Solzhenitsyn on Writing

In those days if the weather was good I would visit my friend Aleksandr Isayevich at his wooded estate near Cavendish, Vermont. My backpack burdened with wirecutters and raw slabs of prime rib with which to befriend his dogs, I would set off happily in the early dawn down the dry creek bed near his home. It was always a great pleasure to see my old friend then hard at work on a new memoir tentatively titled The Yak and the Goat.

"You again?" Aleksandr Isayevich would growl good-naturedly, arms akimbo on his front porch steps. He was an imposing figure, dressed in the electric blue Adidas sweat suit that contrasted sharply with his long peasant beard and rough good looks. "Didn't those three weeks in the cooler teach you anything?"

"Greetings, Aleksandr Isayevich," I said hurrying up the pathway, a manuscript tucked beneath my arm.

"Don't tell me you have brought another of your miserable excuses for prose? Please, I cannot stand it."

"Yes, Aleksandr Isayevich. I think you will enjoy this one!" I cried earnestly. "It's about a twenty-two-year-old disgruntled Liberal Arts major who spends all day languishing in a cubicle--"

"Peace! Say no more!" snapped the Great Exile. "Please, take it and go."

"But wait till you meet these ultra-ironic characters--"

Aleksander Isayevich's face darkened. "Idiot! Do you seriously believe I would submit myself to another whiny story about the tortures of the workplace? I, who spent five years in secret prisons and labor camps where Hell is real and burning fiercely? Go, before I tear you apart with my bare hands!"

He made, as usual, an excellent point. Besides, it was perhaps a bit early for my visit, so I bade my friend good morning, vowing to return at some later time with an even more profound study of the human condition.

- - -

In the evenings, if Aleksandr Isayevich were in an agreeable mood, which was often between his third and fourth shot of vodka, he would sometimes offer a few words of encouragement regarding one of the stories I had left in his mailbox.

"We Russians know the tragedy of ideas," he began soberly. "We have never been afraid to wrestle with the Gods. But here, here where everything is false and stupid, the only considerations are the batting averages of illiterates. Here one is surrounded by ignorance of such colossal design that it beggars the mind: music and television, and music television--"

I interrupted. "Excuse me, Aleksandr Isayevich, but have you perhaps had a chance to look at my story?"

"Rubbish," he muttered. "A criminal waste of pulp and ink. If I have to read another story about the dissolving relationship of two American idiots I will throw up in my hat. Why don't you do what you are obviously cut out for, selling three hundred dollar sneakers at the shopping mall, or bagging groceries? You can say 'Paper or plastic,' can't you?"

"But my girlfriend liked it--"

"Then your girlfriend is an idiot! And what's more, she is a sentimental idiot of the worst kind." Aleksandr Isayevich paused to refill our glasses. "When I was your age I was a foot soldier in the Red Army, a captain, slaughtering Nazis by the wagon full. I was decorated for bravery. The bravest thing you ever did was sneak out of work five minutes early, correct?"

"You know me too well, Aleksandr Isayevich," I admitted sheepishly, "but getting back to what you said about my girlfriend--"

He raised a hand to silence me, then looked wistfully at the Green Mountains in the foggy distance, and with a sigh as deep as Lake Baikal, downed the last of the vodka. "The longer I stay here the more disgusted I become with life. It is hard to imagine one could become more disgusted. My only hope is that I die someplace less disgusting."

I saw that my friend's homesickness was progressing rapidly, so I attempted to change the subject. "Have I told you that I am working on a new story? About a baffled young computer programmer who is searching for some kind of meaning--"

Aleksandr Isayevich moaned.

"Only I'm stuck for an ending. Perhaps you could give me a few pointers?"

In a voice thick with despair Aleksandr Isayevich said, "Some writers are only appreciated posthumously, if you get my drift."

- - -

In the fall of that year, when the Green Hills had turned a fine crimson and honey gold, I said goodbye to Aleksandr Isayevich. I found him in the clearing behind his chapel, bare-chested and chopping wood.

"I have been accepted into the MFA program at the university, Aleksandr Isayevich," I announced proudly. "There I will study with established writers and learn from the expert critiques of my fellow students."

The Living Tolstoy said nothing. Perhaps he was too choked with emotion at my leaving.

"I will miss you, my friend, and our good times together," I continued. "You have been like a father to me, a very severe and strict, but loving father. You have taught me much, but I know my education is just beginning."

I gazed on tenderly as the Great Man slammed his heavy axe into a piece of oak.

"By the way, I have brought one last story for you to read. It is the story of an angst-ridden young man lost in the throes of a dissolving relationship."

Suddenly the axe slipped from Aleksandr Isayevich's grasp, sailing a few centimeters from my left ear.

"That was close!" I cried.

"Yes," said the Nobel Laureate gloomily.

I begged Aleksandr Isayevich not to dwell too much on the unfortunate incident, that no harm was done, but he nonetheless seemed terribly upset to have come so close to decapitating me.

Suddenly, in the distance, I heard the long sad whistle of the evening train calling me to be on my way. I embraced Aleksandr Isayevich and, eyes misting over with tears, I crawled through the barbed wire fence and up the dry creek bed for the last time, my heart heavy, my backside speckled with buckshot, and my place in the pantheon of literary masters all but assured.

About the author:

C. Orlet's work has appeared in The Simpering Nautilus, Inside the Female Ear, The Happy Hyena, High Noon at Midnight, and many other high-brow publications.