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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) 1918–
Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist and playwright of awesome erudition. His themes are in the great Russian literary tradition rooted in nineteenth-century naturalism and his novels, taken together, form a loving and deeply concerned examination of troubled Russia. (See also Contemporary Authors , Vols....
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- Critical Essays
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) 1918–
Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist and playwright of awesome erudition. His themes are in the great Russian literary tradition rooted in nineteenth-century naturalism and his novels, taken together, form a loving and deeply concerned examination of troubled Russia. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
When advance reviews of [The First Circle] compared Solzhenitsyn's talent with that of Tolstoy, people who had nothing but "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" to go on raised their eyebrows more than a little. The eyebrows will still be up after the skeptics read [The First Circle], but they will be raised in admiration and wonder. This is very clearly a great book, perhaps the finest novel to come out of Europe and America since the 1930's. Solzhenitsyn may not yet be Tolstoy's equal, but in one sense Tolstoy was not Solzhenitsyn's: Tolstoy did not spend eleven years in a Stalinist prison camp. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came out of the camp with his health ruined, but his genius was unimpaired; prison indeed sharpened his talents, as it frequently has for the great Russian writers (one thinks immediately of Dostoevsky, who learned to write in Siberian exile). All of Solzhenitsyn's books … deal with prison and prisoners. Is he then a writer of limited range? The point of his novels is that twentieth-century existence involves only jailer and prisoner.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Winter, 1969), p. xv.
[The First Circle] is, I think, a very great book, which itself verifies the truth which it tries to convey, in the same way that the greatest novels of the past, of Stendhal, or Dickens, of Balzac, or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, are the evidence of their own truth, and perhaps for this reason in reading Solzhenitsyn it is to such models that one's mind instinctively recurs.
Why is it then that it is the book which comes out of the land of tyranny which conveys a message, not of despair, but hope, and not of hatred, but love, more vividly, I think, than anything I have read recently in the literature of the West? And how is it that one man, with one book, seems to be able to tell us more about his own society, from which he is an outcast, than any number of probes can tell us about our own society, which we are so much better equipped to understand, so much so indeed that it seems more vivid and real to us than our own? Even more, why is it that such a book and such a writer, the products of such terrible circumstances, should convey to us the sense of human freedom, of the infinite capacities and potentialities of human beings, more vividly than any Western writer has been able to do in recent years?
I do not know the answer to these questions, and indeed there is a kind of paradox in them which I myself do not wholly understand. It would be easy to say that it is the quality of genius to produce such effects, but I do not think it is a sufficient answer, nor would it explain why it is precisely Russia which has produced this particular kind of genius. Again, it would be easy to argue that it is precisely the immensity of Russia's experience of suffering, and Solzhenitsyn's own share in it, which has made him into the writer he is; and no doubt this would partly be true, but again it does not explain why it is the sense, not so much of suffering in itself, but of the power to comprehend and transcend it, which suffuses The First Circle, so that in some extraordinary way it is possible, in spite of its almost unrelieved picture of oppression, hypocrisy and brutality, to speak of it as an optimistic book, in a sense which it would be impossible to apply to any writer of comparable literary stature to Solzhenitsyn's in the West today.
Indeed, one could say with every confidence that it would be quite impossible for any Western novelist to write such a book today; not so much because of the particular experiences and environment which it embodies, but because of the intellectual and spiritual standards by which they are judged. For despite all his imagination, his capacity for sympathy and understanding, Solzhenitsyn retains the faculty of judgment and that is not a quality which we any longer look to literature for in the West today. Moreover, though he writes of experiences which to us are infinitely unfamiliar except by hearsay, we instinctively trust his judgment because it is based on standards which are universally acceptable and intelligible, and are such indeed as any ordinary man might understand. He writes indeed as a human being might write if he also possessed the highest degree of literary talent, and this also is something which for many years now we have been unaccustomed to meet in the West. One reason for this, I think, is the obsessive attention which Western writers have devoted to those aspects of human life which find their most complete expression in PAD ["Pill, Abortion, Drugs," made into an acronym by the columnist, R, as "a useful abbreviation for the Society as a whole"]. They form, for the West, that First Circle of Hell which is the subject of Solzhenitsyn's book; but it is an even narrower and more constricting circle and I think it could be shown that by definition the Western version excludes the kind of qualities which make Solzhenitsyn so remarkable a writer.
R, in Encounter, May, 1970, p. 48.
The sober, documentary tone of the style employed in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the swift brushstrokes of characterization, shrewd but not—with the exception of Ivan Denisovich himself—in depth, the fleeting descriptions and functional dialogue are all part of an endeavor to maintain a quiet voice in the book. There is a deliberate refusal of sensationalism, of the desire to shock: Solzhenitsyn never stoops to melodrama; he never exaggerates; he never pushes the horrors of the camps to their bitter end. In fact, he deliberately chooses a relatively good day in Ivan Denisovich's life in the camp: "A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day." Precisely in that refusal to go beyond the daily mundane facts is the novel's great power; by carefully sticking to those facts, by his macabre humor, by his irony and understated sense of horror, Solzhenitsyn gives an even greater reality to the cruelty of the camps, to the systematic criminality of the Soviet penal system, than a shriller voice and an emphasis on the killing, the suicides, the self-mutilation, the torture would have given.
But just as there is power in so defining and confining his indignation, so too there is limitation. In restricting himself to a documentary tone, in limiting himself to a first-person account through the eyes of a kolkhoz peasant of great guile but of limited knowledge and sophistication, Solzhenitsyn deliberately narrows the scope of the novel. In limiting himself to Ivan Denisovich's sensibility, the novelist willingly sacrificed a more profound point of view for the symbolic creation of an innocent Ivan. Shukhov is perhaps the Russian peasant at his best, the epitome of the simple and decent countryman, hardworking and skillful with his hands, shrewd, with common sense, ignorant though cunning when necessary, but neither vicious nor violent, a man responsible and compassionate, who automatically detests the Soviet method of "one man works, one man watches," and who would, as he remarks of Alyosha and the Baptists, help another man if that man asked him for help. If there is in Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Shukhov some of the old Populist hope for the peasant as the regenerating factor in Russian life, there is nothing of sentimentality about the peasant: he knows peasants too well, and Denisovich is therefore neither an ideal hero nor what orthodox Soviet critics like to call a "positive hero." There is in Shukhov the peasant deference, the peasant superstition, the peasant ignorance, the peasant's passive resistance. For Ivan, as perhaps for most of Russia's citizens, the problem is how to get through a single day, each day, one day—and hence the aptness of the title…. For more intelligent and complex personalities such as Tsezar or Buinovsky or Prisoner X 123, it is not enough merely to survive the day, or even to seize it; they must make sense of their experiences, understand the relationships between ends and means, cause and effect, they must integrate the one day with the many, with the years and the "current of history," see some pattern or meaning in what is happening to them, to their country, and to the world. Out of all these things they must seek to answer the most important of the "accursed questions" that have plagued Russian writers: how is one to live and how is life to be organized.
