Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Hindsight in Solzhenitsyn

Robert Kaplan reads Solzhenitsyn’s WWI novels
Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn

Good morning. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn “uses his characters to announce counterintuitive and unpopular truths,” Robert Kaplan writes in a survey of his WWI novels. We say hindsight is 20/20, but in reality it “reduces complexity to a counterfeit clarity”:

He replaces hindsight with a multitude of characters thinking and acting in the moment, so that at the beginning of World War I, ‘The clock of fate was suspended over the whole of East Prussia, and its six-mile-long pendulum was ticking audibly as it swung from the German to the Russian side and back again.’ Indeed, the life and death of whole battalions of men, as the author vividly demonstrates, can be effected by a misplaced pencil movement on a general’s dimly lit field map.

Solzhenitsyn’s dissection of the Russian defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg, which occupies much of the action of August 1914, should be studied at every military war college. Without that failure, there might well have been no Romanov abdication, no Lenin, thus no twentieth century as we know it. Solzhenitsyn’s presentation of the battle over hundreds of pages is panoramic, immersive, and masterly, the equivalent in typewriter ink of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent. As with any writer of great epics, Solzhenitsyn knows many disparate things: the technicalities of artillery formations and field maneuvers; the mental process by which semi-starving, over-extended, and ill-led soldiers become looters; how small changes in terrain affect forced marches; as well as the placement of the stars in the night sky and the names of many Orthodox saints.

In other news: B. D. McClay reviews Susan Taubes’s Divorcing, which was recently reissued by the New York Review of Books: “To life’s pursuits, it asks: for what? For what the marriage, the learning, the children; for what your parents, your survival of horrors, your freedom or your annihilation? What if there is, in the end, no place in this world to rest? In a series of recollections sketched out for Sophie by her father, he recalls witnessing the death of his younger brother. ‘I felt that life is utterly impossible, bitter,’ he writes, ‘the dangers are tremendous; that these people should be able to do better and not to let my little, beloved brother die.’ Sophie is not haunted by death—in fact, she seems to find it attractive—but she, too, senses something bitter in life, something impossible.”

Saving Beckett from Beckett Studies: “My disenchantment with Beckett Studies was settled at a conference in Antwerp, when, one night outside a bar, a senior male professor at a distinguished university began to throw chairs at a female peer. Indoors, one of his colleagues suggested some motives for this, smoking casually as the graduate students ran out to break it up. Drink had been taken; there was an affair, long ago. She, as it happens, had just been overlooked for a senior post at the same university. Later, those grads would be advised not to work with her on a forthcoming critical book. It’s unclear, connecting all these sentences, where to place the implied ‘because.’”

Never study too much American. (HT: Jeremy Larson)

Old Masters in a new light at the Met: “The Old Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art needed a new hat. The galleries are given pride of place in the expansive Fifth Avenue building, standing at the head of its enormous Beaux-Arts grand staircase. They contain many of the Met’s most popular treasures, but they weren’t showing pre-19th-century European paintings in the best of all possible lights. In 2018, Keith Christiansen, the chairman of the Department of European Paintings, embarked on the enormous project of renovating and modernizing the skylight system for the galleries. The museum is now about halfway through the four-year, $150 million endeavor. That’s a hefty price tag, but it’s a project that was long overdue.”

Historians ordered to apologize to an 81-year-old woman by a Polish court: “A court has ordered two prominent historians to apologise to an elderly woman who claimed they had defamed her late uncle over his wartime actions, in a case seen as critical to independent Holocaust research in Poland. Prof Jan Grabowski of the University of Ottawa and Prof Barbara Engelking of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research were accused of defaming Edward Malinowski by suggesting in a book that he gave up Jews to Nazi Germans. In a civil case condemned by Jewish organisations and historians as an attack on free academic inquiry, the researchers were told to apologise for a passage in Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland, a 1,600-page work they co-edited, which the court said ‘violated Malinowski’s honour’ by ‘providing inaccurate information.’”

Photo: Church of Saint Regiswindis

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.