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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.)
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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.
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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 1914, the first part of a historical trilogy climaxing in the Russian Revolution, which Solzhenitsyn has always regarded as his magnum opus, details the ebb and flow of life and death among German and Russian troops in East Prussia during a yet earlier war….
The work which most closely presages this present verse poem is the play, Feast of Victors, which depicts the behavior of Soviet troops toward German civilians during this 1945 period and which was suppressed by Solzhenitsyn himself for reasons which are still unclear but presumably pragmatic….
Prussian Nights is therefore more than merely an effort at sustained verse narrative. It touches on critical moments in the politicization of this mathematician-engineer with vague longings to pursue the study of history and eventually to become a writer of historical fiction.
The events described here apparently contributed greatly to Solzhenitsyn's revolutionary conclusion that personal morality transcended both nationality and ideology—a conclusion fatal to belief in either the pieties of Russian patriotism or the pretense of Soviet communism. The nights in Prussia seem to have been the beginning of the end of Solzhenitsyn as a Believer….
Solzhenitsyn typically sustains a ballad meter with alternating masculine and feminine rhymes throughout the 1500 lines, but variations are plentiful with meter and tempo changed for dramatic purposes.
Solzhenitsyn is no Dante—but then Solzhenitsyn's analysis of one-man government is considerably more sophisticated than De Monarchia. (p. 130)
William J. Parente, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), August, 1977.
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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 matchlessly ebullient verses, and by doing so was able to ignore the dead hand of Nicholas I and his bureacracy, so Solzhenitsyn uses a similar style to celebrate the excitement of that advance to wreak revenge on the enemy's land….
But Solzhenitsyn's temperament is the opposite of Pushkin's or Blok's, and here his command of the verse is less serviceable, for though Pushkin can be reflective, even introspective, he is never in the least sententious, and to be so—in the best sense—is Solzhenitsyn's forte. He was not a novelist when he wrote the poem, perhaps he thought he was a poet—since Evgeny Onegin the two roles have always seemed to have a similar potential in Russia—and several episodes in the poem remind one of memorable things in his novels….
As the narrative proceeds, feelings of confusion and guilt become more evident amid the excitement, and the narrator strives to control or at least to rationalise them. A German communist baker brings bread and salt in a jubilant welcome to his liberators, and is promptly carted off by Field Security—no more trouble from him. Cows burn to death in a locked barn—Ech milashi Vi ne nashi—'poor dears, they aren't ours'. Civilians are casually shot down by seemingly amiable soldiers who sheepishly object, when remonstrated with: 'But Uncle, krov za krov—blood for blood—it's Moscow's order.' Finally, in a brilliant scene, the narrator's sergeant-major invites him to pick a woman he fancies from among the refugees in a barn. The NCO is crafty, paternal, guileful and yet respectable about it; the narrator shamefaced and uncertain. He takes the meek girl to bed and experiences the expected self-disgust:
Have no fear … already
Another's soul is on my soul.
There the poem abruptly ends. It bears all the marks of being autobiographical, the confused impression of a priggish, likeable and entirely comprehensible young man….
And yet I am inclined to think this unexpected and fascinating poem is an interesting piece of evidence: it suggests that Solzhenitsyn is not really a born novelist, any more than he is a natural poet. He has a remarkable talent for making use of the rich traditional sources of Russian literature, in both fields; himself remaining—again in a Russian tradition—a polemicist and propagandist, prophet and voice of conscience.
John Bayley, "Marching through Prussia," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of John Bayley), September 29, 1977, p. 400.
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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.
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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 experiences of Ivan Denisovich whether or not he has himself been imprisoned, for the nonsensational, hour-by-hour description of the character's day suggests the institutionalized life of all Soviet citizens….