In confining himself to Ivan Denisovich's skull, in the careful hewing to fact in dealing with the holocaust of Stalinist terror, purge, and concentration camp, Solzhenitsyn opposes the tendency to falsify, inflate, and distort reality either by "lacquering" or by the overblown rhetoric so endemic in officially approved Soviet writing. In speaking of the unspeakable, Solzhenitsyn is saying, one must show an ascetic restraint in choosing one's words. Yet both these strengths are also limitations, for they prevent the book from rising, from transcending the boundaries of the specifically Soviet experience to a general experience; in brief, the camp is a metaphor for Russian life but not quite for most of human life elsewhere.
Abraham Rothberg, "One Day—Four Decades: Solzhenitsyn's Hold on Reality," in Southwest Review, Spring, 1971, pp. 109-24.
Not since the days of Tolstoy has Russian letters produced a novelist of the stature of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The early promise of his "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" has been more than fulfilled in his "Cancer Ward" and "The First Circle…." [Stories and Prose Poems], a collection of six short stories and what the editors term "prose poems," should continue to enhance the reputation for literary excellence which Solzhenitsyn enjoys in the West. Contrary to the assertions of the Soviet government and the Soviet Writers' Union, there is little in many of these stories that could be called "political" or even "anti-Soviet." They are, rather, rich in the kind of characterization and plot for which the Russian literary masters of the nineteenth century were famous: The short stories, "Matryona's House" and "Sakhar-the-Pouch" are particularly memorable from this standpoint and from the standpoint of an evocative prose style not often achieved in Soviet literature. In fact, they are comparable to the stories of Tolstoy at his prime in the depth and complexity of character, plot and theme development.
Equally striking is Solzhenitsyn's remarkable similarity to Tolstoy in his naturalistic religion and love of peasant value….
Less complex, less well plotted and less well written overall are the stories with obvious political overtones. Not even a writer of Solzhenitsyn's stature can help but stumble over basically awkward themes. Into this category, unfortunately, must fall "For the Good of the Cause"—the longest of the stories in this collection and the only one which has been published by itself in another format—and "The Right Hand" where the author's commentaries on the corruption, selfishness, and pettiness of the bureaucracy of a hospital get the best of his native ability and degenerate into something of a polemic at the end.
Finally, the prose poems present in clear detail the true depth of Solzhenitsyn's genius. Without claiming for him the invention of an entirely new genre, suffice it to say that, by their brevity (running to an average of 35 to 40 lines), Solzhenitsyn is able to bring to bear in a concentrated form the full power of his evocative prose on a variety of subjects while setting an example that few Western writers could emulate.
George E. Snow, in Best Sellers, October 1, 1971, p. 305.
While following in his own incomparable way the naturalistic traditions in the description of the way of life in the concentration camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn also knows how to compel us to see that the soul of his unsophisticated hero lives not by bread alone. Apart from the tremendously vital stamina of Ivan Denisovich and his good-natured, peasant cunning, we feel in him a man of goodwill whose spirit is not filled with bitterness, despite the crying injustice of his punishment and despite, too, the inhuman conditions of life in the so-called corrective labor camp. On the contrary, his soul is radiated by his belief in humanity, by the ease with which he establishes human contacts….
Solzhenitsyn's best works really do convey the impression of being literary miracles, achieved through a rare combination of naturalness, deep insights, and incomparability of artistic talent—talent denied in a tone of aggressive hypocrisy by those in power in the Soviet Union. Indeed, the phenomenon of Solzhenitsyn is not only a literary miracle but also a spiritual miracle.
The ethical element appears in an especially dramatic way in two main novels by Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward and The First Circle. The ethical aspect of these novels can be considered under three headings: Solzhenitsyn's exposition of the negative ethical essence of some of his heroes, his skill in detecting the sparks of goodness even in the souls of his negative (though not hopelessly so) heroes, and his ethical views, expressed when the author speaks through his positive heroes or in the form of author's remarks….
[Without] a single word of the external condemnation of a tyrant, Solzhenitsyn makes us feel the inner nemesis of the mania of total power. This nemesis is the absolute solitude, aggravated by the inner foreboding of a close, inevitable end. Men who commit evil deeds but whose conscience is still alive usually feel remorse. No trace of this is to be found in Stalin, however, as presented through the magic prism of Solzhenitsyn's art. There is not a trace of the prick of conscience, because leaders like Hitler and Stalin are full of the evil will with which they identify themselves. They strangle their own conscience. Indeed, how could they feel any pricks of an already dead conscience?
It is claimed that the essence of The First Circle lies in the unmasking of the evils of Stalinism. This claim is, of course, true, but to see this as the central meaning of the novel would mean a gross politicizing of Solzhenitsyn's creativity. The very idea of The First Circle does indeed have an intrinsically political aspect, but Solzhenitsyn is primarily concerned with denouncing the spiritual evil of Stalinism: the lives mutilated by a regime of terror, the bleeding wounds of human souls—in short, the external triumph of evil….
On the basis of … the overall impression of Solzhenitsyn's creativity, there can be no doubt about the presence of a deep ethical pathos in the writer and that his moral intuition borders on ethical clairvoyance. In our time it is often the fashion to discredit moral values, and the very word "morality" is often placed in quotation marks. Against this negative background, it is to Solzhenitsyn's great merit that, by his literary works, in which he so boldly denounces an externally triumphant immorality, he has contributed greatly to the rehabilitation of ethics. There is a deep and urgent need for this rehabilitation today. Solzhenitsyn reminds his readers of that which makes men human: of their ethical essence, of the Eternal in man.
Sergei Levitzky, in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 207-14.
The text of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Lecture, released recently in Stockholm, may eventually prove to be as much a key to understanding this controversial writer as a knowledge of My Confession and the essay "What is the basis of my faith?" is essential to appreciate Tolstoy's moral stance. Solzhenitsyn's lecture, constructed around his unerringly ruthless logic, states explicitly what has been becoming increasingly clear to those who have been following the course of his career. He is a man with a crusading sense of mission and he is not shy of confronting his own government or the whole world in the pursuance of his ideals.
Solzhenitsyn has been termed "a nineteenth-century man", with some justice. To Western eyes there is, indeed, an ingenuousness about Solzhenitsyn's didactic, patriarchal announcements which may cloud the basic truth underpinning them. The West has come to distrust the twentieth-century crusader, whether he is a Joseph McCarthy or a Che Guevara, a Jean-Paul Sartre or a Norman Mailer….
[Solzhenitsyn's] conviction that art is the supreme achievement of mankind and the vehicle of truth places him firmly in the mould of the old pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia. It also demonstrates yet again his affinity with another Russian writer-scientist, Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose view of socio-political entropy Solzhenitsyn appears to share. "Genuine literature can only be created by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, troublemakers and sceptics", wrote Zamyatin in 1921.
