Stephanie Deutsch, a writer and critic living in Washington, D.C., was a first year graduate student in Soviet Union Area Studies at Harvard in 1970 when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She had spent the previous year living in Moscow. This essay is an update of an appreciation written ten years ago for the Washington Times’s “Lost Word” column dedicated to second looks at classic works. Solzhenitsyn died on August 3rd at 89.My copy of Cancer Ward is a well-worn relic from the 1970s, when a paperback book cost $1.50 and Solzhenitsyn was the must-read author of the moment. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and when I bought the novel it had been through fifteen printings in three years. A quote on the back cover calls it “a literary event of the first magnitude… by Russia’s greatest living prose writer.”The book reprints the author’s 1967 letters to the Congress of Soviet Writers and the Union of Writers of the USSR complaining of the “no longer tolerable oppression, in the form of censorship, that our literature has endured for decades,” and insisting that his work “be published without delay.” Who could foresee then that when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died he would no longer be much read, either here or in his native land. The one-time Vermont recluse returned to Russia but there, as here, his fervor and his writing are out of fashion.Just as a voguish book can disappoint, though, Cancer Ward remains compelling. While the title hints at symbolism and death, the straightforward story is vibrantly and affirmatively about life. Mr. Solzhenitsyn does see cancer as a fitting metaphor for his society’s ghastly flaws, but he is also telling a literal story about physical illness. He himself was a survivor not just of front-line combat with the Red Army, Stalinist prison camps, forced labor and exile in his own country, but also of real illness. A recurrence of his rare stomach cancer was treated with radiation in the spring of 1954 at a hospital in Tashkent.This is where the novel brings together a lively cast of characters. The protagonist is Oleg Kostoglotov, a big, dark-haired man in his 30s, a former political prisoner and internal exile. He’s a land surveyor with unslakable curiosity about everything: “…although he’d never missed a chance to scoff at education in general, he’s always used his eyes and ears to pick up the smallest thing that might broaden his own.” He likes people, too, especially as he feels life returning after his near death and successful radiation therapy.Kostoglotov’s nemesis in the ward is Rusanov, a self-satisfied bureaucrat, a Party member whose life work has been in “personnel records administration… Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was… The actual direction life took was decided without loud publicity, calmly in quiet offices, by two or three people who understood one another, or by dulcet telephone calls. The stream of real life ran on in the secret papers that lay deep in the briefcases of Rusanov and his colleagues.” This work gives Rusanov an inflated sense of his own importance and caution and pettiness that are the opposite of Kostoglotov’s exuberant good nature.Ludmila Afanasyevena Dontsova is the head of the hospital’s radiology department, a brilliant clinician who hesitates to use her diagnostic skills on the pain she feels in her own stomach. We see her not just in the hospital but on her way home from work, grabbing a seat on a streetcar: “…the was the first thought apart from the hospital that began to transform her from an oracle of human destinies into a simple passenger on a trolley jostled like anyone else… At every stop and with every shop that flashed by the window, Ludmila Afanasyevna’s thought turned more and more to her housework and her home. Home was her responsibility and hers alone because what can you expect from men? Her husband and son, whenever she went to Moscow for a conference, would leave the dishes unwashed for a whole week. It wasn’t that they wanted to keep them for her to do, they just saw no sense in this repetitive, endlessly self-renewing work.”Kostoglotov’s life in prison and exile has kept him isolated from women for years so his joy at returning health is mingled with wonder at the chance to be with members of the opposite sex. He flirts wildly with the high-spirited night nurse, Zoya; he feels deep sympathy with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors. “For a man like Oleg, who had to be permanently suspicious and watchful, it was the greatest pleasure in the world to be able to trust, to give himself to trust. And he trusted this woman, this gentle, ethereal creature. He knew she’d move softly, thinking out her every action and that she wouldn’t make the slightest mistake.”And we meet the ward’s other patients – Dyomka, a teenager facing the amputation of his leg and trying to keep up with his literary studies; Asya, the yellow-haired girl desolate about impending surgery for breast cancer; Vadim, an engineer so absorbed in his work he had no time for illness; Chaly, suffering from acute stomach cancer but cheerfully sharing with Rusanov his feast of illicit pickles and vodka.Solzhenitsyn gives a full and sympathetic picture of these characters, revealing each one’s inner reality – loneliness, marital happiness, eagerness for life, fear of death. Like others of the best Russian novels, Cancer Ward bursts with conversations. Some are timely still – about alternative cancer cures from roots and herbs and the influence of one’s mental state on the healing process; about the difficulties of achieving free national health service and yet providing patients with sufficient personal attention; and about what of honor or self-respect or bodily function one is willing to sacrifice to stay alive.The heavy atmosphere of the totalitarian Soviet Union is brilliantly rendered and, in my tattered edition, numerous footnotes clarify allusions that might be lost on a reader without a detailed knowledge of the time. When Kostoglotov talks to Zoya he has to explain to her that he is a Russian and was exiled on a trumped-up charge of treason. “Note: A number of small nationalities – Volga Germans, Chechens, Kalmucks and others – were deported en masse to Central Asia during and after the second world war, suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. These were called ‘exiled settlers.’ ‘Administrative exiles,’ like Kostoglotov, were usually political prisoners who had served their term in a labor camp but still had to live in a remote region of the country.”This novel is constructed around these and other historical truths too ghastly to be believed and, in our country, in some danger of being forgotten. When Kostoglotov begins to suspect that political changes may be coming in his country he thinks, “A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?” As it turned out, this one could not; the system that produced the camps is gone. Solzhenitsyn’s story, brilliantly mixing fact and fiction, tells us just how sick the patient actually was.With his prophet-like appearance and cantankerous public persona, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will surely be remembered for his determined truth-telling. By keeping the details of Soviet history alive, his extraordinary literary oeuvre may help guard against the recurrence that with cancer can never be fully ruled out. But Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered, as well, as a novelist to put on the shelf next to Gogol and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak, a writer to be re-read and savored for the way he translates messy, often ghastly human experience into brilliant, clarifying prose.
