The Oak and the Calf by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Takeaway: Being a writer is a calling.

One thought that struck me early in the book. Solzhenitsyn was writing in ‘the underground’. He was only sharing his writing with a handful of trusted readers and was not receiving much criticism to help improve the writing. He wrote a play and as he reflected back on that play he said, “…convinced as I was that what matters most for the writer was truthfulness.” But then the play flopped.  He later realized that that form does matter. And to ignore form as an author, especially the fast changing forms of theater, was to ignore the reader.

It is also very interesting how much effort he put into writing.  He went to the Gulag because of his writing in the 1950s.  But still he continued to write in secret.  It was years before anything was published and he almost never shared anything during that time.  But he continued to write.

This is a rough book to get through.  First I am listening to it on audiobook.  I would have never made it this far if it was in paper.  But the audio is very bad.  The narrator isn’t too bad (a little dry) but the overall sound quality is the poorest that I have ever had with Audible.

Second, this is the memoirs of him as a writer.  He has virtually no biographical details that are not directly related to his writing or publishing or the politics around writing or publishing.

Third, I have very little background in 1950s-1970s Soviet history.  I read Gulag Archipelago (all of vol 1 and most of vol 2) in high school, but that was a long time ago.

What I do find interesting is how a writer can work against the whole Soviet system.  He does not seem to be against communism itself, but against the abuse of the system, the lack of a court system, the work camps and the general oppressiveness that was the result of the corruption.  But also he was clear that he might have been able to do more if he had not been so afraid of going back to the work camps.  Once he had publicity, it was hard for anyone to really touch him (which is why he eventually was exiled).  But he did not realize that, so he kept hiding and writing underground, but he probably could have had a more public role.

I have listened to this on and off for three months but I am only half way through.  After reading Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I am calling it.  The price of the book is a sunk cost.  I have enjoyed parts of the book, but I am just not going to finish any time soon.  Maybe I will come back later.

Purchase Links: Audiobook, All paper versions are out of print. You can find paper copies, but mostly around $40-80.

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