My mother makes a delicious dessert. It is a warm yorkshire pudding dusted with icing sugar. At the bottom of the batter (and not visible from the outside) is a large teaspoon of apricot jam. It is the perfect combination for children in need of inner, outward and upward growth – sugar, fat and apricot jam in a puff of crystal happiness.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book of short stories, Apricot Jam, is filled with less uplifting experiences. Solzhenitsyn has succesfully ranged far from the personal to the general. Tales – dusted with snow and streaked through with a seam of anger – offer a hearty meal by which to educate the pallate of the mind. Solzhenitsyn opens the book with a letter to a famous propagandist writer of the soviet regime. The letter is from a man denounced as a kulak and who has become a wretched forced labourer in a camp, hospitalised with exhaustion, covered in boils and declared by a doctor to be in need of immediate compassion if he is to survive a fortnight. The letter begs the writer for help but help is not forthcoming.
Instead, Solzhenitsyn delivers an aching lesson on the purpose of writing and reading. The writer is a figure of the regime, a stooge whom we are not encouraged to like. He sits, with a young film maker, intending to discuss a screenplay. The narrator discusses screen writing styles but the conversation of the writer and the film maker barely touches them. Instead, the writer tells the film maker, and his neighbour, a critic who has also joined them, about the letter received from the kulak. They share their appreciation of the quaint style in which the letter is written, and they share amongst them two dishes of cherry jam and apricot jam.
If this story is about Solzhenitsyn’s anger at the inhuman treatment of one by another it is also about the power of self-restraint for in it Solzhenitsyn substitutes his anger for bald statements of fact. The painful randomness of the experiences of Solzhenitsyn characters is laid bare in sentences like: “the rest of my family went on into the Taiga, where they were left to live as best they could, and I never heard from them again.”
The story takes its structure from the apricot tree from which the narrator’s mother gathered apricots and made jam (“that sweet foam”). “Before they deported us as kulaks they tried to make us tell them where we had hidden our goods. Otherwise, they said, we’ll chop down your apricot tree. And they chopped it down.” By the end of the story, the apricot jam has crystallised, metaphorically, into a symbol of the world that has been stolen from the family as its members were deported as kulaks. The jam itself drips from the spoon of the writer and he seems to savour a slow consideration of its colour, missing its wider import entirely – although the tools of interpretation are at his disposal – saying: “this very amber transparency, this surprising colour and light should be present in the literary language as well.” And as the amber jam crystallises as if into the blood of the kulak families from whom it was taken (and from whom the writer’s ideas of ‘heroism’ are extracted by “driving people like us all night til we drop”), so the writer takes the life of the kulak who is begging his assistance and watches it drip meaninglessly from his spoon. Will the writer answer the kulak’s message? “What can I say to him. The point isn’t in the answer. The point is in discovering a language.”
If there is a message for us in Solzhenitsyn’s tale (other than gratitude for the freedom to write what we please) it is as bald a statement as this: writing should be about purpose before it is a about style.