"Russia's Conscience," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), September 22, 1972, p. 1086.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "August 1914" is the first part of a major work of historical reconstruction and judgment that, according to Solzhenitsyn, may take twenty years to complete. This fact makes it difficult to pass definitive judgments on the author's position regarding many of the issues raised, at least implicitly, by the book. This difficulty is increased by Solzhenitsyn's attempt to combine fictional and historical modes of presentation. However, the core of "August 1914" consists of a heavily detailed semi-fictional analysis of the modes and causes of Russian defeat and German victory in the East Prussian campaign of August, 1914, which centers around the rousing, suspense-filled story of the remarkable exploits at the front of a Colonel Vorotyntsev, a General Staff officer. Vorotyntsev clearly belongs to the category termed by the late Edmund Wilson that of "Solzhenitsyn-figure"; his rôle corresponds to that of Kostoglotov in "The Cancer Ward" and Nerzhin in "The First Circle." Vorotyntsev, on a mission dreamed up by himself, but sanctioned by the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian armed forces, Grand Duke Nicholas, finds himself witnessing and in some instances participating in, all of the major episodes involved in the encirclement and virtual annihilation of the Russian Second Army, commanded by General Samsonov, whose well-intentioned ineptitude, ill-treatment at the hands of his superiors, especially the fatuous General Zhilinsky, and suicide in the depths of the Grünfliess forest, seem to symbolize, to Solzhenitsyn, the doom awaiting the military forces of a backward Tsarist Russia in their combat against a modernized, skillfully led German military machine….
By its very nature as a reconstruction of events that, to the Western reader at least, are well known or easily accessible, "August 1914" lacks the elements of surprise and revelation to be found in "The Cancer Ward" and "The First Circle." It is, nevertheless, an interesting, illuminating, and provocative work. This story, told in an often didactic and polemical fashion, and in a tone of high moral indignation, but also with considerable objectivity and fairness, will force many readers to reflect on the complexity and contradictoriness of history….
Ironically, in view of the continued, even intensified persecution and vilification to which Solzhenitsyn has been subjected by the Soviet authorities, since the appearance in the West of "August 1914," the novel contains much that helps us to understand why the Bolsheviks were determined to make Soviet Russia so strong, economically and militarily, that it would never again suffer the defeats listed by Stalin in his famous speech to industrial executives in 1931, and why in his 1946 "pre-election" speech Stalin demanded a program of preparedness for "all eventualities." In view of this, one is inclined to some puzzlement that the Soviet press and high Soviet spokesmen have so scathingly criticized "August 1914."
However, despite some overlap between Solzhenitsyn's attitude toward the tsarist régime and that of the Soviet leadership, it is not very surprising that "August 1914" is criticized and its author vilified. As far as the régime is concerned, it is intolerably presumptuous of Solzhenitsyn to boldly and independently express an individual, personal point of view. The leadership's quarrel with Solzhenitsyn and a few other bold spirits has always revolved around this issue of private conscience versus official formulas. To be more specific, the régime finds objectionable Solzhenitsyn's failure to engage in standard propaganda denunciations of German—and British and French—"imperialism," to record in detail the vogue for American, British, and German gadgets and wares prevalent in 1914 Russia, and of course it is irked by his unsympathetic, even slightly contemptuous treatment of revolutionaries….
Still, we can rejoice that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, working under incredibly difficult conditions, has produced an instructive work of historical imagination from which open-minded readers everywhere can derive much wisdom and understanding.
Frederick C. Barghoorn, "An Instructive Work of Historical Imagination," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), pp. 316-20.
Despite the stir in the intellectual community over [August 1914], it is not a good place for a newcomer to Solzhenitsyn to start. It is the first of his novels not to be based on his personal experiences. Instead, it is a monumental effort to reconstruct a specific moment in Russian history, a subject unfamiliar to most Americans. A great effort at historical research went into the making of this book, and Solzhenitsyn has complained that he was forbidden access to vital archival materials….
Nevertheless, August 1914 displays a continuity with the rest of the Solzhenitsyn corpus. Its slow beginning and heavy pace are not dissimilar to those of The First Circle and Cancer Ward. It also shares with them a large cast of characters and a compact time span. At least as measured by our usual expectations, plotting has never been a strong point with Solzhenitsyn. Rather, he offers something like a painting, the depiction of a social panorama. His humanist themes of individualism and freedom are consistent throughout his work, a testimony to the coherence of his world view. If his career is ever divided into periods by the literary historians, it will not be on the basis of major shifts in his thinking about life….
Several major themes thread their ways through the novel. Of these, the primary one is Solzhenitsyn's concern for truth. The novel concludes with the epigram, "Untruth did not begin with us; nor will it end with us." The truth which he is after in particular in this novel is the truth of history and its meaning. But one cannot speculate on the meaning without first having the facts at his disposal; thus the importance of the details of his historical reconstruction, even if at the expense of boring some of his readers….
Another theme of the novel, which is congruent with the author's other writings, is the nobility of the individual. This theme is enunciated by one of his minor figures, Varsonofiev—and Solzhenitsyn includes a series of minor figures to speak his mind and to place his interpretation upon events….
Another major theme of August 1914 is one's responsibility toward his fellows. The great example of this is Colonel Vorotyntsev, one of the two sympathetic major characters and the closest thing to an authorial alter ego in this novel…. If there is one watershed issue, one separator of sheep from goats, in this novel, it is just this. Who will help his brothers? Those who do not are the villains. Those who do are the heroes.
It is precisely at this point that Solzhenitsyn chiefly takes issue with Tolstoy (who appears briefly as a character in the book). Running throughout the novel is a love-hate relationship with the author of War and Peace, and in important ways August 1914 can be seen as his version of the subject and even his rebuttal of his master. On this crucial issue Tolstoy avers that men do not control their own destinies, do not make history, but rather that impersonal forces of history rule the fates of men. For all his love of Tolstoy the writer, Solzhenitsyn feels compelled to draw a sharp line of distinction from him here, and Vorotyntsev is his answer.
The final theme which we will consider is the one embodied in Solzhenitsyn's other hero, General Samsonov: the theme of tragedy. And here we come to a theme which transcends anything which has appeared in the earlier fiction of Solzhenitsyn. In the novels rooted in his autobiography, he presented a vivid picture of suffering, but it was always undeserved suffering inflicted upon innocents by totalitarian oppressors. The books were protests against that oppression. Now we come to something different and more elemental. In Samsonov we have a character who approximates the tragic heroes of the Western literary tradition, a man who suffers and dies and whose tragic end grows in large measure out of his own failures, yet a man who retains his dignity and integrity to the end. The meaning of the tragic events escapes him, but he dies affirming the will of God….
What we have, then, in this novel is the expression of a man who is profoundly anti-collectivist, anti-determinist, anti-utopian, anti-revolutionary, and even anti-liberal, but who is equally adamantly pro-individual, pro-patriotism, pro-nationalism, pro-history, pro-tradition, pro-religion. So far Solzhenitsyn, as a dissenter against totalitarianism, has received an almost uniformly good press from American liberals. Yet with each passing work and pronouncement of his, it becomes increasingly clear that he is at odds with them. So it should not come as a surprise, the virus of ideology being as strong as it is today, that eventually some liberals would begin to express some hesitancy about and even reaction against him.
Edward E. Ericson, Jr., "Solzhenitsyn and the Truth of History," in Intercollegiate Review, Spring, 1973, pp. 177-82.
