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Monday, July 24, 2017

A Rediscovered Jewel In "Matronya’s House" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

When I was in High School, three books on my father’s bookshelf vied for attention each time I passed. These three books had been around for as long as I remember, but these demanded a teenager's attention. Don’t you think that that three volumes bearing the strange words, “The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn” would make one curious? I was curious, so I read them. And Solzhenitsyn got into me.

Over the years as I moved on, those three books kept coming to mind. "Remember? Remember?" So at one point (forgive me, I don’t recall when), I found all three copies for myself. I’ve thumbed through them and intend to read them again some day, but Solzhenitsyn’s writing was captivating enough to drive me to other Russian writers, over the years many of whom (other than the great Sholem Aleichem, or Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Turgenev) I don’t recall.

Solzhenitsyn stayed with me and I picked up a tidbit here and there in short stories and poems. Then I started collecting his writing and I am confident my shelves are populated with everything he’s written. My secret hope is that one day the kids and/or grand kids will fall in love with books as I have--fall in love with the contents, that is.

Recently, I’ve re-read Solzhenitsyn’s short story “Matryona's House” (1963, also translated “Matryona's Place”) and am struck with how different it reads now after reading it once so long ago. Does good writing impact you that way, seeming like an altogether different story on a re-read? What is most fascinating is that the subject matter does not seem to be story worth telling--but the way the story is told--now that’s art. That’s the reason Solzhenitsyn has me going back. 

Scene from "Fiddler On The Roof"

It is common knowledge that “Matronya’s House” is perhaps Solzhenitsyn’s greatest work. In 30 pages, Solzhenitsyn tells the story of an old lady who, living in a trash-heap of a house keeps no livestock for food, works for free, does not keep herself very clean, yet is the very glue that holds the community together and nobody knows it. Rats and roaches have free reign in the house where she sleeps on the stove for warmth. She steals peat to heat her house and does not cook. The man she loved and wanted to marry years ago disappeared in war, so thinking him dead, she married his brother--only to have her lover reappear . . . her story is tragic. Solzhenitsyn finds a beauty in this woman that can only be seen, not with the eyes, but with a tender heart.

It is argued that “Matronya’s House” is an allegory describing the changes in the nation (this particular setting is the 1950’s) and like a biblical parable, is only understood for those who have an ear to hear. Solzhenitsyn is a masterful story-teller, for he couches this fiction in his own history--a man recently released from prison and seeking to start his life over again as a math teacher--and this town needed a math teacher. Which is why it's difficult to separate fact from fiction.

It’s a dirty, smelly, hungry story but from the outset you want to know why the train slows almost to a standstill at a level and barren crossing nearly 100 miles outside Moscow.

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