The novel's portrayal of one "good" day in the life of a "typical" prisoner constitutes a reversal of socialist realism, which Solzhenitsyn underscores stylistically by referring to the prisoners familiarly through the consciousness of Ivan Denisovich while regarding the prison personnel and government officials impersonally as "they." By this stylistic device, Solzhenitsyn incorporates the reader into the world of the prisoners and alienates him from that of the officials. (p. 504)
Solzhenitsyn's use of prison slang also serves to estrange the reader from the established social order. Slang owes its origin and use to "the desire to break away from the commonplace, the stiff, or stuffy, the drab or trite, as imposed on us by the conventional community." It is the prisoners' symbolic protest against the status quo and the means for uniting themselves in their communal estrangement from the "normal" world. The language serves as a barrier between the prison-camp world and the "outside" world, and it puts a demand on the reader to enter into the prisoners' world on a linguistic level to share their dissociation from the "outside." Solzhenitsyn plunges the reader into the prison environment through this linguistic device and provides a contrast between the creative expressiveness of the prisoners and the formulaic language of the officials. Linguistically as well as thematically, the author has transformed the prison camp into an allegorical presentation of Soviet society and has provided a symbolic model of opposition to its dictates. (pp. 504-05)
As in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn makes use of the folk idiom in The First Circle by presenting his moral opposition to Stalinism in the form of peasant wisdom. The peasant Spiridon possesses the most self-assured sense of individual conscience and communicates his instinctive ethical stance to the less self-confident intellectual Nerzhin, a fellow prisoner at the scientific institute…. Just as the simple-minded figure of Ivan Denisovich becomes elevated to the status of a Russian Everyman, Spiridon assumes the role of moral spokesman by providing the homely answer to Nerzhin's prolonged spiritual quest to comprehend and cope with Stalinism: the cannibal or "people-eater" who kills his own people indiscriminately is wrong, whereas the wolfhound who kills only what is wantonly destructive (the wolf) is right. Solzhenitsyn uses the word "people-eater" instead of using the normal Russian word for cannibal, which would only connote "eater-of-one's-own-kind," in order to emphasize the peculiarly inhuman nature of Stalinism. The peasant proverb thus displaces the "folk sayings" of socialist realism and provides a philosophy that justifies moral opposition to Stalinism. (pp. 505-06)
Solzhenitsyn introduces into [The First Circle] actual historical personalities, including that of Stalin himself, transforming the remoteness of history and public life into an accessible reality for the reader. To do this, Solzhenitsyn employs modes of political satire and parody, reenacting the mentality of the bureaucrats in their language and thereby exposing the falsity of their attitudes. Solzhenitsyn reproduces Stalin's manner of expression in which every sentence contradicts the next…. In a chapter entitled "Language Is a Tool of Production," Solzhenitsyn attacks the rhetorical fraudulence of Stalinism most explicitly by imitating Stalin's thought processes in a journalistic manner. He assumes that the evilness of Stalin's "ideas" is revealed by the rhetoric he employs to express them, so that the author need only "report" them factually for the truth to become apparent. (p. 506)
In The First Circle, a character states that "a great writer … is, so to speak, a second government."… The figure of the writer enters this novel as a crucial moral force that sustains the prisoners in their convictions and lends others the courage to listen to the voice of conscience…. The artist is a prototype of the two possible reactions to Stalinism and their consequences; acquiescence is shown to lead to loss of creative freedom and talent, while rejection brings loss of physical freedom but preservation of conscience and imagination. (p. 507)
Cancer Ward, even more than Solzhenitsyn's other novels, presents the everyday reality of Soviet life in a metaphorical setting with which the reader can easily identify himself. The characters, ex-prisoner and official, face the common enemy of illness, which behaves as a social leveler and unites those with divergent backgrounds and politics in a common struggle. The setting of the cancer ward, while it should not be construed as simply a metaphor for Soviet society, does supply the symbolic basis for a novel concerned with the political and spiritual "health" of a society that has recently undergone the grave "illness" of Stalinism…. The cancer ward functions symbolically as the tuberculosis sanatorium does in Thomas Mann's novel, The Magic Mountain, where the political inference is to Europe's "health" as it is about to plunge into the senseless conflict of the First World War. (pp. 508-09)
As in the previous novels, the artist functions as a positive moral force in Cancer Ward. A work of literature is shown to exercise a profound effect on the patients, particularly the terminal ones. The epicurean Podduyev finds the means for accepting his impending death in Tolstoy's What Men Live By, although previously he had been unable to "see the use of books in his everyday life."… Solzhenitsyn satirizes the "socialist realists" and contrasts the irrelevance of their "message" to people's real needs with the impact of Tolstoy's work on even the unliterary Podduyev. When a writer fails to relate his work to his reader's reality, it becomes a meaningless jumble of words. (p. 509)
Solzhenitsyn mimics the formulaic approach of the socialist realist in his portrayal of the writer Aviette. Aviette announces her main literary objective to be avoidance of any "ideological mistakes."… Solzhenitsyn's satire of socialist realism, while stylistically farcical and journalistic, is nonetheless composed of the very slogans and clichés mouthed by the Stalinists…. In his mimicry of socialist realism, Solzhenitsyn adopts its rhetorical style, just as he reproduced Stalin's rhetoric in The First Circle to expose the ruler's mentality. He has displaced its conventions simply by repeating them in a satirical context.
