Solzhenitsyn's most recent years have been characterised by frantic activity - and an austere preoccupation with historical patterns rather than fleeting events, she added.(One can only wonder if this pace had something to do with the October 2005 fire that destroyed many of his archives.)
A friend once recommended Daniel J. Mahoney's Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology. I was fascinated by the complex ideas presented and the (yes) urgency of what Solzhenitsyn was trying to communicate. This book is an excellent exploration of the ramifications of his work (highly recommended).
So I was disappointed and troubled by the tone of many of the obituaries I read, as well as by Jane Smiley's personal response "article." She is honest (I'll give her that) and openly admits that
Russian novels are a treasure, and I have long treasured them. But, like most Americans, I, too, had a very shallow understanding of Solzhenitsyn. When he came to the US, took up residence in Vermont, and began criticizing the US and the modern world, I was surprised, put off, and then lost interest in what the old man had to say.Yet she never confronts this loss of "interest" and simply winds up saying,
He didn't conform to anyone's program. No one could make an ally of Solzhenitsyn, at least for very long. He was prickly, he was opinionated, he was independent, he was peculiar. For this, and this alone, I thank him and honor him.It is unfair to demand that she "understand" him, but it's unfortunate that there is no willingness to examine his criticisms. He is reduced to some type of curiosity.
This is precisely what must not happen to his work and his memory--especially now. We must be willing to analyze what he had to say and confront its implications.
More worthwhile responses can be found here:
- Levi Asher discusses the speech and eloquently compares Solzhenitsyn to Dostoevsky.
- The Millions posts "Holding a Vigil for a People's History: an Appreciation of Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward."
- Geoff Wisner remembers being in the crowd at Harvard and listening to Solzhenitsyn's speech:
A cold drizzle was falling, and as the translator rolled out one section at a time, it took a while for the listeners to take in how radical it was. “This is terrible!” a middle-aged woman near me finally burst out.
As for me, I didn’t agree with everyone Solzhenitsyn said, but it was bracing to hear him inveigh against Western complacency and materialism from the same platform where President Derek Bok had been proudly announcing how much money each Harvard class has donated to its alma mater.