Christiane Alsop's Reviews > Journey into the Whirlwind

Journey into the Whirlwind by Evgenia Ginzburg
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Mar 13, 10

Read from February 28 to March 13, 2010

I cannot yet put into words what Ginzburg's memoirs mean to me. Instead, here is her account of the importance of literature:
"At home, I had always been looked on as a passionate and indefatigable bookworm; but it was here, in my stone sepulchor, that I really explored for the first time the inmost meaning of what I read. Up till then I had skimmed to surface, enlarging my mind in breadth but not in depth. And after I came out of prison I found I could no longer read as I had done in m cell at Yaraslavl, where I rediscovered Dostoyevsky, Tyutchev, Pasternak, and many others. ... It is a commonplace to explain the profound effect which books have on a prisoner in solitary confinement by the absence of impressions from outside. But his is not quite the point. When a human being is isolated from the "rat-race" of everyday life, he achieves a kind of spiritual serenity. Sitting in a cell, one no longer has any call to pursue the phantom of worldly success, to play the diplomat or the hypocrite, to compromise with one's conscience. One can immerse oneself in the lofty problems of existence, and do so with a mind purified by suffering." (p. 205)
Some scenes will stay with me forever, such as her recollection of reciting half an hour of Pushkin from memory while cramped in the "special equipment" car; or the thirty women at the labor camp "who had been forcibly separated from their children and knew nothing of their fate were singing with great feeling as they pretended to rock a baby in their arms: Sleep m love, sleep, m little one, The darkness does not frighten us, No bogeyman shall come to hurt you. Hushaby baby, hushaby baby."
In her Epilogue she attributes her survival of Stalin's concentration camps in part to her never ceasing to observe the human condition:
"During those years I experienced many conflicting feelings, but the dominant one was that of amazement. ... Perhaps it was this very amazement which helped to keep me alive. I was not only a victim, but an observer also. What, I kept saying to myself, will come of this? ... Many a time, my thoughts were taken off my own suffering by the keen interest which I felt in the unusual aspects of life and of human nature which unfolded around me. I strove to remember all these things in the hope of recounting them to honest people and true Communists, such as I was sure would listen to me one day." (p. 417)
Although I think nothing can explain why a person survives under these circumstances, another dies (it sure is not due to some personal achievement) her memoirs do this to me: they amaze me.

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