I’m reading The Oak and The Calf , a memoir of Alexsandr I. Solzhenitsyn. You may remember his novels The Gulag Archipelago, Cancer Ward and First Circle. I think I read them in the early ‘Seventies.

When I came across this book in the thrift store, I only remembered his last name and associated it with a monumental struggle to have his work published. Then I checked out his list of publications and recognized that I had read several of his books and was deeply affected by them. They rang with truth. The stories seemed not so much stories in the sense of fabrications, made up tales, but as documentaries in novel form, to protect the innocent and the guilty.

The Oak and the Calf is a memoir about his struggles to publish after memorizing his books, one by one, without writing them down for fear of being sent back to the gulag in Siberia in which he had spent a greater part of his adult youth. Sixteen years, if I remember rightly, and being released only in his ‘Forties. Even when he finally did write them down, they were typed, single spaced, both sides so that they would be compact, the easier to hide them until they could be safely brought out.

I am always astounded at the strength of the human spirit against massive adversity and how some individuals manage, with grit and determination, to soar above the imprisoning machinations of power and evil mankind.

I’ve only read the first 110 pages so far. Solzhenitsyn has finally dared to bring out the first of his novels and his instantaneous success had been wonderful. Khruschev has appreciated his work and therefore the work is published with official consent; but then Khruschev is overthrown and Solzhenitsyn is thrown into panic to hide the remainder of his works in case he is tarred by Khruschev’s support and his own anti-Stalinist, anti-party-line writings. He prepares to go under the radar, to make himself small and unnoticeable.

He finds in his own spirit that each of these moments of adversity, there is a lesson that he must decipher about life and living. I thought this passage was quite interesting so I am sharing it with you:

Solzhenitsyn writes:

Later the true significance of what had happened would inevitably become clear to me, and I would be numb with surprise. I have done many things in my life that conflicted with the greater aims I had set myself – and something has always set me on the true path again. I have become so used to this, come to rely on it so much, that the only task I need set myself is to interpret as clearly and quickly as I can each major event in my life.

(V.V. Ivanov came to the same conclusion, though life supplied him with quite different material to think about. He puts it like this: “Many lives have a mystical sense, but not everyone reads it aright. More often than not it is given to us in cryptic form, and when we fail to decipher it, we despair because our lives seem meaningless. The secret of a great life is often a man’s success in deciphering the mysterious symbols vouchsafed to him, understanding them and so learning to walk in the true path.”)

– end of quote –

I am thoroughly enjoying this book. Although it’s a memoir, it reads like a novel written in the first person.


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3 Responses to “Solzhenitsyn”

  1. Marsha J. O'Brien Says:

    I had never read any of this individual’s work. It sounds fascinating and I am so delighted you shared. As ALWAYS, I really enjoyed your post. I also found out you aren’t opposed to thrift stores! I feel thrift stores are a gift and for those who are clever enough to use them, they save a ton of money! Keep up your great writing!

  2. wrjones Says:

    I remember reading his books. At that time he was one of my favorite authors. Then I read what negative things he had to say about the US after spending some years living here and I lost interest in his opinions about anything.

    • lookingforbeauty Says:

      Hi Bill, One is always disappointed when a person disparages the place you love and live in; especially when he could not have been fully informed about the place he was living, nor should he have been biting the hand that fed him (so as to speak). I still find his books powerful. As I read on in his auto biography (which starts at the point where he was trying to have his work published), that he is a driven man. His intense need to publish what he has written is everything to him. That makes him quite self-focused. Looking from our side, we see that as overly egotistical. I find it hard to judge such a person who has lived through so much adversity; who has a brilliant offering of literature to bring to his nation and who through his success becomes dismissive of those around him. I understand perfectly your reaction to his dumping on your nation and your subsequent equal dismissal of him. I feel the same way about one of the French Canadian singers from the 70’s. I saw him in a concert in Rheims, France at that time. He trashed English-Canada to the audience, inciting them to take on his anger and revolt; and while his singing was fine, I had no respect for him after that. He had no real knowledge of the English Canadians. He was speaking entirely on prejudices that had accumulated over a few centuries, tarring all of the modern day English Canadians with the same brush – and anyone who spoke English at the same time. He thought Canada stopped at the Ontario border and seemed to have no idea that the “English” of English speaking Canada was composed of many different nationalities. Our family had ethnic roots in the Netherlands, for instance. Now there is over 50 percent of the population in Vancouver whose mother tongue is other than English, mostly Asiatic, but it is still considered “English” Canada; and he blithely hated us all. It’s too bad that some celebrities use their power and visibility to do harm through their prejudices. Because they are famous, they have a voice, and their charisma can influence people. It’s so sad, when it’s to foster hate.

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