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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) 1918–
A Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist and playwright, Solzhenitsyn is best known for The Cancer Ward and The First Circle. His latest novel is August 1914. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
In all [of Solzhenitsyn's] chronicles of frustration and injustice … a few...
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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) 1918–
A Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist and playwright, Solzhenitsyn is best known for The Cancer Ward and The First Circle. His latest novel is August 1914. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
In all [of Solzhenitsyn's] chronicles of frustration and injustice … a few positive elements appear. Ivan Denisovich, enduring, sticks stoutly to his métier and persists in doing sound rather than slipshod work (though it seems to me just as boring to read about his conscientious bricklaying as about any other kind of bricklaying). Nerzhin, the Solzhenitsyn-character in "The First Circle," maintains his intellectual dignity and makes friends with the gatekeeper at the prison, who—recurring theme in Russian fiction since Tolstoy's worthy peasant Karataev—in spite of having been subjected to endless ordeals of disaster and deprivation which would crush a less humble, less resilient soul still also endures and is not discouraged. Nerzhin, when he is sent away to another prison, gives this man what he has come to regard as his only precious possession, a volume of Essenin's poems. But the sole trace to be found in these books of the original Soviet ideology is Solzhenitsyn's conviction, or the conviction of one of his characters, that capitalism is doomed.
Edmund Wilson, "Solzhenitsyn," in The New Yorker, August 14, 1971, pp. 83-7.
I will admit that there are times when I wonder if Solzhenitsyn is more than a documentary writer, who through an exceptional personal history has come into contact with material of such exceptional and yet general importance that he has only to recount it, and to add a few general ethical reflections, to be hailed in the West (as with that material would in any case be almost certain) as a writer of genius. This is in any case a question that has to be put, if we are to retain any critical integrity. In a fair amount of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and again in much of Cancer Ward, some impression of this kind almost inevitably builds up. The characteristic method of loosely linked sketches can be related, of course, to the habit learned in the labor camps where there were no materials for writing and so incidents and anecdotes were memorized and habitually retold. But then this relation leads us back into the material, rather than out of it….
In The First Circle, very differently, the idea is central. The linked sketches are not illustrative of casual, involuntary meetings and discontinuities within a dominating environment. The very absence of real links—voluntary, positive, aiming at continuity—is now the defining quality of a system. It is not so much the negative group, in that earlier sense, as a kind of seriality: all the links arbitrary and in a more profound way negative; the seriality, the lack of real connections, including the imprisoning as well as the imprisoned, the dominators as well as the dominated. The thread of narrative is connected to just this idea. What is being done, centrally, is work on the human voice, work on the very medium of recognition and discovery. Ostensibly this is to serve state security: to allow scrambled messages, that limited betrayal—the service of official secrecy—which is still only the tip of the iceberg. For the really dangerous and dreadful discovery is a means of recognizing individual human voices, in quite new and specific ways: recognition of anonymous telephone voices. Not just the passive state secrecy but the active state investigation. The most positive value of all, this absolute value of recognition, is now so transvalued that it is the means of men's betraying each other, betraying others they have never even known or seen. It is easy to talk, abstractly, about the perversion of a system. This, concretely, is a systematic perversion of terrifying depth. Knowledge, kindness, loyalty, self-interest, fear, ambition: all feed, in this serial system, into mutual and collective betrayal. The ethical contrasts, though not at all renounced, are back in a different world. Ethical criticism, we say easily, when we are telling the story of our intellectual development, developed, and had to develop, into social criticism. It is a much harder process than we ordinarily imagine. It is not a surpassing of ethical values; that leads straight to the terror. It is a perception of ethics as relationships over so wide a range, from the temporary affair to the state institution, that most of our ordinary points of reference dissolve.
That the connections in The First Circle are arbitrary, at first only a restless shifting from this person to that, is in the end the meaning: a series of arbitrary connections which compose an objectively arbitrary reality. The work on the voice has a central irony, as we have noted: that detecting, understanding, scrambling voices is being done by men who need to speak in their own voices, to describe their common condition. But then, the irony goes deeper, into the construction of the novel itself. For what happens in it, in its essential form, is also a kind of scrambling, in which a human society (that connected community which is the ordinary form of the realist novel, and which had even survived, through the emphasis on recognitions, in Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward) is fragmented into pieces of sound which can be understood only when they are put together again in a particular way: when the series is surpassed and the real connections made clear. Yet these connections are themselves negative….
