Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) 1918–

A Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, and critic, Solzhenitsyn now resides in the United States. His first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was the first exposé of Stalin's labor camps (in which Solzhenitsyn spent eight years) allowed published by the Soviet Central Committee. However, his persistent activities as a dissident and out-spoken critic of literary censorship led to his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1969 and the censorship of his subsequent publications in Russia. Rejecting the precepts of socialist realism, Solzhenitsyn writes from an unmistakably Christian point of view, depicting the suffering of the innocent in a world where good and evil vie for the soul of man. In this he is thematically linked to the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. His writing, distinguished by its austere, simple style, is presented with compassion and moral concern. Solzhenitsyn continues to write in exile of the oppression in his own land, as well as to speak of his concern for the political and moral problems of the West. He received the Nobel Prize in 1970. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

Octavio Paz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Solzhenitsyn is not only a critic of Russia and Bolshevism but of the modern age itself. What does it matter if that critique proceeds from presuppositions different from mine?… Solzhenitsyn speaks from another tradition and this, for me, is impressive: his voice is not modern but ancient. It is an ancientness tempered in the modern world. His ancientness is that of the old Russian Christianity, but it is a Christianity which has passed through the central experience of our century—the dehumanization of the totalitarian concentration camps—and has emerged intact and strengthened. If history is the testing ground, Solzhenitsyn has passed the test. His example is not intellectual or political nor even, in the current sense of the word, moral. We have to use an even older word, a word which still retains a religious overtone—a hint of death and sacrifice: witness. In a century of false testimonies, a writer becomes the witness to man….

The Gulag Archipelago isn't a book of political philosophy but a work of history; more precisely, it is a witnessing—in the old sense of the word: the martyrs are witnesses…. (p. 7)

Octavio Paz, "Dust after Mud: Considering Solzhenitsyn" (originally published in Plural 30, March 1974), translated by Michael Schmidt, in PN Review (© PN Review 1976), Vol. 4, No. 1, 1976, pp. 5-11.

William J. Parente

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The temptation is to dismiss [Prussian Nights] as the mediocre poetry of a great novelist. Unlike Dante or Shakespeare, Solzhenitsyn is too concerned with catechesis to survive translation and transmutation into a culture significantly less friendly to poetry than the East European tradition from which he springs.

He has already tried his hand at other genre: two moderately successful plays, Love Girl and the Innocent and Candle in the Wind, as well as a number of short stories and prose poems….

What relates these secondary writings to the great novels and to Gulag is Solzhenitsyn's questioning of national and individual morality. He probes these problems much like a moral theologian pecking at a question of conscience or a surgeon sectioning a diseased organ….

Indeed, his pursuit of the problem of evil continues in Russian literature the tradition of Dostoyevsky and, in world literature, the tradition of the early Graham Greene and Böll.

The subject matter here—the Eastern front in January 1945—is related by irony and literary thread both to decisive events in Solzhenitsyn's life and to his previous oeuvre. His brief prose poem, "The Old Bucket," recalls but a moment during the War. His compelling short story, "Incident at Krechetovka Station," deals with the moral vagaries of war and a Soviet officer behind the lines. His August...

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John Bayley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Can one imagine a famous British author bringing out a poem about his wartime experiences in the style of Henry V, or Paradise Lost, or Childe Harold? And having composed it while serving a ten-year prison sentence, committing it to memory, as he could not write it down? And, most unlikely of all, that it would be a marvellous poem, with some of the fiery freshness and energy of its great originals?

That, roughly speaking, is what Solzhenitsyn has done in Prusskiye Nochi, Prussian Nights. The title itself recalls Pushkin, who wrote a poetic fantasy called Egyptian Nights…. And the metre is a freer version of Pushkin's agile rhyming octosyllabics that tear along like the wind, fiercely exultant, but with nothing crude or makeshift in the variety and flexibility of their rhythms. Solzhenitsyn is not a poet of today in the sense that Brodsky or Voznesensky are. He has no voice of his own. But his mastery of a common style and metre is so effective that it carries the reader irresistibly along. There is no trace of the synthetic tone, the inner failure of linguistic confidence, the usual mark of the amateur who avails himself of a traditional verse form….

It is the wild exhilaration of [the 1945 Russian advance on East Prussia] that is celebrated by ex-artillery-captain Solzhenitsyn, who rode along in it with his guns and the 60 men of his battery….

[Like] the beginning of the Gulag book, the poem stresses that to be with such an army was to have the illusion of getting away from the system and breathing the air of freedom. As Pushkin celebrated Russia in his...