Yesterday it was learned that Pulitzer Prize winning author Carol Shields passed away. She was best known for the book that won her the prize, The Stone Diaries. They broadcast an old interview with her on NPR yesterday, and Shields talked about how she squeezed in an hour of writing each day between teaching and taking care of her young children and after nine months she had written The Stone Diaries. Her last book, Unless, didn’t recieve a huge amount of press, but it sold tremendously well at my bookstore and was much loved by the readers I spoke to about it. If you want to learn more about her, here is her obit in the New York Times.
My first reaction on hearing this morning about the death of Christopher Hitchens was not one of shock–obviously, we have all known for some time that this was coming–but one of despondency. What, I immediately thought, are we supposed to do now? Hitchens was, and still is, an indispensable person, a completely necessary man. You didn’t have to agree with him on everything in order to recognise this (he made it more or less impossible, in fact, for any one person to agree with him on everything). Like almost everyone I know, I thought he was very wrong on a number of major issues, but that didn’t stop me wanting to read him, and listen to him talk, and it didn’t stop me from admiring him greatly. The whole point of Hitchens–a major element of his necessity–was that when you disagreed with what he said, you really disagreed, and when you agreed, you wished you had said it yourself. Either way, it was necessary to hear his opinion; the matter in question, whatever it was, hadn’t been fully aired until Hitch had rolled up the sleeves of his off-white linen jacket and got stuck in.
He was the embodiment of the public intellectual, a gifted and prolific writer who was also one of the most gifted and prolific talkers in the English-speaking world. Perhaps the saddest part of his slow dying was the moment, last April, when he lost his voice. His actual physical voice, perhaps even more than his writing, was the substance of his cultural presence. In an essay published in Vanity Fair shortly after this happened to him, he wrote of how an editor at The Guardian once gave him what he saw as an invaluable piece of advice–to “write more like the way you talk.” For most of us, this would be extraordinarily poor counsel, but for Hitchens it turned out to be very useful. Anyone who met him was inevitably struck by the sheer authority and eloquence of his speech, his ability to talk in perfectly formed sentences, with audible parentheses and semi-colons, and (seemingly but not actually) premeditated paragraphs.
I met him only once. It was June 16th, 2007–Bloomsday–and he was in Dublin to promote his book God is Not Great, which had just hit the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. Back then, I worked for a magazine called Mongrel which was run by a couple of friends of mine, and they called me and asked if I wanted to interview Hitchens. I have never in my life answered a question so vehemently in the affirmative. I went along to his hotel the following morning. Within seconds of his opening the door and sitting me down at a table in the small hotel room, he announced that he needed to use the toilet. Instead of closing the door to the en suite, however, he kept it wide open and talked loudly and authoritatively over the sound of his own micturition. He was enthusing about the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, who was due to pick him up after the interview and run him out to a party at the home of U2’s manager Paul McGuinness, and whom he claimed was one of the greatest conversationalists he knew, “maybe even better than Mr. Rushdie.” I remember thinking (and later writing) that it took a particularly potent kind of charisma to allow a person to engage in such concentrated namedropping, urinating all the while, and still manage to come across as charming. Hitchens had that kind of charisma. It’s still a source of stinging regret that, when he asked me what I wanted to drink, I opted timidly for a small bottle of white wine from the minibar rather than joining him in the Johnny Walker Black he’d ordered up from room service. It felt a little early in the day for the hard stuff, I think was my rationale. More fool me.
There is no question of anyone coming to occupy anything like the cultural position he created for himself. One of the surest signs of his greatness, for me, is the reaction I have to seeing people trying to bite his contrarian style. I feel sorry for them; it simply can’t be done. Only Hitchens could do what he did. Only Hitchens could write a book-length assault on the reputation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta–denouncing her as, amongst other things, a “lying, thieving Albanian dwarf”–and come out of it looking like the good guy. Only Hitchens would have the audacity, and the intractability, to appear on Fox News the day after the death of the televangelist Jerry Falwell and remark that “if you gave him an enema you could bury him in a matchbox.” We expected a spectacle, of course, and we usually got one, but he was much more than a contrarian exhibitionist. He was a superb writer, and a ferocious advocate of reason, intelligence and intellectual autonomy in a cultural marketplace that is often a rummage-sale of received ideas and half-considered positions. He was also, let’s not forget, an excellent literary critic. He was a sort of combination of John Lydon and Lionel Trilling, and he made that combination seem like a perfectly natural one. As frequently, as bluntly and as eloquently as he wrote about his illness, and as long as we have known that we would eventually lose him, his death still feels like an unexpected loss. It’s too early to measure the extent of it, but we’ll start taking that measurement soon enough; we’ll start as soon as we are compelled to ask, on the occasion of some catastrophic event or monumental political stupidity, “what would Hitchens say about that?”
Jonathan Swift–an Irishman and a cleric with whom this English atheist nonetheless shared some common ground–wrote his own epitaph, perhaps because he didn’t trust anyone else not to mess it up. It’s inscribed, in Latin, on a plaque near his burial site in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. W.B. Yeats translated it into English as follows:
Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.
It’s always a sign of a grim juncture when you’re reduced to quoting Yeats, but it seems particularly apt here. Christopher Hitchens has sailed into his rest. Imitate him if you dare.
(Image: Hitches? Hitchens! from allaboutgeorge’s photostream)