Most reviewers of August 1914 have stressed the fact that it is but the 'initial presentation' of a much longer work which Solzhenitsyn thinks may well take him twenty years, so that therefore judgment must be deferred. Yet in all fairness, it is hard to imagine how the multitude of pages to come can redeem large swatches of the book to hand. At least I do not know any other novel which strings out its endless list of characters to quite this extent, introducing new ones after three or four hundred pages have already elapsed. Somehow, we trust, all this will eventually come clear; yet the strain on even the willing reader is finally intolerable—one simply groans when, for example, Chapter 43 begins, "Terenty Chernega hardly remembered his father; he was brought up by his stepmother …" etc. Much of the time we barely remember a character whom we may have met ten chapters previously—or did we?
For Solzhenitsyn is a monotonous writer with little variation in the tone used to treat all subjects. Compared to War and Peace, and I am not sure the comparison deserves to be made in spite of Solzhenitsyn's overt concern with Tolstoy, there is a flatness and sameness about the experience of August 1914. Much of the military action in Tolstoy's book takes place either after we thoroughly know some of the characters involved, or is meditated on through the comforting presence of Kutuzov. With Solzhentisyn the word is gravity, gravity, more gravity, no matter whose character's experience is supposed to be at the center of things….
On the credit side there are good portraits of the heroic General Samsonov who nobly pays the full price for his and others' mistakes; of Colonel Vorotyntsev who lives through the battle and comes back to try and make truth known; of the Ferapontych family who come on early in the book, then disappear, no doubt to be seen again later; and of the student Sanya whom the opening chapters introduce, whose hero is Tolstoy, and who is later shown (in a finely-rendered scene) with a fellow student taking leave of Moscow in preparation for their army life. On the debit side, a number of "camera eye" and newspaper headline inserts … provide a kind of warmed-over Dos Passos atmosphere. Yet it must be said that Solzhenitsyn admits in his foreword to the difficulty of "retelling history" and asks with future volumes in mind for the "cooperation of readers who still remember the period." Perhaps then in view of this admirable man's enormous labors, it does not greatly matter that my own activity as a reader of fiction is severely limited.
William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 225-27.
I daresay as an expression of one man's indomitable spirit in a tyrannous society we must honor [Solzhenitsyn]. Fortunately the Nobel Prize is designed for just such a purpose. Certainly it is seldom bestowed for literary merit….
Solzhenitsyn is rooted most ambitiously in literature as well as in films. Tolstoy appears on page three [of August 1914] and Tolstoy hangs over the work like a mushroom cloud. In a sense the novel is to be taken as a dialogue between the creator of War and Peace and Solzhenitsyn, with the engineer opposing Tolstoy's view of history as a series of great tides in which the actions of individuals matter not at all. I'm on Solzhenitsyn's side in this debate but cannot get much worked up over his long and wearisome account of Russian military bungling at the beginning of the First World War. The characters are impossible to keep straight, though perhaps future volumes will clarify things….
At the book's core there is nothing beyond the author's crypto-Christianity, which is obviously not going to please his masters; they will also dislike his astonishing discovery that "the best social order is not susceptible to being arbitrarily constructed, or even to being scientifically constructed." To give the noble engineer his due he is good at describing how things work, and it is plain that nature destined him to write manuals of artillery or instructions on how to take apart a threshing machine. Many people who do not ordinarily read books have bought this book and mention rather proudly that they are reading it, but so far I have yet to meet anyone who has finished it. I fear that the best one can say of Solzhenitsyn is goré vidal (a Russian phrase meaning "he has seen grief").
Gore Vidal, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), May 31, 1973, pp. 15-16.
With the publication of "Candle in the Wind," almost the full body of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's major work is now available in English translation….
The importance of "Candle in the Wind" in Solzhenitsyn's oeuvre is that it is one of two plays he is known to have completed—and it is his only work that, ostensibly, does not possess Russia as its locale….
"Candle in the Wind" is a minor work by one of the major writers of our time. It is significant for its variations on the issues he deals with in both "The First Circle" and "Cancer Ward." It includes one important statement of principle which Solzhenitsyn places in the mouth of a scientist who swims against the stream of state control:
"Apart from the obvious aims which are visible to everyone, science has concealed aims as well. Like art. Science is needed not only by our intellect, but also by our soul. Perhaps it's just as necessary for us to understand the world and to understand mankind as it is to … have a conscience! Yes, that's my hypothesis. We need science also as a conscience."…
The literalness of the [translation] is in keeping with Solzhenitsyn's preference for a precise version, even at the cost of smoothness and readability.
Harrison E. Salisbury, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 9, 1973, p. 43.
It was well before the twentieth anniversary of Stalin's death that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn emerged. First as the author of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which appeared in print during the brief Soviet experiment with what was then thought of as a cultural thaw and is now recognized as a brief historical sally by an experimental anti-Stalinist faction. Soon after Ivan was published, it was proscribed; and, with the persecution of Pasternak, Soviet cultural life returned to normal.
But Solzhenitsyn persisted, and a very great novel surfaced—The First Circle. It is a work of genius—and in it is a portrait of Josef Stalin that clings to the mind and soul. It is comparable to the greatest portraits in literature. This was Stalin; and the fictional liberties taken by the portraitist—whatever they were—advance the truth, rather than obscure it….
It is neither exaggeration nor melodrama to say that, on the twentieth anniversary of Stalin's death, the great struggle is: between Solzhenitsyn and Stalin, whose indelible portrait, as done by his most eloquent enemy, will survive in literature, poetry, and history, irrespective of who wins that great struggle between the spirit of the free man and the spirit of his oppressor.
William F. Buckley, Jr., "Solzhenitsyn's Stalin," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 12, 1973, pp. 1104-06.
[In the] Khrushchev-Brezhnev era,… what happened to Ivan Denisovich and its author was what happened to the "thaw," to destalinization and liberalization. Issues were raised and not only not pursued, but rejected. The problem of eliminating the monstrous caprice and arbitrariness of Stalin's rule, while at the same time sustaining the absolute authority of the party that Stalin had used as the administrative instrument of that caprice, was confronted by the leadership and then withdrawn. The waters pressing against the gates were too dark, too full, too threatening. In that withdrawal Solzhenitsyn kept calling attention to the darkness, kept insisting that the mission of literature was truth, that without the truth of memory there could be no literature and no life worth living. At first his message seemed to reinforce what the party leaders themselves had begun to say. But then he wouldn't stop talking—about the camps, about the past, about Czechoslovakia, about the KGB, about the Writers' Union subservience to a politics that was death to literature. He refused to recognize the "legitimacy" of KGB harassments; he refused to recognize the authority of unlettered party officials over literature, or any authority other than open discussion and informed criticism. To allow him to go on would mean for the party "to give up literature."
Protected in part by his enormous reputation, Solzhenitsyn has nevertheless been hounded, isolated and muted. There is a kind of cossack, Old Believer stubbornness in his resistance. At the same time he has responded deeply to the representative nature of his role and he has been one of the very few Soviet dissidents able to bridge, however precariously, the great gaps among dissenters themselves—between the revolutionary and the national conscience, religion and socialism, the intelligentsia and the mass. He has spoken out not only for the freedom of his own work, but also for all the oppressed.
