Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2829
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) 1918–
A Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist, Solzhenitsyn is best known for The Cancer Ward and The First Circle. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
Cancer Ward was written for Russians, not for foreigners. It offers no revelations about the dark aspects of life in the Soviet Union. We know about these. The revelations are of a different kind: they concern the way in which the human spirit survives the most fearful pressures, even though its full expression may be severely crippled and distorted. To Russians it offers encouragement. We also have our pressures.
There is nothing startling about Solzhenitsyn's method. It is episodic and realistic. It works because he writes about real people in real situations with as near to perfect honesty as anyone but a totally possessed genius is likely to achieve. Or perhaps with perfect honesty. Because when he falls into sentimentality, as he sometimes does, this is only the honest expression of a sentimental streak in him; he is very hard, but he lacks the absolute hardness of the earthshaking artist, just as he lacks the technical equipment of the supremely great novelist. But he is splendid all the same, and his qualities triumph over a poor translation.
Edward Crankshaw, "Truth Will Out," in The Observer, September 29, 1968, p. 26.
Solzhenitsyn's novel [The First Circle] is—like the novels of Tolstoy—lateral and cumulative in its effect, formed from a series of interlocking portraits, of separate arrested fates. These may be ultimately exemplary, but none of the characters exists simply to show or prove something. The emphasis throughout is on what the author calls at one point "the whole astounding world of an individual human being."
Donald Fanger, "Solzhenitsyn: Ring of Truth," in Nation, October 7, 1968, p. 341.
[One Day] and [The First Circle] … achieve what Camus deemed impossible: they compel the human imagination to participate in the agony and murder of millions that have been the distinguishing feature of our age. Such a task could only have been accomplished by literature, performing here what may be, after the historical cataclysm of Stalinism and Nazism, its highest cathartic function.
Patricia Blake, "A Diseased Body Politic" (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), in New York Times Book Review, October 27, 1968, p. 2.
Solzhenitsyn is a militantly civic-minded writer in the tradition of Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and his three novels together with his several shorter works constitute the best literary portrait to date of some two decades of Soviet history, from World War II up to the first years of the post-Stalin era.
Solzhenitsyn's writings published thus far follow a distinct historical and sociological pattern. The novella "It Happened at the Railroad Station Krechetovka" is set during the war and depicts a miscarriage of justice. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich describes a Stalinist concentration camp during the first postwar years. The First Circle takes place in approximately the same period, but in a milieu which, like the analogous circle in Dante's Inferno, is neither paradise nor hell but a permanent state of semidamnation…. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the greatest living Russian writer, and The Cancer Ward is his best work to date.
Maurice Friedberg, "Gallery of Comrades Embattled Abed," in Saturday Review, November 8, 1968, p. 42.
To think of The First Circle solely in terms of documentation … would be to ignore its qualities as a novel. It is a complex work with a very large number of characters, of whom the publishers very usefully provide an index at the front of the book….
The theme of the book is the Stoic philosophy which, in Solzhenitsyn's view, men must acquire if they are to exist in such conditions. It is, if you like, an illustration of that Marxist concept of development by negation. Deprive a man of everything and he becomes spiritually free and fearless.
Stuart Hood, "The Fifty-Eighters," in Listener, November 14, 1968, p. 647.
Solzhenitsyn's writing reveals a grim humour, but this is—like Dostoievsky's Devils and in contrast to the quieter Ivan Denisovich, which had been passed by Soviet censorship—essentially a white-hot indictment of evil. The subject merits nothing less than the controlled venom of this superb artist.
Ronald Hingley, "The Evil That Men Do" (© 1968 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), in Spectator, November 15, 1968.
Solzhenitsyn's truth is couched in his mastery of language and his profound ethical concerns, expressing the positive, "old-time" values by which, as if in answer to Tolstoy's title, men live. In a corrupt country where each man with political power is a moral pervert, like Pavel Rusanov the party bureaucrat, Solzhenitsyn's prose [in The Cancer Ward] must threaten some people more than the knife of Lev Leonidovich, the head surgeon. In opposing to the venalities of Russian life the dignities of service, love, fidelity and integrity—values so abused that no calling can seem higher than the effort to realize them in one's daily life—Solzhenitsyn is speaking for millions of Russians and cannot be separated from them….
I have great respect for Solzhenitsyn's ability to construct a mood and to flesh out a character in a carefully composed style very much like Tolstoy. (One might interestingly compare characterization and dramatic structure in The First Circle and War and Peace.) Solzhenitsyn has a heavy, moral heart and a sure, esthetic hand. Like Tolstoy, he defines his figures by idiosyncrasies, and he builds his themes by weaving the details of their features into patterns. Rusanov, the archetypal petty bureaucrat of The Cancer Ward, who characteristically reads the newspaper "to keep up with the news"—that is, with decisions made by men like himself—reads the real news that the Supreme Court has been dismissed and Malenkov has resigned. The collapse of the government, like the return of political prisoners he once denounced, threatens to bring down Rusanov's house of cards. He has blundered into this mess, as he blundered into cancer. "There is no end to the cure for cancer," and there is no answer to the question, "Why was fate so unjust?"