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Elizabeth Hardwick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a small world, Solzhenitsyn sometimes appears too tall. I would not want to meet the striding Armageddon on the road, glowing as I imagine him to be with eschatological fires and accompanied by menacing dogs. Still, he is a great writer with great themes. The conditions of the retrograde Soviet Union, bad for the living writer, offer, in his case at least, a perverse propitiousness for the writing. There the world is, if nothing else, a structure.

I read again … two works. One fairly short, the beautiful story "Matronya's House" and the intense, brilliant "Cancer Ward"—a true novel, passionate, deep, in which the sufferings of the body and the punishment of the soul, the pain of private life and the diseases of political force are bound together by the knots of fate. An old-fashioned work of art, ruthlessly contemporary.

And all the others—the pyramids he has built of heavy stone, with the exquisite decorations hidden within. Solzhenitsyn's claim upon the spirit is immense, and I feel, as we used to chant in high school, "We needs must love the highest when we see it, not Lancelot, nor another." But Lancelot, still. (p. 3)

Elizabeth Hardwick, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 4, 1977.

Luellen Lucid

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Western critics have been quick to analyze Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's humanitarian concerns and brilliant development of the metaphorical novel. What has been lacking in discussions of Solzhenitsyn's works is an understanding of their relationship to Soviet literary tradition; his writings need to be placed in the context not only of the dissident movement but of Soviet literature as a whole. Solzhenitsyn's writings are neither simply an anachronistic return to critical realism with no relation to the Soviet literary experience … nor are they a natural development of "socialist realism."… (p. 498)

[The] Soviet literary experience of the thirties, forties, and fifties … had a profound, if negative, influence on Solzhenitsyn. Stalin's aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism, as established in 1932, embodies on a literary plane the social and political facets of Soviet life to which Solzhenitsyn is responding in his own fiction. A full appreciation of Solzhenitsyn must, therefore, take his reaction to the literary aspect of Soviet socialism into account. Moreover, it can be demonstrated that Solzhenitsyn's works evidence a strong concern with technical innovation; they constitute not only a "spiritual revolution" but also a rhetorical one…. [His] novels are a conscious reaction to Soviet literary doctrine, which they self-consciously subvert, satirize, and parody stylistically, structurally, and thematically.

Solzhenitsyn's rejection of totalitarian values and policies is conveyed in his novels not only by their explicit concern with the repressive nature of Soviet society and its "gulag archipelago" of prison camps but by a crucial displacement of the literary norms and conventions of socialist realism…. Estrangement from established literary form lies at the core of Solzhenitsyn's works, as his fiction depicts the conflict between the Soviet state and the political rebel through a stylistic examination of the literary conflict between socialist realism and critical realism.

The literary displacement accomplished by Solzhenitsyn is not a simple abandonment of the canons of socialist realism but rather a transformation of those principles. (pp. 498-99)

Socialist realism itself began as a rhetorical revolution designed to meet the needs of a socialist society. It displaced nineteenth-century realist literature and transformed Russian folk themes into a functional mythology that would further the ends of the revolutionary government. (p. 499)

Solzhenitsyn has achieved a revitalization of Russian literature by not only incorporating socializing modes of expression but baring them to show the tension which exists between the nineteenth-century novel and the montage techniques of twentieth-century fiction. He displaces the doctrine of socialist realism by "baring the device" which socialist realism has covertly employed, turning it against the Soviet regime stylistically and thematically. Through parody and contrast, he has exposed the totalitarian quality of its dicta and reversed its thematic content. While Solzhenitsyn's works follow the canons of socialist realism in their public intent and political subject matter, they effect a fundamental disruption of those canons in their thematic and stylistic reexamination of Soviet reality.

Socialist realist doctrine finds its counterpart in Solzhenitsyn's fiction, but crucially transformed…. Solzhenitsyn shares a sense of engagement in history with the exponents of socialist realism, but his works constitute an aesthetically expressed rebellion against their basic values. His art has the avowed intention of awakening the Soviet public to the truth about its reality rather than upholding the official version of social life…. Whereas socialist realism attempts to reduce complexity to simple-minded formulas and calls such art "proletarian literature," Solzhenitsyn deals with the complex issues of social life by depicting a microcosm of everyday Soviet existence. (p. 500)

The metaphorical quality of Solzhenitsyn's fiction resembles the mythologized portrayals of reality in works of socialist realism in its intention of drawing a personal response from the reader. (p. 501)

In order to address the social realities and political issues of his time, Solzhenitsyn utilizes literary forms associated with political action, but in contrast to socialist realism, Solzhenitsyn's objective is to negate the automatized conventions upheld by Soviet officialdom. His novels contain journalistic reportage, political statement, intellectual debate, and political satire, and the biting polemical and satirical style of his fiction lies at the core of Solzhenitsyn's rhetorical revolution against the Soviet state. Solzhenitsyn displaces a canon of socialist realism by reversing its intention. In place of the "Party line" type of political polemic offered by socialist realism, Solzhenitsyn provides a wide-ranging spectrum of political and philosophical positions, including the "Party line" itself.

