Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn’s rosary

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Note: I’m taking a few days off for Thanksgiving, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 11, 2016.

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag, along with so many other sufferings, he was forced to deal with a challenge that modern writers rarely have to confront—the problem of memorization. He wanted to keep writing poetry, but he was unable to put anything on paper, which would be confiscated and read by the guards. Here’s the solution that he found, as he recounts in The Gulag Archipelago:

I started breaking matches into little pieces and arranging them on my cigarette case in two rows (of ten each, one representing units and the others tens). As I recited the verses to myself, I displaced one bit of broken match from the units row for every line. When I shifted ten units I displaced one of the “tens”…Every fiftieth and every hundredth line I memorized with special care, to help me keep count. Once a month I recited all that I had written. If the wrong line came out in place of one of the hundreds and fifties, I went over it all again and again until I caught the slippery fugitives.

In the Kuibyshev Transit Prison I saw Catholics (Lithuanians) busy making themselves rosaries for prison use…I joined them and said that I, too, wanted to say my prayers with a rosary but that in my particular religion I needed hundred beads in a ring…that every tenth bead must be cubic, not spherical, and that the fiftieth and the hundredth beads must be distinguishable at a touch.

The Lithuanians were impressed, Solzhenitsyn says, by his “religious zeal,” and they agreed to make a rosary to his specifications, fashioning the beads out of pellets of bread and coloring them with burnt rubber, tooth powder, and disinfectant. (Later, when Solzhenitsyn realized that twenty beads were enough, he made them himself out of cork.) He concludes:

I never afterward parted with the marvelous present of theirs; I fingered and counted my beads inside my wide mittens—at work line-up, on the march to and fro from work, at all waiting times; I could do it standing up, and freezing cold was no hindrance. I carried it safely through the search points, in the padding of my mittens, where it could not be felt. The warders found it on various occasions, but supposed that it was for praying and let me keep it. Until the end of my sentence (by which time I had accumulated 12,000 lines) and after that in my places of banishment, this necklace helped me write and remember.

Ever since I first read this story, I’ve been fascinated by it, and I’ve occasionally found myself browsing the rosaries or prayer beads for sale online, wondering if I should get one for myself, just in case—although in case of what, exactly, I don’t know.

Joan Didion

But you don’t need to be in prison to understand the importance of memorization. One of the side effects of our written and interconnected culture is that we’ve lost the ability to hold information in our heads, and this trend has only accelerated as we’ve outsourced more of our inner lives to the Internet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there are good reasons for keeping a lot of this material where it can be easily referenced, without feeling the need to remember it all. (As Sherlock Holmes said in A Study in Scarlet: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.” Although given the amount of obscure information that Holmes was able to produce in subsequent stories, it’s possible that he was just kidding.) But there’s also a real loss involved. Oral cultures are marked by a highly developed verbal memory, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on it: a working poet could be expected to know hundreds of songs by heart, and the conventions of poetry itself emerged, in part, as a set of mnemonic devices. Meter, rhyme, and conventional formulas allowed many lines of verse to be recited for a paying audience—or improvised on the spot. An oral poem is a vehicle for the preservation of information, and it takes advantage of the human brain’s ability to retain material in a pattern that hints at what comes next. When we neglect this, we lose touch with some of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place.

And what makes memorization particularly valuable as a creative tool is the fact that it isn’t quite perfect. When you write something down, it tends to become fixed, both physically and psychologically. (Joan Didion gets at this when she says: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”) An idea in the brain, by contrast, remains fluid, malleable, and vital. Each time you go back to revisit it, whether using a rosary or some other indexical system, you aren’t just remembering it, but to some extent recreating it, and you’ll never get it exactly right. But just as natural selection exists because of the variations that arise from errors of transcription, a creative method that relies on memory is less accurate but more receptive to happy accidents than one that exists on the page. A line of poetry might change slightly each time we call it up, but the core idea remains, and the words that survive from one iteration to the next have persisted, by definition, because they’re memorable. We find ourselves revising and reworking the result because we have no choice, and in the process, we keep it alive. The danger, of course, is that if we don’t keep notes, any ideas we have are likely to float away without ever being realized—a phenomenon that every writer regards with dread. What we need is a structure that allows us to assign an order to the ideas in our head while preserving their ripe state of unwrittenness. Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which was forced on him by necessity, was one possible answer, but there are others. Even if we’re diligent about keeping a pencil and paper—or a smartphone—nearby, there will be times when an idea catches us at a moment at which we can’t write it down. And when that happens, we need to be ready.

