Thursday, June 2, 2011

How the Steel was Tempered

One of the main museums in Sochi is the house of Nikolai Ostrovsky, a Soviet author who in 1930s wrote an immensely popular novel, "How the Steel was Tempered." These days, the novel is ill favored by the literary community. Sometimes, it's studied as a prime example of the "Socialist Realist" genre. Largely though people avoid talking about it because it's so charged with the communist doctrine. There's an ideological passion to this novel that makes it disturbing to people these days. I read it as a child--I remember enjoying it a lot, rereading it several times--but I haven't returned to it since. Ostrovsky's house is located on the street named "Pavel Korchagin," and I failed to recognize the name of the novel's hero in the street sign.

The visit was interesting on many levels, but one thing in particular stood out. (I think I knew some of this information as a child, but I have forgotten it since.) Ostrovsky started writing only when he became completely blind and paralyzed. He had arthritis--his Russian Wikipedia page says specifically that his symptoms would be diagnosed today as Ankylosing Spondylitis. At the time, the medicine could do nothing to relieve his symptoms, not even the pain. And he must've been in a tremendous amount of pain all the time. His spinal cord was probably entirely fused--he was bedridden for about the last ten years of his life. What might be worse, his eyes were inflamed, which means every tiny bit of light hurt him immensely. His rooms in the house (built only after the novel became a huge success with the people and the party leaders) were made of dark wood, the windows shaded with heavy curtains to ensure large periods of complete darkness.

The fact that he managed to write two lengthy novels while sick with this disease I find astounding, and in a way also exciting, encouraging. I must've known this story as a child, this is also why the idea of "To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield" was always so attractive to me. "To find" in this context is to find pain. The museum guide who told me the story had tears in her eyes as she recounted the later parts of Ostrovsky's biography--even though she must've given the same speech hundreds if not thousands of times.

No comments:

Post a Comment