The Corner

Culture

‘Right Down to the Nub’

Alexander Solzhenitsyn boards a train in Vladivostok in 1994. (Reuters)

On the chance you’re not Solzhenitsyn’d out, try these notes, which are on various aspects of the man, as dissident and writer. A great and consequential life.

I thought I’d add three more notes, here on the Corner. (My notes on the homepage could have gone on and on, of course.) One of Solzhenitsyn’s best books — and one of my favorite books, from anybody — is The Oak and the Calf (a literary memoir). What does the title mean? A young person asked me that recently.

It comes from Russian folklore, or a Russian proverb: a calf butting his little head against a mighty oak, trying to knock it over. That is a symbol of futility — an impossible task. And that is the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, up against the Soviet state.

Such a great title, to go with a great book.

In 2012, I talked with Natalia Solzhenitsyn, the writer’s wife, and thought you would enjoy the following (from my subsequent piece):

I think I heard … that Solzhenitsyn liked short pencils. True? Are those the instruments he wrote with?

She answers, “His main writing implement was a ballpoint pen.” But he used many, many writing implements, in many colors. He had a complicated system, “like a giant pipe organ, with every pipe in its place, every pipe serving its purpose.” Every color had its place in this system: denoting characters, themes, linguistic curiosities, etc.

He did use pencils, yes, among the other implements: “They were extensions of his fingers, like another knuckle, another bone or joint. He simply used them until they were finished — right down to the nub.”

One more little note, one more little copying, the final paragraph of a piece I wrote about Solzhenitsyn in 2001, not findable on the Internet, at least by me:

I myself can only offer the conclusion that at the core of Solzhenitsyn’s life’s work is love. He is sometimes portrayed as a crabbed and angry hermit — and righteous anger he surely has — but his many writings over the decades have plainly been motivated by love: by love of mankind and a determination to lift it up. It is hard to do better than that.

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