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2017 at 9:00 am

Solzhenitsyn’s rosary

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag, he was forced to deal with a challenge that modern writers rarely have to confront—the problem of memorization. He wanted to keep writing, but was unable to put anything on paper, which would be confiscated and read by the guards. Here’s the solution that he found, as described in The Gulag Archipelago:

I started breaking matches into little pieces and arranging them on my cigarette case in two rows (of ten each, one representing units and the others tens). As I recited the verses to myself, I displaced one bit of broken match from the units row for every line. When I shifted ten units I displaced one of the “tens”…Every fiftieth and every hundredth line I memorized with special care, to help me keep count. Once a month I recited all that I had written. If the wrong line came out in place of one of the hundreds and fifties, I went over it all again and again until I caught the slippery fugitives.

In the Kuibyshev Transit Prison I saw Catholics (Lithuanians) busy making themselves rosaries for prison use…I joined them and said that I, too, wanted to say my prayers with a rosary but that in my particular religion I needed hundred beads in a ring…that every tenth bead must be cubic, not spherical, and that the fiftieth and the hundredth beads must be distinguishable at a touch.

The Lithuanians were impressed, Solzhenitsyn says, by his “religious zeal,” and they agreed to make a rosary to his specifications, fashioning the beads out of pellets of bread and coloring them with burnt rubber, tooth powder, and disinfectant. (Later, when Solzhenitsyn realized that twenty beads were enough, he made them himself out of cork.) He concludes:

I never afterward parted with the marvelous present of theirs; I fingered and counted my beads inside my wide mittens—at work line-up, on the march to and fro from work, at all waiting times; I could do it standing up, and freezing cold was no hindrance. I carried it safely through the search points, in the padding of my mittens, where it could not be felt. The warders found it on various occasions, but supposed that it was for praying and let me keep it. Until the end of my sentence (by which time I had accumulated 12,000 lines) and after that in my places of banishment, this necklace helped me write and remember.

Ever since I first read this story, I’ve been fascinated by it, and I’ve occasionally found myself browsing the rosaries or prayer beads for sale online, wondering if I should get one for myself, just in case—although in case of what, exactly, I don’t know.

Joan Didion

But you don’t need to be in prison to understand the importance of memorization. One of the side effects of our written and interconnected culture is that we’ve lost the ability to hold information in our heads, a trend that has only accelerated as we’ve outsourced more of our inner lives to the Internet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there are good reasons for keeping a lot of this material where it can be easily referenced, without feeling the need to remember it all. (As Sherlock Holmes said in A Study in Scarlet: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.” Although given the amount of obscure information that Holmes was able to produce in subsequent stories, it’s possible that he was just kidding.) But there’s also a real loss involved. Oral cultures are marked by a highly developed verbal memory, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on it: a working poet could be expected to know hundreds of songs by heart, and the conventions of poetry itself emerged, in part, as a set of mnemonic devices. Meter, rhyme, and conventional formulas allowed many lines of verse to be recited for a paying audience—or improvised on the spot. Like the songlines of the Aboriginal Australians, an oral poem is a vehicle for the preservation of information, and it takes advantage of the human brain’s ability to retain material in a pattern that hints at what comes next. When we neglect this, we lose touch with some of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place.

