One of the few things possibly better than reading our friend Daniel Mahoney, and especially about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is listening to him talk on, in his friendly regal fashion, about Solzhenitsyn.
A couple of days ago the Liberty and Law Site made available this podcast, wherein Mahoney talks about his new book The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker. This work can be considered as a supplement or sequel to Mahoney’s 2001 effort to sum up Solzhentisyn as a political thinker, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology. Its format allows Mahoney to range more widely—for example, there are chapters on certain themes spanning several works, such as one on the need to forswear absolute pacifism in order to resist soul-corrupting evil, others which consider a specific literary work, such as one on In The First Circle and another on the late-in-life short stories, and one which compares the responses of Raymond Aron and Solzhenitysn to communist totalitarianism.
If you’ve read some of Solzhenitsyn’s corpus, you’ll find it a difficult book to put down, and if you haven’t read any of it, well, what are you waiting for?! Had I to start over again, I’m not sure the order I’d go in, but certainly the GULAG Archipelago first, in the abridged edition, perhaps some of the key essays and speeches next, available in the Solzhenitysn Reader, edited by Ericson and Mahoney, and then onto either In the First Circle, or the first two first “knots” of the super-novel The Red Wheel, namely, the just reissued–in the superior/complete Willetts translations–August 1914 and November 1916. The third of these is one of my very favorite novels, despite the criticism it gets for providing too much history and political commentary alongside its main sections. For In the First Circle and August 1914, make sure you get the newer versions. And somewhere in there, you need to delve into a number of the short stories and poems.
In general, I would just say that there is a distinctive fire and life imparted by Solzhenitsyn that just sweeps you up—indeed the best thing about Mahoney’s book is that his prose reflects that in part. I’m not a literary expert and likely have serious lacunas of taste, but for me Solzhenitsyn is in my personally select class of literary artists—Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and Ellison–who just capture me completely and peculiarly fire my soul, I think in more healthy directions than not, when I read them.
Mahoney feels obliged to spend a good deal of time, in his book, and especially in this interview, refuting a vague calumny that often attaches to the great author’s name, especially in sophisticated Anglophone circles, as a retrograde Russian nationalist, and thus anti-democratic, narrowly religious, probably anti-Semitic, etc. It’s all utterly untrue. Mahoney is right to do his scholarly duty against the calumny, of course, but it’s most unfortunate that this is still necessary.
Incidentally, that painting is by one of the great Kugach painters, whose work can be seen at the Lazare Gallery (appt. only), which has a collection of contemporary and 20th-century Russian realist painting, located in the countryside between Richmond and Williamsburg. The Lazare owners claim that not a few serious realists these days go to Russia for the schooling in technique only available there–just one more sign among others that you can’t reduce your thinking about today’s Russia to Putin and his thuggish armies.