Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Bathroom Monologue: How do you spell “Solzhenitsyn” in the Russian alphabet?

Should you write some kind of a farewell to Solzhenistyn, John? You wrote one for George Carlin, and you certainly like him more, if it’s possible to prefer a psychotically brave novelist embedded in a totalitarian culture to a stand-up comedian hybrid of a class clown and social critic. But if you write one for Aleksandhr Solzhenitsyn, then that’s a precedent. Writing for Carlin was kind of goofy and kind of okay. You can do anything once. Do it twice, and a pattern is expected.

You can’t write obituaries for every person you’ve ever liked and never met, especially because as time passes people you’ve loved and actually known will drop and then you’ll be stuck with the problem of whether you should tell an audience of strangers about your departed and less remarkable best friend, because even if he’s less accomplished in the market of ideas and global identities, won’t he be worth more to you than the famous or somewhat famous dead people you’ve written about? Likely more important than all of them combined? At least on the day of impact. For all your attempts to become a smarter man, would you not trade Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a devastatingly great novel that carved you off a slice of life in gulags you’ve still yet to fully digest, for one more day with Dan Loden, a fine man of whom no one reading this has ever heard?

And let’s be even more intellectually honest, John: you had to look up how to spell “Solzhenitsyn.” You’ve only read one of his books, even if his passing has tempted you to buy the whole catalog. And while you admire his mind and his boldness against Stalinism, when you realized he’d written over a dozen somewhat pricey things, you were trying to rationalize a purchase of only six – and true to your mental caliber, you caught yourself trying to divine the best by their titles rather than reviews or content.

Yet you do feel strongly for this man and this writer. His is the first author’s death that sent you to the library (and Amazon.com), spurring you to read the works of the recently deceased. Ken Kesey and Kurt Vonnegut didn’t do that to you, and the cultural event of a notable author’s death giving people rise to read his works is something that a part of you has been dying to join. Weren’t you disappointed when Vonnegut dying didn’t make you want to pick up Slaughterhouse Five? So this departed stranger has a particular saliency, because he’s a writer who dug deep with humanitarian characterization, ruthless honesty about an atrocious system of government, and a tone that jumped across the translation and forced you to read that whole book in one day. How many literary books have you read in a single day? Ironic, maybe, but you miss him already because you wanted more of that despite never getting around to reading any of his other books.

But that doesn’t solve the problem that if you eulogize Solzhenitsyn here, if you type it up, and if you put it on that site, then you’ll have to install an Obituary tab on the sidebar. The deaths of real people, who are posthumously discussed enough in every major newspaper in the country, will rack up like so many points, like so many undrawn cartoons and dialogues between strange people. Do you want that?

And do you want to wake up in a few years and find Stephen King, Kenneth Miller or Terry Pratchett has died, and feel yourself obligated to write about them? King you can swing; you’ll probably write a micro-horror story about a surreal absurd demise for a man who’ll probably pass on natural causes. It’ll be funny. But maybe Pratchett’s won’t be. Maybe Bill Clinton’s won’t be. And once you’ve written about the lives of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Terry Pratchett and Bill Clinton, how do you remain silent about your mother? You can’t and you won’t.

So don’t eulogize him. Let people go read his works for themselves. Go read him yourself while they’re at it.

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