The novel is framed by two parables about its dominant symbol, Man, the Monkey, who for his first 25 years lives like a man, for the next 25 years like a horse, for the third 25 is laughed at like a monkey. Animal imagery fills the book, from birds and bees to household pets and love of animals in general….
Old-fashioned or not, Solzhenitsyn's work sets a contemporary classic standard. Every Russian writer must feel the challenge: given Solzhenitsyn, now what? When the answers come in, we will see not only what the Master and his men have painted together, but also how many varied artists began their careers in that studio.
F. D. Reeves, "A Disease That Erodes What Is Human," in Book World, November 24, 1968.
[Solzhenitsyn] is a "nonperson," and therefore no mention of the "great heretic" is allowed. It is common knowledge that books containing only a few neutral lines on Solzhenitsyn are denied publication, and essays that quote from his works are killed by the censors. His life has been made very difficult, and he cannot earn any money from his writings.
The man whom a well-known Soviet poet hailed as "our only living Russian classic" is reduced to a pariah's existence. Solzhenitsyn and his friends fear that the "toughs" and special militiamen ("druzhinniki") of the Riazan region where he lives might be aroused against "the enemy of the people" by mendacious propaganda and attempt to assault him bodily. He is therefore compelled to conceal his movements and hide himself like a criminal.
Marc Slonim, in New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 15, 1968, p. 20.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a simple, stark piece of reporting of the horror and degradation of the labor camps, but it also makes one understand Russian submissiveness and the pervading concern with guilt. The title phrase, "one day," is a clue to the immediacy, and the importance given to ennui in the Russian tradition: the Russian novelist does not move by plot but by what brims over in the hours of the day, and in those hours the familiar Russian dream of a future stirs or agonizes. In the future we may, conceivably, free ourselves of fate.
Solzhenitsyn's next novel, The Cancer Ward, was much more ambitious. The autobiographical element is strong. His own story is that in 1945 as a twenty-six-year-old Captain of Artillery in East Prussia, with a university degree in mathematics and physics, he was sentenced to eight years of forced labor, for making derogatory remarks about Stalin. He was not freed until 1956….
In … The First Circle, he is quietly in command of powers that were scattered and now, like the great novelists, can control a beautifully orchestrated theme.
The idea is taken from Dante. The first circle of Hell in Dante is the fate of the pre-Christian philosophers who are doomed to live there for eternity, and it is represented by the Mavrino Institute for scientific research on the outskirts of Moscow. The year is 1949, Stalin is aging and becoming more ruthless. The Institute is staffed by scientists, engineers, and academicians who have been taken out of the labor camps to do technical work under conditions only slightly less awful than the brutal conditions of the camps…. They know they are there for eternity. With them under the efficient police system work a number of free workers from outside who go home at night and who act, together with some of the prisoners themselves, as informers. Eternal damnation could not be more certain. If their particular usefulness comes to an end, the prisoners will be returned to the savage camps and die at last in the prison hospital. It is exactly like the system applied to foreign workers by the Nazis during the war: feed them little, exhaust their brains, and let them die.
But eternal damnation is a kind of freedom, just as having cancer is. The prisoners of Mavrino have adapted themselves to their fate….
The density of Solzhenitsyn's texture owes everything to the ingenious interlocking of incidents that are really short stories. This is the form in which he excels. His philosophical and political debates are always in this lively and purposive story form. He never fails to move forward. And the stories build up the central idea. The later tendentious Tolstoy is an obvious influence, more marked than Dostoevsky's in The House of the Dead.
V. S. Pritchett, "Hell on Earth" (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1968 by NYREV, Inc.), in New York Review of Books, December 19, 1968.
Solzhenitsyn is an optimist, a temperament that has always assumed loneliness, suffering and exile to be natural features of this conditional world, but [one] that is not so cast down by that assumption as to think that evil cannot be mitigated by courage and love. Pessimists are persons who have promised themselves paradise on earth, and feel hopelessly dashed by the peripeties of real life. The optimists are the realists: Solzhenitsyn gives a sad resolution to his novel [The Cancer Ward].
Emile Capouya, "Solzhenitsyn: Optimist and Realist," in Nation, January 6, 1969, pp. 20-1.