What is false must be corrected; must be replaced by truth. That is one characteristic form of dissent, of critical dissent, and in part, certainly, it is Solzhenitsyn's role. But there is a more radical dissent: not the correction of a system, but the finding of human values beyond it….
The end of this work on the human voice is … a fearless silence; a coming out on the other side of suffering. It is, then, not critical realism; nor is it, in its silent waiting, a revolutionary realism…. It is a moment of silence, after so many false messages, after the ending of ordinary hope and of all conventional reassurances.
Raymond Williams, "On Solzhenitsyn," in TriQuarterly (© 1972 by Northwestern University Press), No. 23/24, Winter/Spring, 1972, pp. 318-32.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn's current position as the foremost living Russian writer is so self-evident and so unassailable on any imaginable literary grounds that it is hard to remember he made his debut in print not quite 10 years ago. When Nikita Khrushchev authorized, for reasons of party policy, the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in November, 1962, he could hardly have realized what he was doing for Russian literature. In a society where for the past 40 years the Government had determined what reality was and just how much of this reality literature was to reflect and in what manner, Solzhenitsyn's short novel of prison-camp life came as a shattering reversal of all previous taboos and canons….
It is with the appearance of these two novels [The First Circle and Cancer Ward] that the true dimensions of Solzhenitsyn's talent, the scope of his technical versatility and virtuosity, became apparent. Reading them after reading Soviet literature from the early 1930's on was like acquiring stereoscopic vision and the ability to see a full range of colors after staring for decades at a blurred two-dimensional, black-and-white image. Although the vantage point of each of these novels is ostensibly limited to a microcosm …, we would have to go back to the collected works of Anton Chekhov to find a Russian writer with a comparable breadth of vision, one that encompasses all the social, educational and ideological strata of his country….
Thematically and stylistically, [August 1914] constitutes an entirely new departure for Solzhenitsyn; and it is, if anything, even more remarkable than his other work….
Solzhenitsyn's encyclopedic erudition, which seems to encompass the most diverse fields (medicine in [Cancer Ward], technology in [The First Circle]) now turns out to include an awesome command of military science….
Solzhenitsyn's religious concerns, which were perceptible but muted in his other books, come out into the open in this novel….
Like Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn brings to the art of literature methods of precise observation derived from the exact sciences (physics and mathematics in his case, medicine and biology in Chekhov's); like him he questions all the basic assumptions, all the idées reçues of his age. The two writers share a deep understanding of peasants and peasant life and are alone in Russian literature in their freedom from the traditional Russian idealization of this class. Both manage to love mankind while having no illusions about its potential for evil, and both shun overt preaching, preferring to present the uglier aspects of reality objectively and to leave it up to the reader to decide which character is a villain….
Solzhenitsyn continues writing under conditions that would drive most of us to madness or suicide. Very few living writers can match his artistic achievement; in human and moral stature he is in a class by himself on the literary landscape of our age.
Simon Karlinsky, "A New Departure for a Master," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 10, 1972, p. 1ff.
In bringing to life pre-revolutionary Russia, August 1914 refutes and grinds into dust all those "truths" and "Scientific views" that, mercilessly crammed into the national consciousness of Russia and of other nations, have been perverting human life. After August 1914 it will not be easy to dismiss history and life (as the official ideology did) with the phrase, "Those were the days of tsarism and capitalism."
Solzhenitsyn has begun to fill the emptiness superimposed on Russian culture and consciousness. He is returning Russia its soul—the very soul which had been revealed to the world by Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Gorki. And by discovering this soul—this original Russia—in the frightful terror of Stalinist camps and in the bureaucratic grayness of post-Stalin days, Solzhenitsyn's work forecasts a renaissance in Russia.