Spokesmanship and artistic integrity do not go well together. Yet Solzhenitsyn has managed to sustain them both. He has resisted the temptation that must have confronted him for his martyrdom itself, to usurp the truth being witnessed, that "right thing for the wrong reason," as T. S. Eliot called it. His range and depth as a novelist have constantly increased. At no point has he become a "message" novelist: those who have read his play Candle in the Wind know that the critics who attributed a "technocratic" message to his August 1914 wrote nonsense. Technocracy was a theme and not a message. Nor is his ongoing argument with Tolstoy either Tolstoyism or anti-Tolstoyism; it is rather a dialogue with one of the powerful presences—Dostoevsky is another—that preside over his work. He has recently begun a historical novel of immense scope and great complexity. No doubt the conflict between his "spokesmanship" and his art is a tearing one, and on that fire he burns, yet it has enhanced and not diminished his gifts as an artist. It is extraordinary, and this chronicle of persecution and resistance shows only indirectly what has to be seen directly in the works themselves—Solzhenitsyn keeps growing.
Sidney Monas, "That Fire Burns," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), December 22, 1973, pp. 26-7.
Moments of revelation, of sudden and often oppressive and demoralising freedom, are not uncommon in the great Russian novels. In the same East Prussia in which Solzhenitsyn was arrested, Nikolai Rostov, in War and Peace, undergoes a similar experience when his Colonel gets into trouble with the authorities, and all sorts of frightening and dangerous thoughts about power and injustice, about the adored Emperor and the peace he has just made with Napoleon, begin to crowd into Rostov's mind. They do not remain there of course: he can burrow back into the enormous friendly bosom of the Russian family, the home and haven of the novel, though in its final chapter such ideas are beginning to raise their heads again. But the comparison serves to underline Solzhenitsyn's point: tyranny, even Russian tryanny, was as nothing in the past, compared to the present; its present monumental scale and scope dwarf the majestic proportions of Tolstoy's novel to a kind of child-like innocence. If Solzhenitsyn still thinks of Russia as a family, it is clearly as one in which, to adapt Orwell's phrase, the wrong members are in charge….
[The Gulag Archipelago] is certainly written with immense nervous force and feeling, idiomatic, allusive, and filled with exclamation and parenthesis which in Russian give an impression of total unselfconsciousness, but which would be exceedingly difficult to translate in such a way that their almost Voltairian tone came across. There is a great contrast with the calm and craftsmanship of the novels; and much of the edgy, explosive reminiscence exhibits that curious lack of verisimilitude which shows the author to be a novelist who needs to distance and regroup his material before it takes on the three-dimensional truth of fiction.
John Bayley, "'The Gulag Archipelago'," in The Listener, February 14, 1974, pp. 193-96.
Britain's leading specialist in Soviet literature, Max Hayward, points out that "Solzhenitsyn is already a fully formed, great writer who has completed many major works in Russia. Exile is hardly likely to affect him now as a writer." Leonard Schapiro of the London School of Economics adds that "even if he is cut off from the living speech of Russia, he is now engaged in writing historical works, and there is no doubt that he has a tremendous gift of bringing history alive that is denied to us mere historians."
Before his exile, Solzhenitsyn spoke of his "relief and calmness" in the accomplishment of his mission. This he perceives as a memorial to the dead of the archipelago. But his books are also Solzhenitsyn's gift to the living. Mindful of George Orwell's dictum that he "who controls the past controls the future," he has already wrested Soviet history from those bent on obliterating it and restored it to his people. In the future, he may also succeed in quickening the conscience of both the oppressed and the oppressors in his unhappy country. For, as he wrote in his Nobel Prize lecture, "The persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable; it prevails even over a resisting heart."
Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1974 by Time Inc.), February 25, 1974, p. 40.
Almost all reviews of "1914" have been deliberately neutral, predictable tributes to the author's "courage" and "independence" and "moral greatness," qualities seemingly too lofty to be questioned or elucidated. But Solzhenitsyn is not a Tolstoy, he is not a Dostoevsky, he is not the soul of Holy Russia, and it is unfortunate that his critics have made his reputation in the perspective of these categories.
His previous major works, in fact, concerned themselves with extreme experiences highlighted against a condensed time and space: a day in the life of a Denisovich or a clash of fates in the purgatory of a labor camp. Here, for the first time, Solzhenitsyn extends himself into the outside world—the battlefield of Western Europe—on a grand scale. But at no time does he aspire to the exhilarating neutrality of a Tolstoy; indeed, the outstanding tension in the work is that between Solzhenitsyn the writer, with his unique obsessions and perceptions, and the public history he is endeavoring to scrutinize.
In his earlier works, the concentration of time and space imposed a ready-made form on the material he was struggling with; here Solzhenitsyn has no such luck, and his habitual method of stringing together loosely or not at all related episodes suffers somewhat—one is a little puzzled as to where Solzhenitsyn will finally locate an organizing center for this roman fleuve (this historical novel seems to proclaim both implicitly and through the speeches of the author's mouthpiece the irrationality, the ultimate elusiveness of history from rational grasp).
However, one must not forget that this is only the first of who knows how many volumes, and at this point Solzhenitsyn's self-imposed task is slightly reminiscent of Musil, who also at the midpoint of his life discovered the work that would occupy him for the rest of his days. These 600-odd pages are not self-contained, and it would be whimsical and presumptuous for me to render a judgment or an evaluation with insufficient evidence. What is more important is to try to see Solzhenitsyn through the distorting murk of mass media reputation, international good will, and cliched notions of Russian literature.
In the deepest sense, "August 1914" is a local affair. By this I do not mean that Solzhenitsyn's values and sentiments are essentially Russian, nor do I mean that the novel, perverted through a barbaric English translation, can only be read and appreciated by one who reads Russian and understands its internal references. The fact is that Solzhenitsyn is trying to rewrite Russian history in the very prosaic sense that one rewrites a textbook: to correct a biased or one-sided version of historical events. This kind of enterprise assumes an intimacy with Russian propaganda and legend that we are not privy to. We can catch the overtones, but much of the essential melody is lost.
"August 1914" is open-ended not only formally but in the sense of carrying the burden and tension of dialogue to the reader. Solzhenitsyn, in all his isolation, in all his apartness, in all his estrangement from the social life around him, is literally reaching out to his fellow Soviet citizens through his work. Psychologically there is, I would guess, little difference for Solzhenitsyn in the feeling of isolation that he carries with him now, living in Western Europe rather than in the labor camps and hospitals where he passed a good deal of his adult life. If there ever was an internal outcast, Solzhenitsyn is it. Ideas and convictions in "1914" exist for the most part in the give and take of animated conversation. But unlike the long dithyrambic exchanges that occur in "Cancer Ward" or "War and Peace" or "Doctor Zhivago," the time for debate must be snatched up from the demands of duty and public life. And the dialogue that does take place is too often a desperate gallows kind of conversation—it has to bear more meaning than it can…. Human contact is sought out as an end in itself—Solzhenitsyn even accepts war for the human contact it delivers. Not once in "1914" is the traumatic aspect of battle revealed: its experience is too closely analogous to that of the camp or the cancer ward to be viewed as particularly horrifying or existentially negative. Man or men will survive it. The contemplative life does not exist: just as one must memorize the anecdotes and impressions in the labor camp to record them later on bits of scrap paper, so does Solzhenitsyn evince an almost conspiratorial sympathy for the officers who write their accounts quickly, against time, between battles.
