Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) (Vol. 4)

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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) 1918–

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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...

(The entire section contains 11663 words.)

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