How to write books in a prison camp
Posted by Ron Coleman on August 4, 2008
At Ekibastuz, any writing would be seized as contraband. So he devised a method that enabled him to retain even long sections of prose. After seeing Lithuanian Catholic prisoners fashion rosaries out of beads made from chewed bread, he asked them to make a similar chain for him, but with more beads. In his hands, each bead came to represent a passage that he would repeat to himself until he could say it without hesitation. Only then would he move on to the next bead. He later wrote that by the end of his prison term, he had committed to memory 12,000 lines in this way.
That’s all there is to it, I guess. It’s easy to be stunned by this feat, even by a mathematician, and forget about writing the 12,000 lines, and writing them the way he did. When do heart, soul and mind so powerfully coalesce in one body?
None of this is to say that I agree with every little thing Solzhenitsyn thought or said. His affection for the neo-Stalinist regime in Russia today is hard to fathom, nationalism notwithstanding. Yet he did write in The First Circle, forgive my not having it exactly, “The wolf is not blameworthy, but the cannibal is” — he was a nationalist, it was a world of carnivores; and Stalin’s crime was not merely that he was a murderer but that he murdered his own people. The crack that this leaves open for murdering others is not untroubling, but in truth Solzhenitsyn never advocated or defended that.
Still and all Solzhenitsyn was one of the towering figures of the last century. Liberals, for a brief moment, recognized his courage and his brilliance, even as pragmatic conservatives such as Henry Kissinger found him inconvenient, an embarrassing guest at the table of detente, and shooed him away from the Ford White House. After a while it seemed as if Solzhenitsyn no longer had anything to say to us. Yet much of what he did say in terms of criticism of the West — the materialism, the moral vacuity, the lack of true spirituality — should not be as readily laughed away by thoughtful people as is depicted having been the case among the literary elite in the obituary. Nor was the accusation against him of antisemitism, in any meaningful sense, justified; familiarity with his works cannot support the claim.
You must read the whole obituary. If you don’t really know who Solzhenitsyn was or how he did what few writers dream of — actually had an effect on history — this is your chance. Do not pass it by. Don’t you want to understand what our world is, and more of how it got this way?