Every scribbler, I imagine, prays secretly for immortality, that some scrap at least of his oeuvre will be still quoted a century after his demise. That geological time makes mock of literary immortality, so-called, does not worry him. We are human, and we think on a human scale.

But literary immortality, even judged by its own scale, is a fickle and uncertain thing. Recently I was in Zurich in the company of some highly intelligent, accomplished, and worldly students who, I should guess, were in the upper 0.001 percent of the world’s population as measured by some dimension or other. I had with me Solzhenitsyn’s book Lenin in Zurich and one of the students asked me what I was reading. I showed him and he asked me who...