It should be clear by now what I meant when I suggested that Solzhenitsyn was an "extreme" writer. He writes not only out of the bowels of extreme deprivation—in the labor camp or prison or cancer ward—but from a sense of whose substance, the suffering or bad luck or fate of his life, is transmuted into a sentiment of what must be called messianism….
I'm afraid that Solzhenitsyn is akin to Kostoglotov in "Cancer Ward," whose only wish is to leave the ward—but when released his first satisfactory contacts with freedom degenerate into a helpless disorientation and aimlessness. Kostoglotov is possessed by his former life, and once free of the terror that both usurped his being and fortified it, he is at a loss. Solzhenitsyn, qua writer, is the same, and it explains why he has opted for this long novel of historical upheaval and also for the lack of vigor in the scenes that do not occur on the battlefield or under the stress of its impact. Solzhenitsyn is, unlike Pasternak, an artist of war, not peace; the pleasures and complacencies of domesticity and physical love are beyond him and his renderings of them are feeble indeed.
Robert Jay Lifton recently suggested that one major current of post-World War II literature could be identified as the literature of survival. Solzhenitsyn's work would certainly fall into this category…. Solzhenitsyn himself is one of the innocents who barely survived, and while he, like Camus, is basically an ethical writer, or even if you will a moralist, he finds his equivalent of sun and sea in a mystical caring embrace of dying and death. United by their ethical preoccupations, one remains loyal to the Mediterranean sense of life as energy and the other to his Slavic mysticism or vitalism. But for both the noblest survivor is the doctor, the giver and sustainer of life. Dr. Rieux, in "The Plague," is certainly the only unambiguously noble person in Camus's novels, while Donsova, in "Cancer Ward," is the model of intellectual and moral self-awareness whose professional duty to healing evolves, under the threat of death from cancer, into that moral duty of living with humanity which Solzhenitsyn's example signifies.
I am skeptical of reducing literature to categories or movements, but in this case a "literature of survival" serves to bring together literary responses to contemporary experience that are at once universally shared and half-articulated. If Solzhenitsyn's version of all this seems to the Western reader a bit blunt and heavy-handed, it only illustrates the importance of Solzhenitsyn for Soviet letters, which, after all, has to catch up with its West European neighbors, and the indomitability of Solzhenitsyn's will, his will to work, his will to survive, his willingness to go on….
Despite the lengths of "Cancer Ward" and "The First Circle," they were, along with "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," essentially set pieces, static allegories where men played out their destinies against an unchanging background. Solzhenitsyn the creator has never before had to move through time, and here he will have to deal with the historical and psychological transitions that are prefigured in "August 1914": the movement from civilian to military, from youth to maturity, from speculation and dream to praxis, and the breakdown of old but formidable class structures.
Solzhenitsyn is returning to pre-revolutionary times to dig out from under the rubble a post-revolutionary ethic. He sees this as his mission and I see no reason not to accept his understanding of what he is doing. Thus, if one is going to "place" Solzhenitsyn, it seems to me that, for the moment, he belongs not with a Tolstoy or a Dostoevsky but with a contemporary, Miklos Jancso. Solzhenitsyn's anthropology, like Jancso's, is locked into the fate of his society as he tries to comprehend it, to sing its glories, to entrap and exorcise its errors …, and finally to re-structure it, sharing with Jancso the positive and negative of this search—a concern with the promise of a new socialist man and a revision to a kind of mystical populism….
Solzhenitsyn's previous novels take place against static backdrops which allow individual lives to unfold under a universal eye—no private world here, no sanctuaries or homes; everything is visible, hyper-visible, taking on a sort eerie magnificence. But in "1914" Solzhenitsyn parts by necessity with this spatial and temporal uniformity and for the first time struggles with new [forms] and the demands of organizing diverse and disconnected events. And in this regard one must—caution—say that Solzhenitsyn shows signs of failing to find the container for his ideas and characters. His … documentary insertions (random newspaper clippings from the year 1914, military summaries …, and descriptions of battle action in scenario form) [do] not work to objectify the narrative, or connect loosely linked sketches separate in time and space, or distance the reader from his intense involvement….
Solzhenitsyn is such a richly endowed writer and significant cultural figure that I have barely traced the most salient features of "August 1914." More seriously perhaps, I have failed to discuss his unusual metaphysical attitude toward women, who symbolize for him, as for Jancso, a full life at the far end of history and the struggle for survival, and who serve for him as the constant reminder of the meaning of estrangement from the community. But Solzhenitsyn is estranged largely through choice and through the whims of history. The twists and turns and clots of 20th century Russian history seem to have effected a split right down the middle of life, separating the public from the private.
Pasternak in a sense re-invents Christianity and romantic love, but artistically he finds himself at a loss with the social or historical side of contemporary reality; Solzhenitsyn is the master of everything military, of the response of man to the threat of danger and death and humiliation, but the entire middle ground of the civilian and the quotidian and the contemplative is beyond his grasp.
It may be that this apparent limitation of Solzhenitsyn's creative range—the poverty of his imagining of the inner life—is the one situation from which he cannot escape. Or it may be that he will grow with the characters of "August 1914," with Vorotyntsev and Lenortovich, and that this ongoing work will be another of his great novels on a richer and more comprehensive scale.
Randall Green, "Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Literature of Survival," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by the Village Voice, Inc.), April 4, 1974, pp. 34, 36, 44.
Even if [Gulag Archipelago] had registered no more than we know already, it is written by a man whose courage, whose integrity, and whose experience will give it overwhelming authority throughout the world. It is a truly exceptional work: For in it literature transcends history, without distorting it.
It is indeed an important aspect of Solzhenitsyn's book, though by no means the only one, that he confirms and further details many horrors that have been reported. (Medvedev, an ideological opponent of Solzhenitsyn, has, incidentally, gone on record as saying that all the factual material in Gulag Archipelago is true.)…
[A] major aspect of Solzhenitsyn's book is that it breaks totally with the myth that has corrupted and deluded so many commentators on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet regime: the myth of a constructive and humane Lenin.
Robert Conquest, "Evolution of an Exile," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 20, 1974, pp. 22-4, 30.
Tolstoy's literary influence is evident in all of Solzhenitsyn's work, reaching extreme proportions in August 1914, in which whole episodes are modeled on scenes from War and Peace and many characters are no more than latter-day simplifications of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. Tolstoy dominates the content of the book, too: his pictures adorn the walls of bourgeois homes, his views are followed and debated, and, in a hopelessly stereotyped scene, Tolstoy himself appears, sententiously preaching about "good" and "love."
As a novelist, however, Solzhenitsyn is no Tolstoy. In later life Tolstoy renounced his earliest (and greatest) novels, alleging that they contradicted his teachings. As his writing became increasingly didactic, it was saved from utter tediousness only by his monumental talent as an artist. It may, in fact, be said that what accounts for the incredible vitality of Tolstoy's work is the conflict between his intuitive sensibilities and his conscious goals. This conflict does not exist for Solzhenitsyn. His work, for the most part, is didactic, as he intends it to be, and it is often dull and ponderous.
