It would be a shame if the death of the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov yesterday got lost in the welter of cultural losses that surrounds it. Aksyonov is one of the towering literary figures of the postwar era – one who might have been more widely recognized as such were it not for the strictures of Soviet publishing culture. In his novels The Burn, The New Sweet Style, and especially Generations of Winter (which we have championed at this site), Aksyonov synthesized the Tolstoyan legacy of the 19th Century with the innovating impulses of the revolutionary generation. In making Russian literary tradition his own, and re-opening its dialogue with the rest of world literature, he pointed the way for the novelists who would succeed him. I can think of no more fitting way to honor him than to read him.
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.
Over at Beatrice, I saw the posting that Will Eisner has died. Eisner is credited by many with inventing the graphic novel — or at least turning it into the form we recognize today (A Contract with God is his landmark work). Many of today’s most prominent graphic novelists cite Eisner as a major influence. At the moment, none of the major news sites have posted an obit (aside from this brief piece at E&P), but you can expect to see some soon.UPDATE: Here come the obits: DenisKitchen.com, WaPo, NYT
I first heard the news of David Foster Wallace’s death the morning after my wedding. I was walking around the small downtown that hosted the weekend’s festivities and ran into a couple, friends of the bride. They had left the wedding the night before with my college roommates, the group steaming back to a rented house to continue the good feeling of the night. One friend opened a bottle of scotch, another a laptop, and that is when the news broke. The feeling of celebration fell like a curtain descending a window. Retelling the story the next morning, neither among the couple could remember the dead author’s name. “William Chester, Franklin Wright, something with three names,” they said. It took me half a minute to figure out who they were talking about.Mourning the death of an artist I didn’t know is not something I’ve ever done before. I thought of it as an emotion only teenagers felt, and mostly in movies. And when David Foster Wallace died it didn’t register like the loss of someone I knew or like the loss of someone I didn’t. It was more descriptive. His suicide, like his work, added texture to the world, or revealed it, and even if the resulting picture was not any clearer, at least it was more honest and likely also more true. His death felt to me most directly like the settling of rubble.I expected a string of emails among my friends about DFW’s death. For the last two years we’ve participated in a Google Group with a steady daily volume of posts. Many of the threads are combative, filled with faux-disputes that make it easier to pass the workday and serve as a proxy for hanging out on weekends, which we cant do as much now that many of us live in different cities. One thing everyone agreed on though is that DFW was the Real McCoy. Soon after news of his death there was a simple post, titled “RIP” that stated matter-of-factly what had happened. After that a few people added links to blog posts and remembrances. I commented after listening to him read from “Up, Simba” on an archived This American Life episode, that I’d never heard his voice before. Our discussion was part the idle chatter of a funeral, and part a notation of the kinds of inconsequential details that are insulating in times of grief. DFW liked The Wire as it turned out, and to be able to say so out loud is almost proof that his death was not so severe.But the primary sound after his death was silence. We’ve had people write 1,000-word posts on football players’ names, and threads about the US Open that stretched past the horizon, but on an occasion of significance to everyone in the group, very little has been said. It is, I think, an appropriate response. In his writing, and maybe in his head too, DFW battled the cacophonous echo chamber of modern life. In our little corner of the online world, it felt fitting to let the only reverberations be his own.
Awoke to the news that Kurt Vonnegut died. His death was somewhat unexpected, coming after a fall at his home in New York, but he lived a full life, even penning a surprise bestseller that put him back in the public eye in 2005. That was fun to see because, though Vonnegut may be one of the most important writers out there for me as a reader, most of his literary output came before I was born.When I was a younger reader, I was a completist. I didn’t have knowledge of dozens of books and writers at my fingertips, so when I found a book I really liked, I would read everything by that author. And so it was that I read substantially everything that Vonnegut had written before I left home for college, starting with a late novel, Hocus Pocus, after finding it lying around the house when I was 14 or 15, and finishing up with Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, on a long, late-summer car ride home from Maine, a few weeks before moving away from home. So, in many ways, Vonnegut was in the background through my teenage years, providing a vivid counterpoint to the mundanities of suburban high school life. His books are very important to who I am as a reader and a writer, so I’m sad to see him go.Some links: My call for more people to read the lesser-known Vonnegut novels. The New York Times obit.Update: Some of you may be seeing a lot of folks writing “so it goes” today in response to Vonnegut’s death. For those who are curious as to why, the phrase comes from what is perhaps his most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, where he wrote: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.'”Also, I found Vonnegut’s official site to be particularly poignant today.