12 November 2011

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

WORD's classics book club, aka Talking to Stephanie and Toby About Stuff, strikes again! Really, one of my favorite events every month. This time around it was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's slender but powerful account of life in a Stalin-era work camp.

I first read this book for junior-year English class in high school--I remember some of my friends mashing it up with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ("Go go go Ivan, you know what they say!") for a weird-ass little video. (This is something we did a lot: we were a very special type of nerd.) I've read it a few times since, notably a few years ago when I graded essays on it for a teacher at my old high school--I managed to blank on the due date and had to grade 90 papers in, like, two days. Teachers of America, I salute you!

It is, I think, a perfect book. In many ways it's a stark contrast to much of the nineteenth-century Russian literature the club has read this year; whereas in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky there is much melodrama over trivialities, in One Day the everyday injustices faced by Soviet political prisoners is barely reacted to by the zeks. The lack of one catastrophic incident for a plot to turn upon is an ambitious and ultimately effective way to structure the novel--this one day is nothing special. Its importance lies in the succession of thousands of days just like it.

It's also a very habitable novel, by which I mean it's easy to see yourself in it. Despite obvious disparities, both Ivan and I wake up, head to work, solve problems, eat dinner. We both have routines, minor deviations from same--we both divide our life into what is ours and what belongs to others. This ease of correlation is both comforting and terrifying, and inspiring in a non-hokey way. Human beings approach survival in the same way, whatever obstacles--major or minor--they have to overcome. And as a species, we're damn good at surviving. One Day is one tiny example.

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