And what makes memorization particularly valuable as a creative tool is the fact that it isn’t quite perfect. When you write something down, it tends to become fixed, both physically and psychologically. (Joan Didion must have had something like this in mind when she said: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”) An idea in the brain, by contrast, remains fluid, malleable, and vital. Each time you go back to revisit it, whether using a rosary or some other indexical system, you aren’t just remembering it, but to some extent recreating it, and you’ll never get it exactly right. But just as natural selection exists because of the variations that arise from errors of transcription, a creative method that relies on memory is less accurate but more receptive to happy accidents than one that exists on the page. A line of poetry might change slightly each time we call it up, but the core idea remains, and the words that survive from one iteration to the next have persisted, by definition, because they’re memorable. We find ourselves revising and reworking the result because we have no choice, and in the process, we keep it alive. The danger, of course, is that if we don’t keep notes, any ideas we have are likely to float away without ever being realized—a phenomenon that every writer regards with dread. What we need is a structure that allows us to assign an order to the ideas in our head while preserving their ripe state of unwrittenness. Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which was forced on him by necessity, was one possible answer, but there are others. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss another method that I’ve been using with excellent results, and which relies on a priceless mnemonic tool that we all take for granted: the alphabet.

Written by nevalalee

July 11, 2016 at 9:06 am

“Like catching a fish with your hands…”

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Martin Cruz Smith

By now, many of you have probably seen the New York Times profile that revealed that Martin Cruz Smith, the author of such acclaimed suspense novels as Gorky Park, has suffered secretly for nearly two decades from Parkinson’s disease. Any reader of his stories knows that Smith doesn’t lack for ingenuity, and he’s managed to deal with the symptoms to the extent of publishing five books over the last dozen years, with even his publisher unaware of his situation until recently. It was clearly a novelist’s nightmare: the tremors prevented him from taking notes, sketching, and ultimately even typing, and it made it increasingly hard for him to do research on location. In the end, he was able to rely on his  wife, Emily, as an amanuensis, dictating to her in his office while he typed. As Pam Belluck, the article’s author, shrewdly points out, the process was fraught with pitfalls:

Writers often “think” through their fingertips, not knowing exactly what they’ll create until their hands are at the keyboard. Could Mr. Smith, whose novels braid history, suspense, deadpan humor, and subtly surprising characters, write a book one step removed?

Yet it seems to have worked, at least to a point, although not without a lot of mental and psychic toil.  At a time when novelists increasingly use their personal stories as a sales tool, Smith’s decision to conceal his condition for so long speaks both to his desire for privacy and to a kind of ingrained pride in his tools to which all professional writers can relate: it’s hard for us to admit that we may be operating at less than our best. And it would be a mistake to give Smith the wrong kind of credit for what he’s accomplished. Working with Parkinson’s took courage and tenacity, yes, but also inventiveness, resourcefulness, and superhuman concentration, all of which are qualities that he’s shown before in his writing. Gorky Park is a model thriller that manages to pull off a difficult dance between politics, reportage, and character development, while also constructing an exciting and finely detailed mystery, and it served as a valuable source of inspiration for The Icon Thief. Any writer capable of producing such a book—not to mention so many others over the years—inevitably learns a great deal about tackling complicated, seemingly unsolvable problems.

Jorge Luis Borges

It’s impossible to know if being a novelist, who is often keenly conscious of the gap between his intentions and his capacity to perform them, really gave Smith greater resources to cope with his condition, but his case reminds me of other writers who have been forced to work under similarly difficult constraints. Borges, of course, went blind, and although it represented an undeniable loss to his fiction, he dealt with it by switching focus, moving away from the intricately literate stories of his early period to poems, fables, lectures, and tales drawn from his own memory of Argentina. Solzhenitsyn suffered from a different kind of deprivation: in the gulag, he had a fellow prisoner make him a rosary out of pellets of bread, which allowed him to compose and memorize long passages of poetry without access to pen or paper. None of these writers went so far as to romanticize their predicaments, and I don’t doubt that Borges would have gladly accepted the return of his eyesight and Solzhenitsyn of his writing materials. But it’s a testament to the power of our need to tell stories that it repeatedly survives under the most trying circumstances.