The "positive heroes" of Solzhenitsyn's works are Russia's writers, who throughout its history have provided the Russian people with an "alternative government."… [The] writer-hero of Solzhenitsyn's works is depicted as an iconoclast, prophet, and truthteller; he is the ultimate and independent protector of human values and freedom. (pp. 501-02)

Although Solzhenitsyn's works have ideological concerns in common with those of socialist realism, they do not identify the author with any single character or point of view. This authorial estrangement from the characters and situations represents a displacement of socialist realism's mode of characterization and plot structure. The identification of author and hero that is made complete in socialist realism is reversed by Solzhenitsyn through a polyphonic structure which gives equal weight to each character as he appears rather than focusing on one particular character as "hero." The reader is forced to identify with a synthesis of the characters and hence with the author himself, who transcends them. In place of the "uplifting" plot of socialist realism with its "blank-faced optimism, decreed by officialdom," Solzhenitsyn's works are based on a dynamic of intellectual contestation where no easy answers or neat endings are provided for complacent readers. (p. 502)

Solzhenitsyn's revolt against the totalitarian nature of the Soviet state takes place on a linguistic level through his displacement of its slogans, clichés, and formulaic language…. For Solzhenitsyn, language that identifies truth with established truth and disavows its critical function is no longer capable of creating a literature. (pp. 502-03)

The German critic Theodor W. Adorno points out in The Jargon of Authenticity that "jargon reproduces on the level of the mind the curse which bureaucracy exercises in reality. It could be described as an ideological replica of the paralyzing quality of official functions." The "jargon" of socialist realism takes on exactly this symbolic role in Solzhenitsyn's works, linguistically expressing the repressive nature of Soviet society….

The writer is particularly suited to the task of exposing Stalinist totalitarianism precisely because of the crucial role language has played in its perpetuation…. Solzhenitsyn defies the official discourse by using colloquial speech forms and depicting government policies in concrete human terms. (p. 503)

Solzhenitsyn's first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, deals in an allegorical manner with the reversal of the individual from citizen to political prisoner. The Soviet prison camp serves as a microcosm of the society at large and metaphorically represents the repressive atmosphere which characterizes Soviet governance. All the features inherent in the automatization of Soviet life become explicit and obvious in the prison camp. The microcosm of the prison camp also demonstrates the ultimate similarity between "home" and "institution" in a society that has itself been turned into a prisonlike "total institution." Solzhenitsyn takes the socialist mythology of the "typical worker" and displaces it with the "typical prisoner" Ivan Denisovich, who at once typifies and exemplifies the characteristics of the Russian people. The reader is able to identify with the...

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Konstantin Bazarov

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Second World War] is the only major experience of Solzhenitsyn's life that has been conspicuously absent from his work. But it is the subject of Prussian Nights…. Poetically it is not very distinguished, so that as in Longfellow's poems the main interest is in the story, since the traditional metre does indeed carry the narrative effectively along….

[This] is the very reverse of a patriotic poem. While he was in East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for criticising Stalin's conduct of the war, and sentenced to eight years' hard labour. Not, in the light of the horrifying events of this century which many millions of us have seen and endured, a particularly terrible experience to have to suffer. But it is the central experience which has moulded Solzhenitsyn's vision, so that Stalin and Communism have become for him the one great enemy. He ignores the far worse horrors of Nazism, and this is why the war is in fact the one major experience of his life that he has barely written about, since it cannot without total distortion be fitted into his picture of Stalin as devil. But the extraordinary thing about this war poem is that it completely reverses the actual situation, so that you would think that the Russians were invading innocent Germans instead of repelling a war of annihilation at the cost of enormous sacrifice. (p. 32)

Solzhenitsyn has often stressed the moral duty of the writer to tell the truth. And in this poem too he attacks Ehrenburg as 'senior ham of the lot…. If we win they'll neatly varnish the whole tale….' This then is Solzhenitsyn's claim, as it has consistently been in the past—that he is unique in giving us the past without lakirovka ('varnishing')—the plain unvarnished truth. But Solzhenitsyn's truth is a highly selective and one-sided one which can be refuted by consulting the work of any reputable German historian….

Solzhenitsyn thinks of himself as correcting a one-sided view of history. But to attempt to do that by offering an inverted but even more one-sided view of history is a contribution merely to polemic and invective. (p. 33)

Konstantin Bazarov, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Konstantin Bazarov 1978; reprinted with permission), April, 1978.