Shaped by the Vagaries of Fate


Alexander Solzhenitsyn (above), chronicler of Soviet oppression, arbiter of Western response to Russia, prolific author, and considered by many the greatest man of the 20th Century, titled the memoir of his exile to the West The Grain Between Two Millstones. He saw his work as sitting between the thoughts of the Free West and the Soviet Union, not fitting into either but shaped by both.

Robert Bird, associate professor of the University of Chicago’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, says of Solzhenitsyn, “He allowed his ambitions to be shaped by the vagaries of his fate.”

Contrast Solzhenitsyn with John Knowles, author of A Separate Peace.

Incredibly gifted as a writer, Knowles followed the most direct career path to literary success one can find: after graduating college, he took a position as a journalist abroad. He wrote and wrote and wrote. When Thornton Wilder, another famed author (of Our Town fame and much more), began to follow Knowle’s work, Wilder recommended he take a swing at fiction. His first novel is still read is high school classrooms today. Its success allowed him to quit his other jobs and focus solely on writing his books.

He spent the remainder of his life writing, his later works never quite regaining the notoriety of A Separate Peace, but he was doing what he wanted.

Youth Requires a Millstone

Pictured, Solzhenitsyn's symbolic surroundings. And yours.

Pictured, Solzhenitsyn’s symbolic surroundings. And yours.

While Knowles’s path may be the more comfortable one, the one most people would like to follow, Solzhenitsyn’s is more fitting for skippers. As young men, many of whom marry before their body’s fill out to normal adult-size, you could do with a little more shaping. Unfortunately, the drive that skipping requires also leads many men to just push on at high speed, moving on before the millstones start grinding. And that comes with a cost.

While there were a zillion factors leading to Solzhenitsyn’s continued prominence and Knowles’s gradual decline in literary status, one cause may have been the continual molding of the first versus the ease with which the latter kept up the same thing. Anyone who has read the sequel to A Separate Peace can see that the themes are the same, the characters are only slightly different, and even with a change in plot, it’s just not as powerful. The Russian, on the other hand, had dramatic forces pushing on him, from imprisonment in the gulags to exile in the US to celebrity status as both a loved and despised intellectual to a return to his homeland post-communism. Each of these forced him to grow, and his growth, he remained relevant.

So whether you consider them the “vagaries of fate” or the movements of Providence, let external forces shape your ambitions. Your wife, your child, your community–don’t slip by them without letting them mold you a little.