Alexander Solzhenitzyn, the Russian Nobel laureate and former prisoner of Stalin’s gulags, has died in Moscow aged 89. I can’t pretend to have read any of his books, but I have at least heard of them and I am aware of what a huge impact he made exposing the cruelty of the gulag system despite harassment from the KGB and then eventually twenty years in exile.
Sarkozy (keen to get on on the act) has called him “an heir to Dostoyevsky”. The letters on the BBC website all talk about how he changed people’s lives, what an inspiration he was and one even says that A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich showed him the power of literature to change the world. Solzhi, as he was known by friends in his adopted America, would probably agree. One amazing fact I read this morning is that in the gulag they were allowed neither pens nor paper, so he memorised everything and kept it in his head until he was free to write it all down.
I think every writer secretly dreams about changing the world, either with a huge scoop or with a great book. But maybe at slightly different levels and obviously linked to your circumstances. Were I living in Afghanistan, for example, I like to think I would write a book that would help the plight of women there. But as I’m not I am quite happy helping women in my world lose weight, discover matching underwear and feel better about themselves. Possibly not as ground-breaking or as important as Solzhi’s epic work, but it suits me.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008