By returning Russia to herself, by rejecting ideological Russia, Solzhenitsyn is returning her to the human community. Although ideology does not belong to any single people, and in one way or another all are suffering from it, only a spiritualized Russia—the true Russia, the one portrayed by Solzhenitsyn—can align itself with the rest of the world. Humanity is not perpetuated by disappearances and suppression of peoples but by affirmation of their qualities.
August 1914 is conceived in hope and suffering. We can only wish that Solzhenitsyn be allowed by health and circumstances to complete the work of returning Russia to her spiritual self and to the human community.
Milovan Djilas, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 17, 1972, pp. 1-2.
If Solzhenitsyn's themes are in the great Russian tradition, so is his mode of composition, which has its roots in nineteenth-century naturalism. Every character has a biography; faces matter, general statements about human nature appear; an attempt is made to take in the full social spectrum (aristocrats to peasants, workers to intellectuals); symbolism is muted, the pressure of society on men and women is never absent, and moral conflict is at the heart of all action. In short, Solzhenitsyn is after what Aldous Huxley once described as the literature of "the whole truth." Old-fashioned though his method may seem, especially to those who are occupied with the mode of the novel today and who therefore look for experience in literature to come at them dislocated and fragmented, Solzhenitsyn's method is still effective, and probably always will be, provided the subject it is expended upon is sufficiently large and the mind utilizing it of sufficient strength. Solzhenitsyn's mind scarcely wants for strength, and his subject is immense. It is, specifically: What is the truth of modern Russian history?… To tell it, moreover, in all its appalling complexity, averting one's glance neither from its heroism nor its villainy, to understand the terrible nature of its people's endurance, is a job perhaps only the novel can accomplish, and surely this makes Solzhenitsyn's own novelistic efforts the most enterprising and significant going on in the world today. Above all it must be understood that for him there is an absolutely clear connection between literature and life. Properly used to winnow out falsehood—as Solzhenitsyn remarked in the recently published speech prepared for the Nobel Prize he dared not leave his country to accept—literature can not only "convey the life experience of one whole nation to another" but can, in addition, curtail "the meanderings of human history."…
[In] August 1914 … Solzhenitsyn's extraordinary gifts are in ample evidence: his marvelous balance, his ability to create a vast range of convincing characters, his understanding of human motivation, his keen moral sense tempered by his feeling for the complexity of things, and above all his anger, undergirded by a deep respect for life itself….
[We] can only hope he survives to complete the work, for there is more riding on it than any other single work of literature in our time.
Joseph Epstein, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 17, 1972, pp. 1, 3.
Tapping the Russian text [of August 1914] for emphasis, [Michael Glenny, translator of Solzhenitsyn's latest novel, told his Publishers Weekly interviewer:] "Solzhenitsyn wrote this in one year, under great pressure and at great speed, fearing he might not live to finish it. In it, he tries to do two things: To re-create the language of pre-Revolutionary Russia, which might as well be Minoan for today's Soviet readers, and more important, to create a new style. Part of the book is written in an urgent, conversational vernacular manner, so hectic and choppy at times it almost leaves you breathless.
"He peppered these portions of the text with exclamation points, sometimes four and five in a row; used double and triple question marks, repeated himself for emphasis, and made extensive use of bizarre capitalization. I rendered a longish sample of this in English and it made the editors shiver. 'See here, old boy,' they said, 'we can't have that kind of thing, you know.' So the overall editorial direction was to eliminate repetition, to alter the order of clauses for sense, to break up immensely long sentences and generally tone it down."…
[Glenny has been harshly criticized for what some have called his "adaptation" of Solzhenitsyn's work. But, he said,] "these people … wouldn't dream of attacking Solzhenitsyn himself, because they know full well that such an assault, coming from the West, would give the Soviet literary establishment the opportunity they have been slavering for, a chance to tear out another clawful of flesh from Solzhenitsyn's bleeding body."
Glenny paused wearily. "I saw my task to make the meat of the novel as comprehensible, coherent and fluent as possible for the general reader. Perhaps it is cowardly of me, but I am not eager to attempt such a thing again by myself. [Glenny was the co-translator of the United Kingdom version of "The First Circle."] Solzhenitsyn obviously went through so much pain writing this that the shock waves couldn't help but be passed on to me …"
From an interview by Michael Mok, in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from September 25, 1972, issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R.R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1972 by Xerox Corporation), September 25, 1972, p. 24.
