The Wing That Saved Me: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on Happy Years in Vermont With His Wife Alya
"Alya helped me, as no one else could, with her criticism,
her advice, her challenges."
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature. These pages, written in the mid-80s but published this autumn for the first time in English, relate the formidable challenges Solzhenitsyn faced, in rural Vermont, in accomplishing the ambitious literary and social goals he had set for himself, and the unique gifts and temperament that his wife, “Alya” (Natalia)—“the wing that saved me” from the book’s dedication—had brought to bear upon their joint mission. They are excerpted from his memoir, Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978–1994, translated by Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore, and reprinted with permission from the University of Notre Dame Press, © 2020 by University of Notre Dame.
When I look back, I cannot fail to recognize that the past six years, at Five Brooks [the name the Solzhenitsyns gave to their Cavendish, Vermont property–Ed.], have been the happiest of my life. Some disagreeable Western problems descended on us—and passed by, an insignificant froth. It was just then, in those years, that the invective increased—but it didn’t spoil a single working day for me; I didn’t even notice it, following the advice of the proverb, “hear no evil, see no evil.” Sometimes it’s better not to know what people are saying about you. Alya [Solzhenitsyn’s second wife, Natalia Solzhenitsyna–Ed.], whenever she entered my office, always found me in a joyful, even radiant mood—so well was my work coming along. I’ve been piling that abuse, those magazines, on a shelf and haven’t read it for all these years—until now. For the first time I am now, for Between Two Millstones, thinking of reading and simultaneously contesting it, to save time.
When you are immersed in a once-in-a-lifetime piece of work, you don’t notice, aren’t aware of any other tasks. At various times in that period my plays were produced, in Germany, Denmark, England, and the States, and I was invited to the premieres—but I never went. And as for the various gatherings, meetings, these are madness to me, just fruitless reeling in a New York or Paris whirlwind—while to them it’s my eccentricity that’s mad, retreating from the world to dig my grave. Some American literary critics, judging me by their own standards, decided that it was “well-organized publicity.” (Critics! Do they not understand what the writer’s work consists of? Every one of us who has something to say dreams of going into seclusion to work. I’ve been told that’s exactly what the intelligent ones do, here in Vermont and environs—Robert Penn Warren, Salinger. At one time Kipling lived right here for four years. Now, if I accepted all the invitations and spoke at the events—that would certainly be advertising myself.)
One day Alya called to mind our catchphrase from before we were exiled, and repeated it now: how to decode the heavenly cipher for these years? How to recognize the right course of action, especially now we’re in the West? But, for as long as necessary, the whole message was unmistakable: sit there, write, fill in the Russian history that’s been lost. I have a prayer: “Lord, guide me!” And when necessary, He will. I am at peace.
Of course, it’s a sorry state of affairs, working your whole life to stock up reserves, reserves, and more reserves. But that is the lot of our ravaged Russia. If the truth about the past were to rise from the ashes in our homeland today, and minds were honed on that truth, then strong characters would emerge, whole ranks of doers, people taking an active part—and my books would come in useful too. But as it is, the old émigrés are nearly all dead and their grandchildren grow up rooted in Western life—my books are more or less foreign to them—and they themselves are by now no force, no nation. And the new arrivals, the Third Wave [the third, and final, of three “waves” of Russian emigration, comprised largely of Soviet Jews in the 1970s–Ed.], mostly read Russian materials but, while they are quick to pick up my books at a little New York shop where they’re free, they don’t pay any attention to them and don’t follow their ideas. (One little band of swindlers was even discovered taking my lightweight malyshki [high-quality, small-format versions of Solzhenitsyn’s twenty-volume Сollected Works published in Paris, but far easier to smuggle in to the USSR–Ed.], ostensibly to send them off altruistically to the USSR—but in fact they were selling them in Israel via a book wholesaler there.) As for the Western public these days, it seems to have totally lost the habit of reflecting on books—though perhaps not on journalistic articles—and Western writers themselves, for the most part, do not lay claim to the power of persuasion. Current literature in the West titillates either an intellectual or a popular readership: it is degraded to the level of entertainment and paradox, no longer of a standard to mold minds and characters.
And so—more reserves to lay in, more reserves . . .
The first step, then, was to collect my works together, in their definitive form. My years in the Soviet Union were so full of turmoil, with such fluctuations, that not a single text was ever fully polished or completed, and they were even consciously deformed, the tactic being to stay undercover until the time was right. If I did not complete them, clean them up, finish them off now—when would I? This was not the simple desire of a writer to see that row of volumes as soon as possible—it was the pain I suffered inside, from knowing that nothing was as it should be, nothing in place, and that I might run out of time to put it right.
Contemporary technology, an electronic typesetting machine, made it possible for Alya to set text every day and to do it in our backwater without having to go anywhere else, and proofread it immediately. (I cannot manage without the letter ё! With difficulty we found and ordered typeballs with ё—they hadn’t been available from IBM—in the main font we use and in petit font. But what about the others? It was my dextrous mother-in-law [Ekaterina Svetlova, who lived with the Solzhenitsyns throughout their twenty years in the West–Ed.] who undertook to place all the missing dots on the ё and all the stress marks, for those were also missing from the typeballs. She rescued us.)