Cruz, not surprisingly, describes his experience with the vividness of a writer who has had a great deal of time to think about what it means and how it feels. Writing by dictation is “like playing football, except you’ve got two quarterbacks.” Typing with Parkinson’s “was like catching a fish with your hands.” And most memorably: “It’s not like Hillary conquering Everest. It’s like Mallory never coming down.” And his efforts speak volumes about the impossibility of giving up the act of telling stories. Smith’s books have done well; if this were simply about earning a living or seeing his name in print, he could have retired long ago. But writing is central to who authors are, and that impulse breaks out against even the most daunting of odds. Noting that he sometimes fails to find the first word he wants, Smith finds a particularly writerly way of putting the situation into a better light: “I like new ways of expressing things. It makes the work alive.” And after revealing that he sometimes suffers from hallucinations, including a black dog that appears in unexpected places, he notes drily: “Having hallucinations for a fiction writer is redundant.”

Written by nevalalee

November 13, 2013 at 9:05 am

Revisiting the victim story

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One of the first lessons we’re taught as novelists, right after “Show, not tell,” is that we shouldn’t write victim stories. Narratives in which the central character is constantly being trampled down by circumstance, without making any effort to take his fate into his own hands, may be superficially affecting for the author, but for the reader, they’re a bore. We want our heroes to take action; if they fail, it should be because of their own choices, not the result of an unfair universe. It’s largely for this reason that I’ve never been a fan of the trope of the innocent man wrongfully accused, unless, as in North by Northwest, it’s merely a pretext for a more satisfying series of adventures. Such plots tend to be built around cosmic bad luck, misunderstandings, and institutional indifference, which is why they’re much less interesting than stories that grow organically from the main character’s decisions. (I’d much rather watch a movie about an otherwise innocent man rightfully accused.)

But sometimes a victim story is the only honest way to approach the material. I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, which gives us the victim story in its purest form: the title character, the unassuming Jewish handyman Yakov Bok, is arrested in the second chapter for a murder he didn’t commit, and spends the rest of the novel being held without trial in a Russian prison. The result is a highly readable yet intentionally frustrating novel, based loosely on the real Beilis case, in which Yakov’s situation gets worse with every passing page, leaving him with no way of altering his own fate, except in his refusal to confess. At times, the novel’s relentless bleakness becomes hard to take. Yet it’s hard to imagine a conventionally satisfying version of this story that would still be intellectually honest: Yakov is a victim, like many real men and women before and after him, and to credit him with more agency than he really possessed would be a lie.

This is also true of such writers as Kafka, and more recently of those authors who have written about modern absolutist or totalitarian states. To read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, as I did earlier this year, is to be reminded that there are entire generations of human history in which the usual conventions of fiction—that protagonists are primarily in control of their own decisions and rise or fall on the actions they’ve taken—amount to a historical falsehood. Fighting back isn’t an option here; it can only lead to death. While there may be room for small triumphs and moments of dignity, they don’t have much in common with the kind of action that we often demand from the stories we read. And the same holds true, to a lesser extent, of the traps in which we can all find ourselves, in which, rightly or wrongly, no real action seems possible: depression, addiction, emotional desperation. These are all worthy subjects for fiction.

So what’s a writer to do? Ultimately, the rule to avoid the victim story is just like any other writing guideline: a form of safety first. Given the choice, especially early on, we should write stories in which characters are able or willing to take action to change their own circumstances. Such a story is likely to be more readable and engaging than one built around a character’s helplessness, and only by writing this kind of fiction can we learn to write meaningfully about the lack of action without falling into sentimentality. “With me, it’s story, story, story,” Malamud once said, and a novel like The Fixer wouldn’t work if it weren’t written by a novelist who understood how to construct this kind of narrative. Most writers, even those who publish books like this, aren’t at that level yet—because writing a victim story requires incredible reserves of strength.

Written by nevalalee

August 9, 2012 at 9:40 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2011 at 7:52 am

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