There is a serious and unusual question of tact involved in reviewing a work like August 1914, the first part of a projected immense structure. The book is not finished. The book is a political event. The author is harried, persecuted, protected only by his renown. The book has noble aspirations. It is to be his masterpiece. It is a serious, dense, architecturally complex structure in the tradition of Tolstoy, full of history and event, full of intention and virtue, built on careful research and honest labor; and much of the way through its over 600 pages, lumbering like an unhitched freight car. Buried within the intentions is a moving vision of men at war, but there is a dulling and conventional weight piled over the vision….
But the danger in my heap of notes and citations is that I will construct a brief against Solzhenitsyn. No point in this. Why should he be punished for his worthy, proud, and energetic attempt to understand the past? If the book can be taken for what it is, popular history, with a staged central episode of war that is marvelously effective, smelling of gunsmoke and fragility of soldiers' spirits, then justice is done. Unfortunately, Soviet repression makes the book an international political cause.
In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward, the precision of the focus and the immediacy of the suffering gave energy and drive to the conceptual heaviness. Indeed, these books are overwhelming experiences for many readers, particularly the first. Solzhenitsyn, one felt, was telling his story, telling it truly, as best he could recall and reconstruct it. When he invented, he invented out of anguished necessity and the stories stood for the stories of many others. The prison camp and the hospital were only his camp and hospital, but they are the ones we know all too well from contemporary history. Symbolic relevance and reality were possessed of an almost Kafka-like identity. If he plodded in the telling, it fit the plodding and slogging of human souls in desolate confinement. We could blame translations for some of the splinters and lint in sentences and paragraphs. The basic emblems were very strong.
But here Solzhenitsyn has produced a monumental research project without the ferocious limpid poetry of a Tolstoy or the stubborn manic desperation of a Dostoevski to bring it to life. The sweep is merely constructed. There are marvelous moments of war buried in literary engineering. In his effort to include everything, to bind up the seams, there are even snippets of news items and historical dispatches from czar and generals; there are reveries and meditations that smell of the workroom; there are moments of intimacy that might have been written by two other historical novelists, Taylor Caldwell and Margaret Mitchell. Where there should be an avalanche of event, feeling, historical grasp, all bound together—where we want an avalanche and want to drown in feeling—there is mere sincerity and good intention.
These are not negligible characteristics in a man. They deserve respect. Solzhenitsyn's lonely struggle is worthy. Alas, his book is an event of the season, perhaps a crucial event in his life, but not a work of great art. For us to pretend otherwise is to do an injustice to hopes that extend beyond individuals and generations.
Herbert Gold, "Solzhenitsyn: Question of Life vs. Art," in World, September 26, 1972, p. 54ff.
[Solzhenitsyn's new novel, August 1914] is more significant as a political deed, as a sign of some new Russian thought, than as a novel. It is hardly a novel at all, for Solzhenitsyn's aim is chiefly to write a documentary of Russia's calamitous defeat at Tannenberg. The characters who appear at the beginning only to disappear before the main event are types of old "liberal" bourgeoisie whose fear of giving up even their moral superiority to czarism Solzhenitsyn too obviously scorns. The book is mostly straight military narrative; one chapter is mysteriously "omitted at the author's request," and replaced by a historical summary. There are also "newsreels" and unsuccessful "film" scenes in imitation of Dos Passos' prose experiments in U.S.A. The book is held together by a fictional character, Colonel Vorontsyev, who as a kind of inspector-general gallops from battle scene to battle scene. He is, as the Russians say, a "positive" hero—a good man and Solzhenitsyn's spokesman.
August 1914 has no interest as a novel, and I am afraid that Solzhenitsyn has been unable to extricate himself from the pedestrian realism and stilted style that have become second nature to Soviet novelists. He has always been distinguished by a sardonic sense of fact rather than by originality; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and Cancer Ward are all based on his own experiences as a prisoner and cancer patient. He is also a novelist of the group, the camp, the hospital, the army regiment, and has little interest in developing individual character; people in his novels just come and go, specimens of the vast collective of Soviet society. The more telling battle scenes in August 1914 probably follow from his own experiences during World War II.
