in so fresh a state, the scientific correspondents reported, that those present immediately broke open the ice encasing the specimens and devoured them with relish on the spot.
“The magazine no doubt astonished its small audience with the news of how successfully the flesh of fish could be kept fresh in a frozen state. But few, indeed, among its readers were able to decipher the genuine and heroic meaning of this incautious report.
“As for us, however--we understood instantly. We could picture the entire scene, right down to the smallest details: how those present broke up the ice in frenzied haste; how flouting the higher claims of ichthyology and elbowing each other to be first, they tore off chunks of the prehistoric flesh and hauled them over the bonfire to thaw them out and bolt them down.
“We understood, because we ourselves were the same kind of people ‘as those present’ at that event. We, too, were form that powerful tribe of ‘zeks” [prisoners in the Soviet system of death camps], unique on the face of the earth, the only people who could devour prehistoric salamander with relish.
“And the Kolyma was the greatest and most powerful island, the pole of ferocity of that amazing country of Gulag which, though scattered in an archipelago geographically, was, in the psychological sense, fused into a continent--an almost invisible, almost imperceptible country inhabited by the zek people.
“And this Archipelago crisscrossed and patterned that other country within which it was located, like a gigantic patchwork cutting into its cities, hovering over its streets. Yet there were many who did not even guess at its presence, and many, many others who had heard something vague. And only those who had been there knew the whole truth.
“But as though stricken dumb on the islands of the Archipelago, they kept their silence...
“...I have absorbed into myself my own eleven years there not as something shameful nor as a nightmare to be cursed: I have come almost to love that monstrous world...”
I suppose there was no writer I wanted to meet more than Solzhenitsyn. He was impressed into my mind early because a distant cousin was part of debriefing him when he was expelled from the Soviet Union. That was just a family story that perhaps put the book on the shelf. Or did my dad know that this was the most important work published in the 20th century? The most important work in how many hundreds of years? We might say this one book tore the Soviet Union down.
The book was Solzhenitsyn’s blackmail; the KGB wanted to kill him, but the book had been smuggled out by (if memory serves me correct) Mstislav Rostropovich, and Solzhenitsyn threatened to publish it if he should disappear or die mysteriously. (side note: many copies of it were typed out on 3 carbons in Voru, Estonia, for all you First Methodist missionaries!)
Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and other intellectuals tried to stop the publication (!) because it would reveal them to be liars and propagandists for the socialist cause, for the excuses and denials made for and about the millions who perished in Lenin and Stalin’s perverse world.
If you want to read anything past the fourth century, you can’t go wrong with Solzhenitsyn. “First Circle” and “Cancer Ward” are easier books of his to break into, but GULag Archipelago is the book to read if you’re only going to read one.