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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.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 14th 2011, 2:43 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
>>The passage sounds well when spoken, yet Solzhenitsyn uses no particular device to draw our attention to the word sounds.

1. I wonder how it reads and sounds in the original Russian.
2. The flavor and tone in the two works is different because Solzhenitsyn chose to write in different voices and moods. Composers do that too. Is "furioso" automatically worth more than "adagio"? To me, they serve different, equally valid purposes. One might be a wake-up call, but the other encourages deeper reflection.
Wednesday September 14th 2011, 6:07 AM
Comment by: Kathy F. (Gainesville, FL)
Tried to give this 5 stars and it registered only 1. Lovely article.
Wednesday September 14th 2011, 8:51 AM
Comment by: doug L. (reston, VA)
I've read and re-read Shakespeare's four great tragedy's. I've just completed Rushdie's, "Midnight's Children." Mr. Lydon, with this VERY compelling essay has just knitted me to my next book.

Your essay has improved the quality of my day!
Wednesday September 14th 2011, 2:56 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)Top 10 Speller
"Demosthenes striding a world stage, his head thrown back, his arms outstretched, his voice ringing with conviction, passion flashing in his eyes."

I don't know about you, but I saw Michael Lydon striding and declaiming. What an exciting and powerful essay!

Mr. Lydon's prose is a lesson in itself. It is economical and elegant, and his imagery hits you like a bullet through a bag of Jello. It draws no attention to itself, but stands shoulder to shoulder with Solzhenitsyn's, giving not an inch.

I love the approach of teaching us new ways to look at writing by looking at the work of great writers, about whom we also learn.

Bravo, Mr. Lydon, for your prodigious talent and humble presence. I can't wait for your book, and I am sure that others feel the same.
Wednesday September 14th 2011, 4:53 PM
Comment by: Sandra C. (Atlanta, GA)
*Clapping*
Wednesday September 14th 2011, 5:40 PM
Comment by: James M.
I find the article less than persuasive. It might well be merely a gushing tribute to gushing for the sake of gushing. And it ignores altogether the central matter of what is lost (and what may be gained) in translation.
Wednesday September 14th 2011, 6:58 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I read and read and read this article till I end up with the commentary.
As always, this is Mr.Lydon's writing and I can not leave the comment box/space blank without assigning some credit to him. One of my favorite writer, whose wring touches my inner feelings.
He has chosen this style and applied to most of his articles. I noticed several of the VT column writers tried this style in their presentations, but not all. Because, I like it, I also want to follow.
Do I have to collect copy-write agreement first? Who knows?
However, I've heard about Alexander Solzhenitsyn from my childhood. He arrested me this time. Bravo!
Thursday September 15th 2011, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
I don't know what James M finds unpersuasive, but Michael has convinced me of the thesis of his essay as set forth in the first two sentences of the first paragraph. I don't think he was trying to persuade me to read Solzhenitsyn, but to attune to that which I do read. His description of a writer as one with "his head thrown back, his arms outstretched, his voice ringing with conviction, passion flashing in his eyes" reminds me of so much of the writing of Paul, the apostle; epistles to be read aloud with passion.
Thursday September 15th 2011, 2:02 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
I think I understand why James M doesn't find this persuasive: The examples of "flat writing" and "declamation" are from exactly the same "writer of merit", i.e. Solzhenitsyn. There can be no question of a time factor regarding the "develop personal voices" because S. was writing the two works simultaneously, one for publication, the other in secret. See my earlier comment about writers choosing to use different voices and moods. And both James M and I pointed out that the originals were not written in English. It would be interesting to know if the two editions that Michael quotes from were translated by different people. As a translator myself, I know that any translation inevitably reflects something of the translator's own style, life experiences and literary abilities, no matter how hard he/she attempts to convey the original flavor of the text faithfully. Translations can also be considered on their own literary merits, but nothing beats reading the work in the original language, if one can.

What all this boils down to is Michael's own response to the works (one enthused him, the other didn't) and his intention to enthuse other people. I personally thought he got carried away and that the article would have benefited from editing, but it is a reflection of his views and his personal response to the "Gulag" edition he read. If it inspires other people to read Solzhenitsyn or look at literature in another way, then he’s achieved what he set out to do.

Every reader puts his/her own interpretation on what he/she is reading. I always wait at least 5 years before going to see the movie of a bestseller or classic that transported me into another world, because the images in my own mind are so rich and vivid that I'm not ready to let another view into that magic yet. In such films, I've often had the feeling that the director and I had been reading totally different books. Five years later, when my own memories have faded slightly and I have not reread the book, I can then appreciate the film as a work in its own right. But I will again wait for 5 years before rereading the book, because I need time to digest the film view and be ready to discover maybe another whole set of meanings and images colored by the life experience I have myself gathered in the intervening years.
Thursday September 15th 2011, 9:41 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, everyone, for commenting!! Truly appreciated.

To James M and Alice M: I don't see any where in my essay that I suggest plain descriptive writing is better or worse that declarative writing. I LOVE both. I love the quiet picture Solzhenitsyn paints of the woman doctor finding a cobweb in the hospital and pointing it out to an orderly, just as I love Solzhenitsyn's thundering eloquence in the Gulag volumes.

My point was only that they are different, written and phrased differently with different goals in mind.

I don't read Russian, but I presume on the honesty of the professional translators to put the gist of the Russian into English, just as I presume that the English versions I read of Balzac, Checkhov, Ibsen, and Tolstoy are a reasonable facsimiles of the original.
Wednesday September 28th 2011, 7:25 PM
Comment by: Elena K. (Moscow Russian Federation)
Thank you very much for such a wonderful article, Mr. Lydon.
I wish I could read The Gulag Archipelago in English some day.
Speaking about the original, I would say that Solzhenitsyn is not really a writer - he is a good observer who really touches the very depths of your heart. But after Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Checkhov - his language is very pale, poor and even peculiar - as he makes up some new strange words (I wonder how they were translated into English!). There is no beauty in it.

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