Solzhenitsyn is indeed no Tolstoy, nor has he ever claimed to be a great writer. He was trained as a physicist and mathematician, and perhaps would never have turned to writing if the chance to put his generation's tribulations into factual narratives had not coincided with the sudden—and brief—"thaw" after Stalin's death. But he is extremely intelligent, forceful, ironic. Unlike most other Soviet novelists, he likes to think and to say exactly what he thinks; in this book he demonstrates a scorn for the czarist leadership that reminds me of his well-demonstrated scorn for the Soviet leadership. Unlike the many Soviet apparatchiks, academics, and diplomats who are horribly quick to condemn everyone they are instructed to condemn, Solzhenitsyn has an immense tenderness for Russians in trouble. Above all, what distinguishes him is his active, thrusting, embittered search for the roots of the long Russian tragedy….
Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 is not so much a work of art as another powerful documentary of the everlasting Russian system—and perhaps, for all we know, of the Russian character. I read it with the same fear, horror, and sorrow with which, all my life, I have read so many nineteenth- and twentieth-century documents of the Russian failure. But today Solzhenitsyn is not just another Russian publicizing the misuse of the Russian people. He has become the Soviet writer most cherished by the small but determined democratic opposition. His book, with its startling suggestion (to Russians today) that Bolshevism was not inevitable, comes at a time when protest and dissidence are out in the open, when more and more intellectuals have put themselves on record as democrats, not Leninists, in "self-published" magazines and typewritten books.
Alfred Kazin, "A Few Speak for Freedom," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1972 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1972, pp. 65-9.
Critics have often compared [Solzhenitsyn] to Tolstoy, and rightly, for his manner is on the whole Tolstoyan. Yet his relationship with Tolstoy is complex and contradictory. Thus inevitably this new epic, [the first volume of which is August 1914,] even though unfinished, invites comparison with War and Peace; and, on the basis of my first impressions, I might as well say that Solzhenitsyn strikes me as superior to Tolstoy in his understanding of military strategy and tactics, quite as good as Tolstoy in his scenes of actual battle, but altogether inferior to him in his representation of private life (the theme of peace). Solzhenitsyn's students, young ladies, businessmen, and "deep thinkers" are not particularly memorable when measured against such Tolstoyan characters as Natasha, Sonya, Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrey and his father. In their private and inner lives Solzhenitsyn's people remain types whom he has not succeeded in converting into individuals. But the greater part of his novel, and certainly his most masterful scenes, of which there are many, pertain to war rather than to peace.
Philip Rahv, "In Dubious Battle," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), October 5, 1972, pp. 13-15.
I cannot question Solzhenitsyn's exceptional courage and sincerity—or the special need for someone like him on the Soviet scene. Yet the pedantic and highly moralistic tone of [August 1914], its constant repetition of his overly simplified beliefs, become tiresome. It may be that Solzhenitsyn will move on to polemics and abandon the novel altogether. This would accord with his creed and with the public role he has assumed. And it would, finally, emulate the life of Tolstoy, as well as his art.
Jeri Laber, "Muted Echo of a Masterpiece," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), October 7, 1972, pp. 27-30.
Critical reaction to Solzhenitsyn's new novel has varied from Newsweek's praise of the author as 'a Tolstoy of our Time' to Philip Toynbee's dismissal of August 1914 ('Catch-22 is an infinitely more revealing and important work') as 'essentially a war book' which 'tells us a great deal about how the battle of Tannenberg was fought' but 'tells us nothing new either about what it feels like to fight in a war or about what war is …'
Fortunately not all English critics are as obtuse as Toynbee and some have been more concerned with what Solzhenitsyn is trying to say than with whether the novel is 'great' or not. This question is more than usually premature, because not only is the book new but it is also unfinished, being only the first part of a trilogy which Solzhenitsyn has described as 'the chief artistic design of my life.' Unfortunately the postscript in which he discusses his plan for the whole work, and even the subtitle 'Knot 1', have for some inexplicable reason been omitted from the English translation.
