Saturday, April 18, 2009

Book Review: A Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

I finished "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Solzhenitsyn. It's a very short book but this is the third time I've tried to read it. Every time it has been captivating, but the first time I lost the book and the second time I left the city whose library I was borrowing the book from.

Russian writing is interesting. I wonder if American writing has such a unique overall tone to it? Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn.... to me they all have a similar way of writing that is much darker than American writings. The other day Amy mentioned that in general she doesn't like Brit Lit because of how stiff it is. For a minute I disagreed... mostly because I love British literature, but after thinking about it I had to agree (not with her dislike but with their stiffness). Stiff isn't necessarily bad, it just reflects a culture. British literature tends to be very structured and have a bit of an impersonal tone to it. Some prefer it, some don't. I wonder if Russian literature reflects the Russian personality and culture as well. To me, Russian writing is amazingly deep but also incredibly pessimistic. They are philosophical to a fault, taken up with monotony, sort of spontaneously passionate, and very rarely joyful. They understand the complexity of emotions and relationships but their writing is rarely FUN.... it's heavy.

A Day In the Life is amazing because it is a day in the life of a prisoner in a work camp in Siberia (I think). It is unique because Solzhenitsyn himself spent years in a prison camp FOR his writing, so he is writing with a personal perspective of what it is like to live a day amidst years of painful monotony and little hope of justice. Of course, that day is incredibly monotonous and yet the author manages to plumb the depths of the mind and emotions of the prisoner throughout the day. At the end of the book I put it down and decided it was a book about life, and life to the fullest. Even amidst the camp this man is industrious, ambitious, filled with longing and joys and satisfactions and pains. It's... actually quite inspiring.

I think part of the point of the book is to celebrate the indomitable spirit of humanity. Despite oppression, poverty, sickness, and persecution, we can choose to live.


Solzhenitsyn fascinates me, particularly in comparison with another brilliant writer, Ayn Rand. Both left Communist Russia and condemned Communism, but with absolutely opposite premises. Their books both celebrate the human spirit, but they disagree completely about what that spirit actually is. Solzhenitsyn's exiled life in the US after his imprisonment and in the USSR is so interesting as well, because he kept himself surrounded by Russia even in the US. He never wanted to integrate and considered our society to be very corrupt, though in a different way than Russia. They were corrupt in the government, we were/are corrupt morally. When Solzhenitsyn could finally go back to Russia after Communism collapsed, still he struggled. He was certainly an idealist, but also a brilliant man, and a hero.

1 comment:

  1. This is a book I own, but have never read. Thanks for the intriguing review.