I am currently reading two of the greats: The (somewhat agreed upon) greatest work of fiction of all time and greatest non-fiction work of the twentieth-century (according to Time magazine). These two titles are À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). The first was written in France by an aristocrat. Proust strikes me as a man whom, for lack of the labor and distraction that a more robust individual might have undertaken, had plenty of time to read literature and study people. He had the ability to interpret small gestures, subtle inflections of voice and social motives with a level of skill recognized and admired to this day. Solzhenitsyn was a decorated captain in the Soviet Army during WWII. After the rise of Stalin, he suffered both imprisonment in the Russian gulag and exile for privately sharing his disfavor of The Red Tsar. He risked his life to tell a detailed truth about what was going on in Russia under Stalin’s rule, and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize.
There is definitely no confusing one text for the other. I can listen to Proust while driving or doing chores about the farm. At my current place in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the main character is currently discussing how social rank is evidenced by whose drawing rooms one has visited for tea. A few pages back, Saint-Loup was summarily ignored by hostess Mme. de Villeparisis upon his departure from her residence for having committed some unintentional faux pas. (I can’t say that I even noticed what it was he did; only her response and his attempt to save face.) Tragic? I paused in The Gulag Archipelago at the phrase “Do what you want without me; I want no part of it” in describing the feelings of university students who were being coaxed into NKVD school. (NKVD was the Soviet secret police in 1943, an acronym for the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. Eg: Gulag interrogators) Apparently it was generally suspected among Russians of the day, if not officially known in detail, that pursuit of this particular career path would lead to a tangle of shady ethics. When I read The Gulag Archipelago, it is with a notebook, pen, and Google.
So why pursue these titles simultaneously? Primarily, I have nearly four months to finish reading six books to hit my 100 book goal for 2021. I have been clocking 5-14 titles a month, so I have time to embark on novels that are going to slow me down. Also, one of the best things about Proust so far is the confidence that nothing altogether bad is going to happen. (At least, by my personal thermostat. If someone pretended to fall asleep while I was in the room to avoid the nicety of saying goodbye to me? I wouldn’t care. I was never in the popular crowd.) In The Gulag Archipelago, there is constant incidence of despair, injustice and pain. In a way, they balance each other out.
There is a greater aspect to this though. I started thinking about Les Miserables by Victor Hugo during Within a Budding Grove (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu part two.) In Les Miserables, Hugo goes into what seems like a realistic description of how the French peasantry lived due to the economic factors that led to the June rebellion of 1832. (Let’s just say that there was quite a bit of dirt and cholera involved.) A major theme at the culmination of the novel is the relationship between the bourgeoisie and peasantry. Proust was born about forty years after the June revolution, but with each pretty new dress, tidy plate of cookies, or servant bell tinkle he mentions, I was envisioning the urchin Gavroche from Les Miserables was somewhere down the street starving. I started to wonder how askew the French imbalance of resources were in Marcel’s day. Should I feel entertained by Proust, or disturbed by the aristocracy?
In The Gulag Archipelago, the preamble to the novel itself describes that any effort to distribute resources equally amidst a population is doomed to failure. It describes that France was in serious consideration of moving to communism up until Gulag was released. I wondered: Why is equality considered to be so impossible while history has proven that extreme stratification is also unsustainable? What is it about the utopia ideal that is inherently fallible?
Even in the extreme dissimilarity between these two novels, there is at least one ubiquitous theme: The lies. Though “I could not see you for dinner because I went to visit my sick grandma” is not the same quality of falsehood as sentencing a thief further charges for “subversion of the camp system” because they tried to run away, it is nevertheless equivalent that self-serving misrepresentations of truth are present in each society. I wonder, if it were simple to directly admit “I do not want to introduce you to my grandmother” instead of “She is boring, you wouldn’t like her” (Proust), maybe the truth of “We’re eradicating most of our population” (Solzhenitsyn) would be easier to say. It’s a thought.
Then again, we are creatures of our circumstances. I can’t imagine Marcel Proust as capable of surviving what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did. As Virginia Woolf once posited though, a woman would not have been able to write War and Peace because at the time, women were not soldiers. Solzhenitsyn admits that the lifestyle he enjoyed as a military official was far removed from that of basic training, and that he derived a rather perverse satisfaction in the use of his power after he had earned his stars. As his circumstances changed, so did he. Who is to say that Proust would not have made it through a soviet gulag, that Solzhenitsyn might have snubbed a plate of fluffy cookies to irritate a contemporary, or if Virginia Woolf would have made a great war captain? It’s just not how things turned out.
I suppose the aim from here will be to decide whether or not I can appreciate Proust for all the dilettantes, snobbishness and pretense while deciding whether Solzhenitsyn was right. If it prevents the whole lot of them from getting shot or sent into exile, is it then okay for the upper crust to dine while cholera washes away the rest? I’m going to let the dichotomy play out for now.