The trilogy is intended to deal with 'the principal theme of our recent history', the events that have shaped Russia's destiny in a 20th century which has seen the collapse of the old Tsarist order and the rise of a new communist state. The next knot, October 1916, will be a picture of the 'social and spiritual currents' in Tsarist Russia on the eve of the revolution, and the image of a knot seems to imply an interruption in the continuous thread of history, a juncture of crucial events which marks the end of one era and determines the course of the following one. And this is true of the disaster at Tannenberg in the first weeks of the 1914 war, for this defeat, says Solzhenitsyn, 'set the tone of the whole course of the war for Russia', a war that 'strained the nation's morale to breaking point' and so made the revolution inevitable….
But despite the realism, this is not military history, but an imaginative interpretation of events. Part of Solzhenitsyn's purpose is to oppose Tolstoy's view of history as an impersonal force unaffected by the desires of puny creatures like Napoleon by stressing that the bunglings of individuals do have disastrous consequences….
The comparison of Solzhenitsyn's historical epic with Tolstoy's is unavoidable, and has been widely made, despite the unfinished nature of Solzhenitsyn's work. But the relationship is a very complex one. August 1914 lacks the grand panoramic sweep of any of the four (in the original Russian) books of War and Peace, for Solzhenitsyn adopts his usual method of concentration in time and space by covering just the 11 days of the actual battle. And although it is no longer a distillation of his own personal experience, it still resembles his previous novels in being a study of the behaviour, sometimes heroic and sometimes cowardly, of men under extreme stress.
And once again Tolstoy is used as a sort of touchstone for their reactions, as in Cancer Ward, where many of the patients are reading his book What Do Men Live By? And just as the cancer which threatens them with death forces them to confront their past lives and urgently ask this agonising question, so in August 1914 another Tolstoyan question is raised right at the beginning of the book, and is implicit throughout it: 'What is the aim of man's life on earth?'…
Solzhenitsyn continually opposes the inner life and the wisdom of the heart to dogmatic reason and fanatical violence. The book is in a way a sustained attack on the radical intelligentsia who long for a revolution whose consequences they can't foresee, on their optimistic belief in reason and progress, and their narrow-minded intellectualism which ignores man's inner life. Against them Solzhenitsyn sets all those people, often humble soldiers and superstitious peasants, who strive to live their lives not according to causes and slogans but to the highest ideals of virtue, of solidarity with each other, and of love. On a visit to Tolstoy's estate the young Tolstoyan disciple finds the old sage walking in the woods at sunrise, and asks him if he isn't exaggerating the power of love to improve human relationships. 'Only through love,' replies the old man fiercely. 'Nothing else. No one will ever discover anything better.'
Konstantin Bazarov, "Solzhenitsyn's 1914," in Books and Bookmen, November, 1972, p. 68.
Solzhenitsyn sets the Soviet regime against a backdrop of the best traditions of Russian literature, judges it and finds it wanting. The paramount importance he attaches to literature is evident from his critical essays and his public protests, which have all been directed against threats to literature, to the integrity of writers and to the Russian language as the bearer of what is good and true in the Russian heritage….
Solzhenitsyn belongs to a literary tradition which believes that there is no distinction between "artistic truth and the truth of experience." Like many Russian writers, both past and present, he accepts without question the view usually associated in Russia with the critic Vissarion Belinsky, namely that life and art should not be compartmentalized: a man cannot create works of literature which are designed simply to be admired for their esthetic beauty without any reference to the world around. Nor should a writer claim that he is an artisan who produces beautiful objects which, once completed, are no longer his responsibility…. The argument that art must be engagé derives in part from the romantic view of the writer as prophet, as a man of extraordinary sensitivity. It partakes also of the moral and reforming zeal of such romantics as Shelley, who believed that literature was a means of both knowing and shaping reality….
Solzhenitsyn has paid his debt to the Russian literary tradition. He has written to, for and about those Russians who endured the terrible suffering of the Stalinist period and World War II. His efforts to recover the past, to set the record straight by cutting through the web of lies and hypocrisy, obviously possess enormous significance for many of his contemporaries. His works have been correctly called a sort of "social therapy," a recapturing of history for a generation that was almost destroyed under Stalin. It is therefore an historical irony, as well as an obvious cause of deep frustration for Solzhenitsyn, that most of his major works have been published only outside of Russia. He gives offense to the Soviet bureaucrats simply because he wants to tell the truth about the immediate past.