Soviet readers, however, brought up on the aridities of socialist realism, have been electrified by Solzhenitsyn's concern with what he calls "eternal values" and his dealing with such forbidden themes as Stalinist terror….
The situation is different in the West, where Solzhenitsyn is probably one of the least read of best-selling novelists. Despite the inflated praise he has received from Western reviewers, whose admiration for Solzhenitsyn's courage is often mistakenly expressed as esteem for his works, many Western readers appear to find his novels heavy-handed, humorless, and monotonous. Solzhenitsyn's characters lack dimension: his heroes are all passive, prisoners not so much of themselves as of immutable circumstance. The political and philosophical theories for which the novels serve as vehicles are oversimplified and irritatingly presented with a repetitious, self-indulgent verbosity. His works often seem like morality plays, with each character representing a specific abstract idea. This is why One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the least ambitious of Solzhenitsyn's writings, is in some ways the most successful: it is a morality play.
There are admittedly a number of fine moments in Solzhenitsyn. Even August 1914, the most cumbersome of his novels, contains a few scenes—bourgeois life at the Tomchaks, Samsonov's suicide—that recall the best of Russian 19th-century realism. But Solzhenitsyn seems to tire quickly of such moments, no doubt feeling driven to go on to "weightier" problems. Like his life, Solzhenitsyn's novels have become increasingly didactic over the years. Again in a manner reminiscent of Tolstoy, he may well decide one day to abandon fiction altogether in favor of polemics; if so, Gulag Archipelago will have been the harbinger.
Jeri Laber, "The Real Solzhenitsyn" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1974 by The American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, May, 1974, pp. 33-4.
[For] all its faults (which, Solzhenitsyn notes in his introduction, he is ready to correct if confronted with "cogent and constructive criticism"), [Letter to the Soviet Leaders] may ultimately be regarded as one of the most important documents to come from the pen of a contemporary Russian writer….
Solzhenitsyn … is not a political thinker, but a chronicler; not a political analyst, but a critic—if you will, a poet. These deficiencies and qualities, as well as their inherent contradictions, emerge most forcefully in the passages where the author gives vent to his nostalgia for the past, his idealization of simple Russian virtues, and his spirited rejection of Western values—especially the belief in industrial and technological progress. Understandably, many Western observers have taken him to task for advocating such "retrogressive" notions….
Solzhenitsyn's hostility to the West derives as much from a reaction to the rampant cynicism and hypocrisy that he perceives in contemporary Western societies as from the traditional Slavophile abhorrence of Western civilization. Essentially a moralist, he is equally revolted by the systematic violence of the Soviet regime and by the acquiescence to it on the part of individuals and governments in the West. His credo, affirmed in his Nobel Lecture, is disarmingly simple: "All internal affairs have ceased to exist on our crowded Earth. The salvation of mankind lies only in making everything the concern of all. People in the East should without exception be concerned about what people are thinking in the West; people in the West should without exception care about what is happening in the East."…
In sum, Solzhenitsyn's Letter is not of the same order as most of his fictional writings or the remarkable Gulag Archipelago. It is a profoundly Russian work—extreme, passionate, at times mystical, and frequently at odds with itself. It belongs in the mainstream of Slavophile writings, in that it seeks to find Russia's salvation in the country's unique historical and religious traditions. It sets Solzhenitsyn apart from many other Soviet dissenters, particularly Sakharov, who strongly advocates Western concepts of political freedom and democracy….
In assessing the importance of the Letter to the Soviet Leaders, one must take into account not only the author's lack of realism but his humanity and uncompromising dedication to moral values. Above all, one must view the Letter against the background of Solzhenitsyn's long, courageous and often lonely struggle for decency and truth in a country that for more than half a century has known little of either.
Abraham Brumberg, "Understanding Solzhenitsyn," in New Leader, May 27, 1974, pp. 10-13.
[Unlike] any living American writer you can think of, Solzhenitsyn is destined to remain a political symbol and may very well have a lot of political influence—whether he wants it or not. Solzhenitsyn seems to be the one writer produced by Soviet society itself who is determined to expose Leninism, root and branch—to destroy the fiction that the tyranny of the bureaucracy represents anything but the perpetuation of its own power and of the old Czarist belief that the only function of the masses is to obey….
Writers in America cannot easily understand that the function of literature in the Soviet Union—even of the most arcane poetry—has for a long time now been to expose propaganda, those unbelievable, generally unbelieved but enforced fictions on which the system rests. American society is full of profound class and race violence, is marked by terrible deprivations, is plainly unjust to many people. But we have no lack of documentation, of truth-telling exposés, of resources for demolishing the myth, if myth there remains, of America as an "ideal" society. Our literature suffers not from telling lies but from having no great truths. It suffers from triviality, the absurdity of purely sexual or material goals, from the exhaustion of pursuing success and of generally achieving it. Above all, it suffers from the fact, as is true everywhere in Western society, that our quest for individuality does not have the requisite sources in personality….
Now Solzhenitsyn is not a "great" writer, at least not a writer on the grand scale, as "August 1914" showed. It may be that writers on the grand scale, as we can see in the case of that deluded super-rationalist Sartre, are not what we particularly need just now. But Solzhenitsyn is something better than that chimera of the "great" writer, the universal genius, left over to us from the 19th century: he is a documentarian, a truth-teller, in the deepest sense of the word a fact man. Thanks to his voluminous intelligence, the kind of absolute pitch that writers do bring to their memories (especially about prison), and his scientific training (from Pushkin to Nabokov the mark of the really "enlightened" writer in Russia), he has planted in his mind everything he has ever learned and read about the Russian penal system. And the particular thing that makes him so exhilarating to Russians in and out of Russia, despite the painful nature of his material in "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," "Cancer Ward," and especially "The First Circle," that prime document of the absolute hell that Soviet Communism has been for millions of innocent people, is his exposé of the absolute unreality on which Leninism rests….
Solzhenitsyn has been more feared by the régime than any other Soviet writer, and more hated by the toadies in the Writers' Union, because he has completely and systematically removed himself from Leninism. As the six members of the Writers' Union in Ryazan complained when they expelled the seventh, Solzhenitsyn, he is a "talented enemy of Socialism"—by which they mean Leninism.
Alfred Kazin, "Tired of Solzhenitsyn?," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), May 30, 1974, pp. 18-19.
Unpalatable though it may be, the fact is that many a coward and scoundrel has written far, far better than Solzhenitsyn at his worst. He is, in fact, an artist of very uneven attainment, who seems to call for reassessment with the publication of every new item.
Solzhenitsyn's finest work is surely One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which also happened to be the first to appear. A short sketch written in peasant language, it surveyed the routine of Stalinist concentration camp life through the eyes of a simple uneducated man. It was immediately compared—and by no means undeservedly—with such masterpieces of Russian penological literature as Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead, Tolstoy's Resurrection and Chekhov's Sakhalin Island. One Day seemed to put the reader behind the barbed wire and make his bones ache with the cold. It is taut, terse, economical; it has a precise, exactly calculated verbal texture.
