Friday, May 12, 2017

Book Review: Stories and Prose Poems

Title: Stories and Prose Poems

Author: Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Translator: Michael Glenny

Date: 1970 (Germany), 1971 (U.S.)

Publisher: Luchterhand Verlag (German), Farrar Straus & Giroux (U.S.)

ISBN: none

Length: 267 pages

Quote: “So, he thought, we’ve got to start all over again. Gather all nine hundred of them and explain: we haven’t got a building.”

In the Cold War era Alexander (or Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn, combat veteran, cancer survivor, political prisoner, and eventual defector to the United States, was to the Soviet Union something like what the prophets were to ancient Israel:

(1) He believed in the stated goals of his country’s leaders.

(2) He told them what he saw that they were and were not doing toward achieving those goals.

(3) As a reward he was always controversial and was eventually banished from his native country.

When he came to the U.S. he told us what he saw here, too, and lost a lot of his fans. Careless readers, who wanted to like him just because he was too honest to fit well into a totalitarian state, had not realized that Soviet Socialism had been accepted because it appealed to the moral sense of sensitive, intelligent people. Socialism is the philosophy of the Deadly Sin of Envy. Nevertheless, people with a healthy conscience don’t want to hoard wealth while others are unable to earn livings, to bicker over dead friends’ belongings, to receive even earned benefits that are withheld from someone else who earned similar or better ones. Solzhenitsyn “converted” to the belief that more individual freedom is better than more totalitarian control; people who had really read his books wouldn’t have expected him to “convert” to any belief that “greed is good.”

I was too young to appreciate Solzhenitsyn during his lifetime. I’ve enjoyed discovering his work as an adult. Not many writers succeed in making short stories interesting to me. Solzhenitsyn does. In six long and sixteen short pieces, in this book, he illuminates the internal conflict between ideal and practice.

Not one of these stories is about sex or romance, although some of the characters are coupled. Not one is violent, although some of the characters die. All of them are about morality, although they can hardly be called moralistic. “Matryona’s House” is about a hardworking old woman and her greedy relatives. “For the Good of the Cause” is about teenagers who are bored with school generally, but enthusiastic about building their own vocational school—until the bureaucracy shuts it down. “The Easter Procession” and some of the shorter stories are about the persistence of Christianity in an atheistic state. “Akhar the Pouch” is about a cranky old park warden who earns respect from smart young travellers. “The Right Hand” is about a disabled veteran waiting to be admitted to a hospital. “An Incident at Krechetovka Station” is a war story about a spy. The short pieces are descriptions that convey a wonderful sense of topophilia, among other things.

Page 247 was the point where the author vividly reminded me of my father. “[W]e men will soon be flying to Venus…Yet, with all our atomic might, we shall never—never!—be able to make this feeble speck of a yellow duckling.” As I remembered Dad saying, sooner or later in any conversation about science, things like “Scientists may fly to the moon and back, but they can’t make a blade of grass grow,” it occurred to me that this is what fiction does for humankind. Fiction writers may or may not succeed in portraying other people the way those people really were; they can hardly help portraying people the way writers are.

The Cold War was primarily a trade war. We, humankind, can hope that there’ll always be some question whether we, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., really could have destroyed the whole planet ten times over, or more, or fewer. Nevertheless at the time most of us took the Cold War seriously. “Can you trust the Russians?” was a serious question to anyone who thought it might be a good idea to stop building nuclear bombs, which I did, and also a cliché, a joke; I heard a good bit of it after someone noticed that a shelter cat I’d fostered for a few weeks had the look, and probably some of the same DNA, as the breed of cats called “Russian Blue”—ah, Dusty dushka, she could always be trusted to behave exactly like a normal cat who was only a little bit cleverer than most.For some of us, Solzhenitsyn’s ability to communicate that sense of wonder, reverence for life, respect for quirky old people, was a badly needed reminder that those “godless Communists” were human beings with a full range of noble and venal motives for the things they were doing.

That is widely considered to be the benefit fiction offers to humankind. So, this old book contains some of the twentieth century’s best fiction. It's not a Fair Trade Book (the author has no further use for a dollar) but it's available here on our usual terms: $5 per book, $5 per package, $1 per online payment, and as usual you can order as many books as will fit into one package for one $5 shipping charge.