We should take care not to descend to the pedestrian level of the politicians in assessing the significance of Solzhenitsyn's work. The last line of Shelley's "Defense of Poetry" makes the famous claim that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." We find an apparent echo in the remark of Volodin in The First Circle that writers are a sort of "second government" in Russia and that is the reason that they have been feared and persecuted. However, the essence of Solzhenitsyn's challenge to the Soviet government does not lie in the fact that he points to inadequacies in the socio-political structure of the country. Rather it is that he does not believe in political solutions at all. Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet government are agreed on one thing, that man's condition needs improvement, but he is convinced that improvement can only come through inner regeneration of man and not through merely external changes on a political level. This belief underlies nearly all of Solzhenitsyn's works, but is present in sharp relief in his "Poems in Prose" or "Short Sketches" ("Kroxotnye rasskazy"), the first of his works to be published abroad (1965)….
One has understood nothing about Solzhenitsyn unless one realizes that he is conservative, religiously oriented and a cultural nationalist. Some of his works, for example "Matryona's Home," indicate that it was to the old Russian villages and churches that he turned for spiritual nourishment once he was released from exile in Siberia. For him they represent the essence of the Russian experience. Whether or not he is a practising Christian, and it seems very likely that he is, he has developed a profound interest in Russian Orthodoxy. It would appear to be the only institution in which he places some hope for the future….
The main problem for Solzhenitsyn is that humanity has no "single system of values," and hence is victim to an insidious relativism in knowing what represents a serious challenge to its spiritual and moral well-being. The problem is both synchronic and diachronic, in that man must attain a collective voice across national boundaries and also draw upon the accumulated wisdom of the past. Solzhenitsyn's solution to these problems is to summon the writers of the world to crusade in an effort to save the world….
Solzhenitsyn's Nobel lecture represents the culmination of his work thus far and its fundamental message that the terrible suffering of the past and the present can only be alleviated in the future through the regeneration of man's moral nature, and that this goal can be achieved by world literature, which will break down the sectarianism and prejudices that divide nation from nation.
J. G. Garrard, "Art for Man's Sake: Alexander Solzhenitsyn," in Books Abroad, Winter, 1973, pp. 49-53.
August 1914 is an impressive and important novel. It is not, however, a novel that will find easy acceptance among readers who like their fictions tidy and neat. It is rather one of those Russian "large loose baggy monsters" Henry James deplored. Characters are introduced and promptly forgotten, some do return but when we have forgotten them, others are there only to engage in intense intellectual arguments of the sort Russians have been unable to avoid inserting into their novels. When in the West "ambiguity" has become a major, and for some the sole, criterion of literary value, Solzhenitsyn is not shy about letting us know what he thinks. Where modernism in art has sought to distance itself from reality, to deform and "play" with the observed world, or shadow it with the mists of illusion, Solzhenitsyn loads his novel with all the messy details of actual experience. Like Tolstoy, he assumes an intimate relation between art and life, and the strength of his conviction gives his work the moral authority the great novels, particularly the great Russian novels, have always exerted.
Not that esthetic problems are trivial. In his first long fiction, the novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn set himself what has become his continuing task—to reveal the social fabric of his nation. His procedure is to examine painstakingly a broad gallery of characters representative of its diverse social classes and groups. The concentration camps of One Day … and The First Circle, the hospital of Cancer Ward, besides serving as ready-made metaphors for Stalinist Russia, offered convenient locales where men and women otherwise unlikely to meet could be brought together. The view that a literary character must be socially representative or "typical" was widespread in nineteenth-century Russia and has achieved the status of dogma in the ideology of Socialist Realism. For gifted writers who adhered to it—and without talent no theory helps—the stress on typicality led to a grasp of the social dynamics underlying the vagaries of individual behavior. It also had its pitfalls. Typicality might be degraded into a schematism without anchor in the particularities of human personality. The work of fiction, in its effort to create a microcosm of the actual world and its characteristic features, might turn into a static gallery of types lacking formal cohesion.
