Magazine article The New Yorker

The Widow's Peak

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Widow's Peak

Article excerpt

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the most important political novelist of the twentieth century, died on August 3, 2008, at the age of eighty-nine. A couple of weeks after his burial, at the Donskoi Monastery, in Moscow, the Russian government ordered that Ulitsa Bolshaya Kommunisticheskaya--Big Communist Street--be renamed in his honor. A sly, even cynical gesture, considering Vladimir Putin's early career. On the same street, a plaque describing the bare outlines of Solzhenitsyn's achievement was placed next to a McDonald's.

The writer's widow, Natalia Solzhenitsyn, bears these ironies of history with wry patience. Last week, she came to BookExpo America, at the Javits Center, to describe a far more important memorial project--the ongoing development of a proper archive containing everything from Solzhenitsyn's childhood crucifix to thousands of manuscript pages written in his hand, including a complete manuscript of "The Gulag Archipelago" that friends kept buried for twenty years in the Estonian countryside, out of the reach of the K.G.B.

During their thirty-five years of marriage, Natalia Dmitriyevna served as her husband's first reader, editor, assistant, cook, driver, researcher, and (because Solzhenitsyn was a kind of literary monk) conduit to the earthly realm of agents, publishers, journalists, lawyers, and politicians. She also raised three sons because, she said jokingly, "the way Aleksandr Isayevich saw it, they would just grow up on their own."

At seventy-two, Natalia Dmitriyevna is a handsome woman with high cheekbones, intense, intelligent eyes, and wintry, swept-back hair. As thousands of conventioneers wheeled around the vast hall, she showed slides of some of the exhibits being collected in the archive. Solzhenitsyn trained as a mathematician, and his mind ran to the systematic: he was a man of files, boxes, catalogues, labelled envelopes. And because he had suffered years in prison and internal exile, writing under the constant surveillance and harassment of the K.G.B., his gift for scrupulous, almost fanatical organization was a matter of survival--both for him and for his work. Solzhenitsyn is one of the last major writers to leave behind a vast archive of handwritten manuscripts. (His successors will bequeath their hard drives, if they dare.)

Natalia Dmitriyevna described just a few items in the archive: A childhood manuscript on which Solzhenitsyn had written "Volume One of the Collected Works." His I.D. card for the Soviet Army. …

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