That this masterpiece of a few dozen pages would be followed, as it has been, by a succession of cumbrous block-busters of ten times its length—works in which the virtues of terseness and economy are ostentatiously neglected—few would have predicted. From these succeeding writings a quite different Solzhenitsyn seemed to emerge. A think-tank for convict-scientists, a Central Asian hospital, the Battle of Tannenberg … these subjects were explored one after the other—exhaustively, not economically—in the superbly atmospheric First Circle, the mediocre Cancer Ward and the disappointing August 1914. These three works all take the form of fictionalised documentaries and all confirm the author as a formidable documentarist whose writing suffers to the extent to which it admits fictional elements. Within this documentary world his best writing always seems to emerge when he treats the concentration camp theme which he has made so peculiarly his own.
These auguries all bode well for Gulag Archipelago, which is exclusively documentary and which contains no traceable or avowed fictional element whatever, but sticks relentlessly to its forbidding penological theme. The exposition is systematic, dealing with the history of the institution, with techniques of arrest and interrogation, with the transport of prisoners, with conditions in prisons, in transit camps and in concentration camps proper….
By cumulative effect, by battering away relentessly, Solzhenitsyn here gives the reader, once again, the feeling of having been 'inside': a compliment which one cannot pay to many items in Soviet penological literature. The work also gains depth from the author's concern for Russian history and literature….
Yet was Solzhenitsyn wise to indulge in so much rhetoric, so much overt denunciation of the conditions which he describes? Could not their appalling nature have been allowed to speak for itself? Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, in their penological works, Solzhenitsyn himself in his One Day—all had been content to describe without parading any personal indignation, whereas here the reader has the author jogging his elbow all the time and seeming to tell him what to think….
This is, in short, an important book which cannot be ignored as a work of art—for all its numerous defects and its failure to rise to the level of its author's own best work. As for its political message, that of course will be ignored by the world at large, as it always has been. That the dead Hitler maintained atrocious concentration camps we all know and are being continually reminded. That Soviet concentration camps have a record every bit as evil in [a] very different way—and one which is by no means dead—is a fact too inconvenient to be accepted even with the eloquence of a Solzhenitsyn to present it.
Ronald Hingley, "The Trouble With Solzhenitsyn," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), June 29, 1974, pp. 801-02.
Whether Solzhenitsyn ultimately occupies a place in literary history comparable to his current prominence in the headlines may depend on how future critics judge The Gulag Archipelago. In scope and density it is worthy of its subject, which is nothing less than the most massive and systematic repression of a people by its leaders that the world has ever known….
Solzhenitsyn scrutinized the fate of the victims and the role of the authorities, from the anonymous to the notorious. He concluded that both Stalin's predecessor, Lenin, and his successors (including some still in power) must share the blame for the crimes of the Stalin era, and that the enormity of the Stalinist evil mitigated the actions of Soviet soldiers and civilians who collaborated with the Germans during World War II. These verdicts infuriated the present Russian rulers more than anything else Solzhenitsyn has written.
Gulag is subtitled "An Experiment in Literary Investigation." The phrase suggests that the author's methodology was scholarly and the contents of the book are factual but that the form is novelistic; the style is—in Solzhenitsyn's highly idiosyncratic way—literary, and the judgments are as bold and absolute as those of an Old Testament prophet.
Strobe Talbott, "Solzhenitsyn's Excruciating Exposé," in Harper's (copyright © 1974, by Harper's Magazine, reprinted from the July, 1974 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission), July, 1974, pp. 37-8.
Much of the best Russian writing is obsessive, resembling a literary epileptic seizure in which the author lays hands upon his subject and then becomes its prisoner, unable to shake it loose until he has wrestled with it in the dirt, called it by all its names, and then come back to stamp along its spine once more. This kind of performance informs this huge volume [The Gulag Archipelago: 1918–1956], the first of three (the second has just been published in Russian in Paris) in which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn combines personal narrative, research and his recollections of what others have told him to create a national epic of life in that peculiarly Russian underworld, the network of political prisons.
The result is mind-boggling: we are in turn appalled, excited, numbed and bored. For Solzhenitsyn in this book, and in others he has written, the only visible, tangible universe is captivity: the world is honeycombed with walls whose doors will open at any moment to snatch us in. He is writing for his fellow Russians, of course, but Russians are not allowed to read him; this book, apparently written in 1968, fell into the hands of State Security and was the cause of Solzhenitsyn's expulsion to the West….
[His] book is an indictment of Russians for not caring enough for their own freedom, and an apology on the ground that they never knew what the real situation was. Solzhenitsyn has dug up every record of prisons he could find, and listened to stories told by hundreds who were processed through what he calls the archipelago of prison camps; he is determined to be a memorialist of the unknown and almost-forgotten, recording everything, every name and experience, until his facts, stories, statistics acquire a hypnotic rhythm, like a strobe light flashing in the dark….
[His] tone is sarcastic, indignant, and his prose, which has always been rough, seems here to be hurried. He reaches for abstractions and generalizations; he seems to accept without question whatever he is told; indeed, his manner might provoke skepticism had not the principal lines of his story been sketched before by such disparate historians as Robert Conquest, Adam Ulam and Roy Medvedev.
Peter S. Prescott, "The Prison State," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), July 1, 1974, p. 65.
The going literary view … is that Solzhenitsyn's fame depends on politics more than art, that he is a great man, but not a great writer. That is probably a shortsighted judgment. In America it will be necessary to wait for first-rate translations of his books, since each succeeding volume (Gulag will be no exception) stirs more than the usual storm about inaccuracies and betrayal of spirit that mars most translations. More important, one will have to see completed the already vast and elaborate mixture of fact and fiction through which he is attempting to restore to his countrymen the history of Russia since 1914. Solzhenitsyn is also clearly working on the creation of a rich, interlocking literary world that will revive a 19th century conception of man, shorn of his fond hopes for progress, but still a creature endowed with conscience and a soul who has need for piety, loyalty, continuity and simplicity in order to survive.
Timothy Foote, "Towering Witness to Salvation," in Time (reprinted by pe-rmission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1974 by Time Inc.), July 15, 1974, pp. 90, K15, 92.
Even where it moves and instructs us most, "The Gulag Archipelago" is a work violently at odds with the Western style of feeling and argument. It is filled with Slavophile, liturgical rhetoric….
The prose is often crude, demotic, overblown (features that Thomas P. Whitney has, as far as I can surmise, rendered admirably in his translation). But the crudity lies not only in the prose. Western authors, "peering through a microscope at the living cells of everyday life, shaking a test tube in the beam of a strong light," would no doubt require "another ten volumes" to deal with the problem of how to urinate in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket. "Our Russian pens write only in large letters." To make this point, Solzhenitsyn refers to "Remembrance of Things Past." As it happens, Proust's sounding of human evil and suffering is as unsparing as Solzhenitsyn's and the moral intelligence he brings to the enterprise more comprehensive. Though it is universal in its appeal, "The Gulag Archipelago" is also a thoroughly Russian, culturally specific work. Only an "insider" can judge Solzhenitsyn's history of the Soviet apparatus and the formula he puts forward of a future symbiosis of émigré and motherland.
George Steiner, in The New Yorker (abridged with permission), August 5, 1974, pp. 78-87.