Although our first typesetting machine only had enough memory for three pages—which meant we had to finalize them immediately, without turning the machine off—by the end of 1980 Alya had already been able to typeset and proofread the texts, and we could do the final edit of the first eight volumes of my collected works. She also assembled detailed bibliographic information for each work and provided an overview of all the original editions. For all those years Alya packed in an astonishing amount, skillfully combining tasks, at a time when it was a pity to lose even an hour or two out of a day that was full to bursting. She and I, fused together, were led by the unchanging task set for us. Alya led a stressful life—but how vast its range, as well: and all our dealings with the outside world on top of that, answering the phone, running the Fund [the Russian Social Fund for Persecuted Persons and Their Families, Solzhenitsyn’s charitable foundation–Ed.] and plotting with its Moscow staff—another separate communication flow. When there was a rush on, she worked from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., sleeping five hours a night, till she was in a state of extreme exhaustion. Her sense of duty was always her master—superior to the preservation of her strength.
In spring ’81 we acquired the same kind of IBM machine, but with a memory on magnetic cards, which enabled us to work on whole chapters at a time—now things started rolling with new vigor! (But how painful for us were the disruptions when the machine broke down and the technician didn’t come, or, if he did come, he couldn’t fix it and parts had to be ordered—an extremely annoying holdup in our work, momentum, and schedule!)
The circumstances of our life meant that October 1916 [i.e., Node II of The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn’s epic history of the Russian Revolution–Ed.] had had a particular, complicated destiny. I had worked intensely on it in 1971–72, while still living at Mstislav Rostropovich’s home. Then life in the Soviet Union heated up and tore me away from it, and I turned my back on it for a long time. And now, ten years later, I sat down to finish it. Over that period more and more new chapters were being added to the framework of October—and were not always finding the best, the correct place within the earlier construction. Then Alya gave me a great deal of good advice, not only on the details—which she always did—but also on the structure. And I took her advice. Alya had dealt with August 1914 (volumes 11 and 12), finished the publicistic works (volume 10), and now took October 1916 (volumes 13 and 14) over from me, while I went on to the second draft of all four volumes of March 1917.
No, neither the electronic typesetting machine with its large memory nor my own zeal and perseverance would have achieved my goal without a wife equal to the task. I doubt whether any other Russian writer ever had at his side such a co-worker and such an astute and sensitive critic and adviser. As for me, I have never in my life met anyone with such an acute lexical feel for the specific word needed, for the hidden rhythm of a prose sentence, with such taste in matters of design, as my wife, sent to me—and now irreplaceable—in my insular seclusion, where the brain of one author with his unvarying perceptions is not enough. Close attention to the text was needed, a keen eye, a sensitivity to the slightest break in the phonetic or rhythmic form and to the falseness or truthfulness of a tone, a touch, an item of syntax, a sensitivity to everything in a work of literature—from the large structural elements and the believability of characters down to the nuances of images and expressions, their ordering, to interjections and punctuation. Alya helped me, as no one else could, with her criticism, her advice, her challenges, and did a lot to help me improve the clarity of my texts as well. When, in my work of many volumes, there were places where I had grown weary and become careless—and at my advanced age and with greater renown it was a real threat, that I would tire of polishing up my work as meticulously as before—she was demanding, insistent that I must improve those parts (she always sensed where they were) and suggested excellent alternatives. She replaced, for me, a whole audience of trusted readers, which it would have been hard to assemble as an émigré and quite unthinkable in this remote corner. As a one-man band, living in isolation, it would have been impossible to manage such a massive job adequately. Alya didn’t allow me to lose my faculty of self-criticism. She subjected every phrase to scrutiny, as I did myself, and her eagle eye contributed to a last reworking of some phrases during the final typesetting. And, on top of all that, she had a brilliant memory. Despite the overwhelming proportions of the Red Wheel, she remembered the repetitions I had forgotten or failed to notice: she would not allow me to repeat myself. With Alya’s brain and energy, she could have deployed her talents in social-development projects: she could grasp matters instantly, immediately get to the essence of a problem and its consequences, debate skillfully in public—but, for the time being, all that remained unnoticed, for the sake of my never-ending work drawn in from the world.
In such a collaboration, assembling and typesetting my collected works was a pleasure—another important step in finishing, giving me a sense of total (or no, not yet total!) completion of the hurried labor of the last few years. Usually, collected works are typeset by distant compositors, and by that time the text is already set in stone. But, for us, page after page was born before our very eyes. Alya would bring them to me, or send them over with the children, in daily portions for my final read-through. As well as everything else, she has a strong graphic sense for the right fonts and their placing. A book would leave us in finished form—in France they’d just reshoot it to print. (And when the time came to be published in the USSR, the Soviet state publishers were only too happy to take our texts, already typeset: thus it was that they traveled the whole breadth of the country, which Alya had never expected beforehand–Author’s note, 1990.)
But through everything, events recalled in these pages and others not, Alya, with her uncanny capability, has always stayed by my side and, for my sake, preserved the freshness of her spirit and her attentiveness. In our first years together (disjointed as they were), in our homeland, I did not yet grasp what reserves of spiritual gifts—quite apart from her quick and sharp mind, clear thinking and energy—would be thrown open to me in the person of my wife! But over and above that, there is also the unfailing refinement of her artistic taste, and the way she has doubled the possibilities of my life.
And over the Vermont years, which are many now—have I appreciated how carefully Alya has sustained in me a constant joy of creating? Appreciated how weighed down she’s been by her constant worries as a mother—about the fates of her sons as they matured, hurled out into a strange land? How many concerns and afflictions she did not burden me with, even in our closest moments. But she has always lived through my quests as one with me, with the totality of her feelings and her memory—and, in The Red Wheel, its chapters, its plotlines, its episodes. (And persuaded me to make changes in a good number of them.) And, indeed, how many of the errors I’ve made in life, too, she’s corrected—and in time.
You are my soulmate—and the uplifting Wing of my life! For all of this, for everything—I bow my head before your great heart. . . .
This selection is adapted from the first English translation of Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978-1994, translated by Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore, published by University of Notre Dame Press.