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...
(The entire section contains 2829 words.)
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