The second part of Alexander [sic] Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward is as powerful an achievement as the first and confirms that this is a major work. Anyone looking for political implications could find them still in the image of the cancer hospital as the microcosm of a diseased society, but this remains primarily an imaginative study of individuals; their struggle is not simply with the disease but with the pain of being alive. Set anywhere on earth and stripped of all political reference, Cancer Ward would still be a masterpiece….
Even at its most depressing Cancer Ward is amazingly readable and moving. Never for a moment is there the feeling of medical voyeurism in the descriptions of hideous tumours and equally hideous treatments, because the disease is the ultimate truth with which each has to reckon.
Janice Elliott, in New Statesman, February 28, 1969, p. 302.
[Solzhenitsyn] is less the social scientist than the moralist, less moralist than man of sentiment. His first concern with large social forces is their impact upon individual life. His memory seems crowded with idiosyncratic beings, whose experiences have in common only their final effects—of pity and admiration.
The crude hardships of his own life may account for Solzhenitsyn's distance from elaborate Western ambiguities. He retains a moral conventionality to which, of course, we are still accustomed in reality, but no longer in fiction. We have come to expect reversals of traditional judgment in the novel, and feel disconcerted, if anything, when a writer does not discover one or another subtle exception to former rules. Solzhenitsyn seems not to have the leisure for exceptions. It is not that his judgments are necessarily hurried or that they are harsh. They seem harsh, and therefore unsubtle, only in the Stalin chapter of The First Circle, and in some, not all, references to the officious patient Rusanov in Cancer Ward. Generally, though, the hatred of those who inflict pain is subordinate to the description of those who bear pain….
A youthful purity pervades all that Solzhenitsyn's characters grieve for the loss of, or long for again: friends, homes, work without harassment, wives or husbands, fat floating on soup. There is perhaps no knowing why, but they do not desire their sisters or half-sisters, and even in the prison of The First Circle there appears to be no homosexuality. (Can this be true?) Yet, in turn, even for his modest wants, there is again and again a limit to what the character will do to attain them. An entire life passed in what we consider intolerable subjection to the state furnishes a "liberal" conviction: that it is impossible ever utterly to destroy the individual human capacity for good….
Solzhenitsyn is saved by an almost workaday genius, a tractor-like clinging to the ground. He has a patience with the infinite mundaneness of experience, a retention of all ordinary, spoken words, and a delicate affinity (for all his occasional crudeness) with the small physical fact.
Mary Ellmann, in Yale Review (© 1969 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1969, pp. 119-21.
Russia, finally, is Solzhenitsyn's subject [in A Play by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn]. It is often assumed, in some simple-minded way, that Russia is a nation that fell into the hands of a few evil men drugged with ideology, or that its people had some insatiable appetite for being ruled by ogres. Neither is true. Russia was largely untouched by the twin lights of the Reformation and Renaissance. But just as the blind are known to develop extraordinary capacities in their other senses, so Russia has been similarly graced. Decade after decade, her greatest writers form an apostolic succession of the alerted conscience. They have burned with the flame of truth, justice and probity. No state-ordained trial or torment that may lie ahead for Alexander [sic] Solzhenitsyn will beat a lie out of him, for there are no lies in him. He is the conscience of Russia and of man.
T. E. Kalem, "The Invisible Nation" (reprinted by permission of Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © Time, Inc., 1970), in Time, November 2, 1970, p. 77.
Solzhenitsyn locates true wisdom in tradition. For him tradition is the very principle of existence. Break it or use reason without due respect for it, as revolutionaries suggest, and life crumbles to dust. Solzhenitsyn's respect for tradition is so vital that it justifies the much reviled institution of monarchy. The last Russian emperor may have been an insignificant individual, responsible for many mistakes, but he was the embodiment of tradition. Through the mouth of one of his characters, Solzhenitsyn accuses the Russian educated classes, the nobility, the gentry, the senior army officers of not having been monarchist enough….
It is more usual for Russian than Western writers and thinkers to express their ideas not in works of abstract thought, but in novels in which the author addresses his readers indirectly through the medium of the situations he describes and of the characters he puts up to speak for him and argue with him. This has impoverished Russian philosophical literature and enriched the Russian novel.
Solzhenitsyn follows this tradition, of which Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky before him were, perhaps, the greatest exponents. However, to readers in the West August '14, when it comes to be translated, may be a disappointment. Solzhenitsyn's ideas will necessarily make a much weaker impact on them than on Russians in the USSR. Besides, they may find the ideas too much diluted in 600 pages of not always essential facts concerning troop movements in the Pripet Marshes. They may ascribe their disappointment to Solzhenitsyn's failure adequately to generalize the particular and to give many of his details the universal significance which alone could justify their inclusion. What they will admire is the courage that made the writing and publication of this book possible at all.
Kyril Fitzlyon, in London Magazine, December, 1971–January, 1972, pp. 139-43.