Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) (Vol. 9)

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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) 1918–

Russian novelist, poet, short story writer, dramatist, and journalist, Solzhenitsyn has suffered constant attack for his detailed accounts of the Soviet prison camps and the degradation suffered by their innocent victims. Arrested for an unfavorable remark about Stalin and sentenced to eight years in a forced labor camp, he draws much of his material from personal experience. Themes of good versus evil, the value of life, and the maintenance of human dignity through inhuman conditions permeate Solzhenitsyn's novels. Though awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature and lauded for "the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensible traditions of Russian literature," many of his works have been barred from publication in Russia. With the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a document of Soviet systems of terror and political crimes, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, deprived of his citizenship, and expelled from Russia. He lives in exile in the United States, and continues to experiment with larger prose forms. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

August 1914 differs from Solzhenitsyn's previous writing in that it does not concern people and events having a direct connection with his own personal experiences, either in the army, or as a political prisoner or "permanent exile," or as a patient undergoing treatment for cancer. (p. 409)

Solzhenitsyn attempts some innovations in his method of presentation: he intersperses his account with an occasional montage of documents, official communiques, newspaper items and advertisements (often with satirical intent), as well as cinematographic sections, e.g., a scenario of death and destruction during the Russian retreat. However, these are innovations only for Solzhenitsyn, since the technique in fact seems to be borrowed from Dos Passos, who has long been very popular in Russia. Parts of Solzhenitsyn's novel are reminiscent of Dos Passos's 1919….

Inevitably, comparisons have been, and will be, drawn between August 1914 and Tolstoy's War and Peace. Such comparisons seem rather unrewarding, at least as far as one can judge from the first part of Solzhenitsyn's novel, in which the emphasis is on war rather than peace. Solzhenitsyn makes little effort to employ contrasting scenes of war and peace as a structural element and furthermore, his "message" that the Russians could have won the battle with better officers and more efficient communications and logistical support is hardly Tolstoyan. Tolstoy's presence is felt in the novel, indeed quite literally, since he occurs as a character at the beginning of the novel, but Tolstoyanism is viewed negatively or at least as inadequate. (p. 410)

The tone and orientation of Solzhenitsyn's novel will please some and irritate others, but what of the book as literature? Setting aside politics and philosophy, one must admit that the detailed scenes of battle and military maneuvers sometimes become quite monotonous. Although he is not portraying events in which he personally took part and although his subject has no direct connection with the Soviet experience, it is clear that once again he feels compelled to set the record straight, to tell the story the way it really happened and to counteract the official version of events. The result is that sometimes the polemical intent obtrudes or the novel slides over into a narrative method that is closer to documentary than fiction….

A tentative evaluation based on a first reading of [August, 1914] would be that it towers above the sort of trash that usually comes out of the Soviet Union, but it may not seem quite so exciting to readers familiar with the major writers of the twentieth century in Western Europe and America. (p. 411)

J. G. Garrard, "Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 'August 1914'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1972 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 46, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 409-11.

[It] becomes increasingly difficult to pin...

(The entire section is 4,495 words.)