I started out —I can’t imagine why—wanting to read as much as I could about fascism. It’s a fairly common practice for me to identify a theme for my reading for the year, and this year, that was it.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn. I expected it to be longer because, you know, Russian literature, but it really is one day, following a prisoner in the gulags as he maneuvers and manipulates to get a little extra gruel, the last puffs of someone else’s cigarettes, and the least awful work assignments. It’s remarkably evocative—I found myself immersed in every frigid moment.
In the middle of this vivid portrayal of the absurdity of tyranny, Ivan is tasked with bricking over a broken window in an abandoned building. Ivan is a mason, and as he sets out to do the task, the tone of the novel shifts from oppression to vocation: he is (once again) a master, practicing his craft with care and precision. For a few hours he discovers and celebrates his dignity. Then he goes back to the prison camp. Worth reading for its arresting portrayal of the resiliency of spirit and the banality of evil.
Kafka and the Travelling Doll can be read in one sitting, but I suspect if you read it once you’ll read it again, and maybe again and again.