Writers Talk About Writing
Writing as Speech: Lessons from the "Gulag"
Writing, a form of speech, may be read aloud; writers of merit develop personal voices we hear speaking through the text. Yet much prose lies flat on the page and speaks to our eyes more than our ears. Like this passage found at random in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward:
Vera Kornilyevna went up to the second floor and, craning her head back, looked alertly around the tops of the walls and the ceiling. In a corner above Sibgatov's bed she thought she spotted a cobweb....She called to one of the orderlies — it was Elizaveta Anatolyevna; somehow or other she was always around in an emergency — explained to her that everything had to be clean for tomorrow, and pointed at the cobweb.
This writing was written to be read silently. The passage sounds well when spoken, yet Solzhenitsyn uses no particular device to draw our attention to the word sounds. The diction is unemphatic, the sentences roll forward at the pace of patient, detailed description.
Now read this passage from Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago:
Brother mine! Do not condemn those who, finding themselves in a situation, turned out to be weak and confessed more than they should have....Do not be the first to cast a stone at them...
Oh, in how new a light does our past life appear when re-examined in the interrogator's office: abounding in dangers, like an African jungle. And we had considered it so simple!
These words don't lie quiet on the page: they leap off it shouting. Solzhenitsyn launches himself at the reader; he calls us "brother" and gives us heartfelt advice. He shifts his tone of voice, jumping quickly from informality to Biblical solemnity. The writing is so vocal that when I read Solzhenitsyn saying, "And we had considered it so simple!" I can see him smacking his forehead in dismay.
The Gulag Archipelago appears at first glance to be heavy reading: a grim subject matter — unjust imprisonment — loaded with statistics of Siberian log production, verbatim court transcripts, and scholarly debates. Starting Volume I some thirty years ago, I wondered: would Solzhenitsyn's prose prove too dense to penetrate?
To my happy surprise I found Gulag to be headily exciting. I dashed through Volume I and went right back to the bookstore for Volumes II and III. Stormy, yes; passionate, yes; and a challenge to my intellect, yes, but dull and laborious? Never, not for a page, a paragraph, a sentence! Now that the three volumes are well-thumbed old friends, I think I see how Solzhenitsyn infuses Gulag with his dauntless vitality: he makes writing speech.
The Gulag Archipelago may be the longest recorded speech in the history of oratory. I don't see Solzhenitsyn writing its words bent over his desk; I hear him declaiming them as a modern Demosthenes striding a world stage, his head thrown back, his arms outstretched, his voice ringing with conviction, passion flashing in his eyes. Solzhenitsyn addresses me man-to-man, but not me all alone. Tiers of seats rising to lofty balconies circle his stage, every seat filled with men and women from every nation on earth, all of us listening as if our lives depended on it. Solzhenitsyn has summoned us to this vast courtroom to hear evidence of crimes against humanity, to prosecute the criminals and defend their victims. Public speakers will long study The Gulag Archipelago as a model of how to use language to persuade.
Like many good speakers, Solzhenitsyn begins with a joke, though his comedy is fitingly black: imprisoned miners, "zeks" in Gulag slang, dig up prehistoric creatures frozen for eons and, instead of saving the creatures for study, break them out of the ice and "bolt them down." Only zeks, says Solzhenitsyn with a rueful grin, "could devour prehistoric salamander with relish."
Having "broken the ice" with his audience, Solzhenitsyn opens the body of his speech with a thunderclap. "How do people get to this clandestine Archipelago?" he asks:
Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning that has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slip into insanity?
...Each of us is a center of a Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: "You are under arrest."
That bold "You are under arrest!" grabs you, me, and everybody in the courtroom by the scruff of the neck and claps handcuffs on our wrists. The zeks will not be a distant multitude that Solzhenitsyn will describe for us sitting in our easy chairs. No; this opening makes us all zeks. We will trek through the long books as Solzhenitsyn and his fellow zeks trekked through their long sentences; as they stumbled and fell, we will fall and stumble; as they felt cold and hungry, we will feel cold and hungry too.
Not for an instant does Solzhenitsyn relax his pressure to engage every listener. His tone of voice runs the gamut from cries of despair:
Open eyes looked at the black ceiling, at the black heavens.
Good Lord! Good Lord! Beneath the shells and the bombs I begged you to preserve my life. And now I beg you, please send me death.
to cries of joy:
I cannot sleep! I walk and walk and walk in the moonlight. The donkeys sing their song. The camels sing. Every fiber in me sings: I am free! I am free!
to the eloquent declaration of his own deepest beliefs:
...don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing...If you back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, and if both ears can hear, then whom should you envy?
Solzhenitsyn doubles himself in the Gulag text, keeping up a running commentary of asides in a contrasting voice that nearly makes the books two speeches in one. Alexander the grand orator convinces us with logic and passion; Alexey the quickwitted jester scores points with sarcastic one-liners:
[The Tactical Center] did not have: (1) status; (2) a program; (3) membership dues. So what did it have? Here's what: They used to meet! (goose pimples up and down the back!) And when they met, they undertook to familiarize themselves with one another's point of view! (Icy chills!)
Solzhenitsyn's eloquence approaches Shakespeare's: the same electric vitality gushes from their words, the same concision, the same subtle and garish shades of emotion. Had Othello or Lear been imprisoned, could they have bewailed their fates in words more heartbreaking than these?:
If we could listen to the pure resounding of the cockcrow in the unpolluted air! Or stroke the good serious face of a horse!...Oh, just to rest from the interrogator's mother oaths and the monotonous unwinding of your whole life, from the crash of the prison locks, from the suffocating stuffiness of the cell. Only one life is allotted to us, one small, short life!
Solzhenitsyn empowers his text with the power of speech, enriches his text with endless riches of the human voice. Like Shakespeare's plays, the Gulag volumes are spoken symphonies, Solzhenitsyn's every word and tone adding to the resonance and harmony of the whole speech, his flutes and violas, his trumpets and kettle drums generating a sum sonic energy which, more than persuading us, bowls us over body and soul.