How the great truth dawned

Gary Saul Morson:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume opus, The Gulag Archipelago, which some have called the most important masterpiece of the twentieth century, is subtitled: “An Experiment in Literary Investigation.” Consider how odd that is. No Westerner would call such a work “literary,” lest someone discount its documentary value. Literature is one thing, truth another, isn’t that correct? But Solzhenitsyn insists that absolutely everything included is strictly factual, a claim validated when the Soviet Union fell and archives were opened. What, then, is literary about the book? It is worth noting that Russia’s most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Svetlana Alexievich, also produced literary works that were purely factual. With these two writers we encounter something essential to the Russian tradition.

Russians revere literature more than anyone else in the world. When Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina was being serialized, Dostoevsky, in a review of its latest installment, opined that “at last the existence of the Russian people has been justified.” It is hard to imagine Frenchmen or Englishmen, let alone Americans, even supposing that their existence required justification; but if they did, they would surely not point to a novel. Would we mention the iPhone? But to Russians Dostoevsky’s comment appeared unremarkable.

If Americans want the truth about a historical period, we turn to historians, not novelists, but in Russia it is novelists who are presumed to have a deeper understanding.

We usually assume that literature exists to depict life, but Russians often speak as if life exists to provide material for literature. Russians, of course, excel in ballet, chess, theater, and mathematics. They invented the periodic table and non-Euclidian geometry. Nevertheless, for Russians literature is in a class by itself. The very phrase “Russian literature” carries a sacramental aura. The closest analogy may be the status of the Bible for ancient Hebrews when it was still possible to add books to it.