Distilling the fear

By skepticlawyer

Illiberal, grumpy, explosive with the nationalist bombast but nonetheless truly great, Alexander Solzhenitsyn is dead. The author of one of the two great short novels I have ever read – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – he distilled the fear of totalitarianism better even than Orwell (although my other favourite short novel is Animal Farm). Few books leave an afterimage in the mind – the sort of thing you get from looking too long at an incandescent light-bulb – but One Day is such a book.

I borrowed it from the school library when I was 14 or so, and read it during the course of a day (under the desk, ignoring the world and everything in it, not speaking). When I went to return it that afternoon, I didn’t realise that the library door was shut, and barged into it. The blow was dizzying, and I just stood there for a bit (I think, had I tried to move, I’d have fainted). I remember that my forehead left a greasy blemish on the glass.

The librarian opened the door, looking at me very hard (I was not the best behaved student, but wasn’t the type to headbutt plate glass library doors). Wordlessly, I gave her the book. ‘Ahh,’ she said. ‘I see’.


  1. Posted August 5, 2008 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    ‘Ahh,’ she said. ‘I see’.”

    Your school had a better librarian than mine.

  2. godfrey
    Posted August 5, 2008 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    Yes, indeed.

    My father gave me a copy of the Gulag Archipelago after I’d finished with Ivan Denisovich — in retrospect, this was like pressing on a fresh bruise.

    Solidarnosc was hitting our papers at the time. I knew which side I was on, and have never left.

  3. Posted August 5, 2008 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Yeah RIP. Perhaps one day a hundred years or so people will wonder how a country that responds to any criticism of leadership with lengthy terms in concentration camps could’ve survived.

    One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich should be taught with other Euro-slav classics like The Trial and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the essays of Czelaw Milosz. I think some of the most important literature of the 20th century can be attributed to this period: Conrad, Orwell, Greene and Le Carre are an English language appendix to it.

  4. Posted August 5, 2008 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, I’ve accidentally hit the wrong button and binned one of your comments – and I’ve no idea which thread it was on – sorry!

  5. Posted August 6, 2008 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    That was the Adam Smith thread. I quoted the bit about free trade and said: hear, hear.

    Was a little puzzled. You’re against free trade now? How odd. 🙂

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