If I didn’t actually believe in my responsibility to tell Americans the truth about Turkey, nevertheless I did feel it was somehow wasteful to study Russian literature instead of Turkish literature. I had repeatedly been told in linguistics classes that all languages were universally complex, to a biologically determined degree. Didn’t that mean that all languages were, objectively speaking, equally interesting? And I already knew Turkish; it had happened without any work, like a gift, and here I was tossing it away to break my head on a bunch of declensions that came effortlessly to anyone who happened to grow up in Russia.
Today, this strikes me as terrible reasoning. I now understand that love is a rare and valuable thing, and you don’t get to choose its object. You just go around getting hung up on the all the least convenient things—and if the only obstacle in your way is a little extra work, then that’s the wonderful gift right there.
All this points to the nature of every real story. It contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story. (Quite apart from the fact that a man is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak.) Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom.
Literature | A reviewer says it’s a good thing the archbishop of Canterbury has written a book about Dostoyevsky. To figure out this Russian fellow, “we need a guide who combines the gifts of a literary critic and a trained theologian.” And like Dostoyevsky, the cleric, through his unruly Church of England, knows what it’s like to juggle “incompatible beliefs.” [TLS]
The sense of success and inclusion is harder to resist than the wrath of the state. Carrots are more corrupting than sticks. This phenomenon is powerfully described in Vasily Grossman’s novel “Life and Fate” (1960). One of its central characters is Viktor, a talented physicist who stoically defends his science in the face of likely arrest, but becomes weak and submissive when Stalin calls him to wish him success. “Viktor had found the strength to renounce life itself—but now he seemed unable to refuse candies and cookies.” . . .
Russia today is much freer than it was for most of the Soviet era. However undemocratic it may be, it is not a totalitarian state. The room for honest speaking is far greater than Russian intellectuals make use of. As Marietta Chudakova, a historian of Russian literature and courageous public figure, puts it, “Nobody has been commanded to lie down—and everyone is already on the ground.” The media is suffocated by self-censorship more than by the Kremlin’s pressure. Nikolai Svanidze, a Russian journalist who works for a state TV channel, admits: “There is no person who tells [me] what you can and what you can’t do. It is in the air. If you know what is permitted and what is not, you’re in the right place. If you don’t, you are not.”
Although more than three decades have now passed since the winter of 1974, when unbound, hand-typed, samizdat manuscripts of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago first began circulating around what used to be the Soviet Union, the emotions they stirred remain today. Usually, readers were given only 24 hours to finish the lengthy manuscript—the first historical account of the Soviet concentration camp system—before it had to be passed on to the next person. That meant spending an entire day and a whole night absorbed in Solzhenitsyn’s sometimes eloquent, sometimes angry prose—not an experience anyone was likely to forget.
Members of that first generation of readers remember who gave the book to them, who else knew about it, and to whom they passed it on. They remember the stories that affected them most—the tales of small children in the camps, or of informers, or of camp guards. They remember what the book felt like—the blurry, mimeographed text, the dog-eared paper, the dim glow of the lamp switched on late at night—and with whom they later discussed it.
We, holding Art in our hands, confidently consider ourselves to be its masters; boldly we direct it, we renew, reform and manifest it; we sell it for money, use it to please those in power; turn to it at one moment for amusement — right down to popular songs and night-clubs, and at another — grabbing the nearest weapon, cork or cudgel — for the passing needs of politics and for narrow-minded social ends. But art is not defiled by our efforts, neither does it thereby depart from its true nature, but on each occasion and in each application it gives to us a part of its secret inner light.
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture, 1970