Solzhenitsyn overcame these pitfalls, masterfully in One Day …, which remains for me the most artistically satisfying of his novels, and with considerable success in Cancer Ward, by building his work around the perceptions and destiny of a single hero…. Nerzhin tried to do the same for The First Circle, but the ambitiousness of that project—it strove to do no less than incorporate all of Stalinist Russia—made a single character unequal to the task….
August 1914 is even more ambitious. Though a long novel, it is only the first in a projected series that presumably will treat Russia in Revolution and Civil War, as well as World War I. It begs comparison with Tolstoy's monumental epic War and Peace, and if we were dull enough to miss the analogy, Solzhenitsyn has pointed to it by invoking his great predecessor a good number of times. Solzhenitsyn is no match for Tolstoy as an architect of epic narratives or a psychologist of the human mind…. Essentially, Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 is Tolstoy's "War" without the "Peace"—the historical novel minus the full rendering of the rhythms of social, familial, and private life….
The war, however, rates with the best of Tolstoy. Here Solzhenitsyn is in full control. The writing is masterful. He has caught the drama of history in the making, the compelling intricacies of military strategy, the excitement of armies of men on the move and their collision in battle, and skillfully interspersed his historical account with scenes of individuals caught in the maelstrom of war and displaying all the courage, cowardice, hope, despair, stupidity, and nobility that is part of being human. The irony is savage and again Tolstoyan. However, where Tolstoy's scorn was directed mostly at a foreigner—Napoleon—Solzhenitsyn's target is his fellow Russians….
Solzhenitsyn looks back to Tolstoy not only to emulate him but to do battle with him. For Tolstoy, history was an endless chain of cause and effect which did not allow participants the perspective to comprehend it, much less control its direction. Napoleon is the villain of War and Peace precisely because he has the presumption to believe he can impose rational order upon history; his Russian counterpart, Field Marshall Kutuzov, is perhaps the true hero, at least of the "War," because he possesses the humility to surrender himself to its ceaseless flow, to follow his instincts instead of the seductions of rationalism. In August 1914 Kutuzovism (or Tolstoyism) is a cardinal sin, and a distinctively Russian one….
[Though] Solzhenitsyn is unequivocally a nationalist and feels much love for his Russian people, there is not a shred of chauvinism in his make-up which would deserve an epithet like "Slavophile" or comparison to Dostoevsky. Indeed he consistently regards the German enemy with respect and even admiration.
Milton Ehre, in Chicago Review, Winter, 1973, pp. 153-57.
[Even] more than in War and Peace, the hero of August 1914 is history itself, or, more specifically, Russia, the Russia of this century expressed in, including, and subsuming the individuals of the narrative.
August 1914 seems above all intended to demonstrate the potentialities, the virtues—and the weaknesses—of a people seen on the eve of its descent into the wilderness. We find in it—and this seems essential to Solzhenitsyn's position, as it is to the position of all humanism in Russia—both the new Western liberal element and the old traditional Christian element of Russia facing their crisis before a truly successful amalgam had been attained. Both elements, as Solzhenitsyn has frequently demonstrated elsewhere, were to be crushed by the Communist regime, whose harsh and shallow ethos was a compound of a different kind, formed from the archaic brutality of Russia and the narrow intellectual-terrorist tradition of the West.
On a larger scale, what may be seen in the whole of Solzhenitsyn's work, concentrated out of the experience of millions of his compatriots, is an entirely new phenomenon—a liberalism of the catacombs. For this is the first time that, over a long historical period, modern humanist ideas which had already emerged in a national literature and an intelligentsia, have been crushed and repudiated. The difference in tone between Solzhenitsyn's attitudes and our own is not so much one of essence as a matter of the experience which he and his have faced and we and ours have not. On the one hand, he is harder, more hammered and tempered, than the writers of the West; on the other, his liberalism has been purged of illusion—the comfortable fat has been sweated off.
Robert Conquest, "Liberalism of the Catacombs" (reprinted by permission from Commentary; © 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, January, 1973, pp. 92-6.