The socialist realist convention of the "positive hero" is undercut in Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn's creation of an "anti-hero," who provides a parallel to the characteristics of the Soviet hero. The character Kostoglotov serves as the embodiment of the aftereffects of Stalinism; his submissive attitude brought about by years of imprisonment and harsh treatment poses an ironic counterpart to the socialist realist ideal. (pp. 509-10)
The "uplifting" ending of socialist realism is displaced in Cancer Ward by its circular plot structure. Just as there is no resolution to the problems posed in Solzhenitsyn's other novels, Cancer Ward ends without having the "anti-hero" overcome his submissive state of mind. (p. 510)
As a documentary presentation of the effects of Stalinism, Gulag Archipelago contributes a new dimension to Solzhenitsyn's writings, but, like his fiction, it constitutes a displacement of the canons of socialist realism, in this instance, those applying specifically to nonfiction or "documentary" writing…. The thematic ambiguity of the fictional works and the complexity contained within their polyphonic form is missing from the tendentious tone of this documentary on the Soviet prison-camp system….
Gulag Archipelago is a crucial displacement of the Literature of Fact ("literatura fakta") literary movement as practiced under socialist realism, which considers nonfiction writing, particularly the diary, autobiography, memoir, and journalism, to be a high literary form. The purpose of such nonfiction writing is to provide a "collective" history of the revolution and the progress of socialism; documentary writing has a duty to advocate a specific cause and organize the "facts" for a specific social purpose. The Literature of Fact movement initiated in the twenties emphasizes the importance of daily events as opposed to the "fanciful" and subjective concoctions of the artist. (p. 511)
In Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn makes reference to The White Sea Canal, written by thirty-six Soviet writers including Gorky, which is an example of the journalistic sketch of Soviet progress. Its aim is to glorify the use of slave prisoner labor in large construction projects and the "social rehabilitation" and "moral reformation" which the prison system exercised upon political prisoners and criminals alike…. Nonfiction socialist realism, like its fictional counterpart, is given the task of laying out the "objective" facts of the great social tasks of the day, and the result is a romanticized and polemical description of Soviet society.
Gulag Archipelago is not only a rebuttal of the Soviet documentary but makes use of its techniques and tone by turning prison memoirs and journalistic history into an exposé of the Soviet regime. In its use of memoirs and journalism, in its emphasis on the collective nature of the history, and in its polemical counter-documentation and argumentation, Gulag Archipelago clearly displaces the Literature of Fact movement much as Solzhenitsyn's novels displace socialist realism. (pp. 511-12)
Solzhenitsyn's documentary writing constitutes an extension of the historical basis of his previous works of fiction. He alternates between a "bird's-eye view" of his country's recent history, providing an extensive survey of how Soviet law developed, and an autobiographical "worm's-eye view" that authenticates the impersonal history with intimate testimony from himself and other prisoners. As in his fictional works, Solzhenitsyn organizes his historical material metaphorically, thereby personalizing it and making it more accessible to his reader. The book is unified by the image of the "archipelago," a series of "islands" strung out across Russia whose inhabitants are drawn—often arbitrarily—from all segments of Soviet society…. Throughout Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn emphasizes the image of the latrine bucket, "the symbol of prison, a symbol of humiliation, of stink."… Unlike the unifying metaphor of Cancer Ward, with its Mannian overtones, and that of The First Circle, with its Dantesque aura, the pervasive use of the latrine metaphor undercuts in a caustic and naturalistic, almost brutal, manner the grandiose pretentions of the Soviet state.
As he does in his fiction, Solzhenitsyn stresses the collective nature of the history in order to incorporate the reader into the situation he is depicting and force him to assume moral responsibility for what happened. Solzhenitsyn offers his own personality through autobiographical references, making himself a surrogate for his entire generation…. Solzhenitsyn introduces his own memoirs as a typical example of the mass experience which his history documents, in contrast to the idealized abstraction of the "typical" worker in the socialist realist tract. The attention to personal pronouns takes on painful intensity in Gulag Archipelago, as "you" is not only directed at the contemporary Soviet reader but is also used rhetorically to fuse the reader and the victim being described. The pronoun "we" emerges with genuine force in joining the reader and writer in their mutual responsibility for shared guilt and moral duty; it is no longer acceptable simply to blame "them."
An ironic tension is maintained throughout the work by alternating between the "official" point of view and Solzhenitsyn's personally authenticated experience…. Solzhenitsyn resorts here to the rhetorical device of exaggeration in his contrast of Soviet and tsarist prisons, much as he did in The First Circle. Once again, his own account provides the rhetorical reverse image of the socialist realist perspective. (pp. 513-14)
Solzhenitsyn has transformed each of the canons of socialist realism through the themes, style, and structure of his writings. He accepts the socialist realist premise that art is a social act but posits a critical rather than conformist social function for it. In his use of folk themes and in the metaphorical quality of his works, he attempts to reach the Russian public with images and situations sufficiently limited and familiar to make a personal impact on the reader and spur him to a critical social consciousness. The premise that art should instill in the reader a sense of social interconnectedness is also implicit in Solzhenitsyn's works, as he explores both the negative and positive effects of this sense of community. On the one hand, he portrays the complicity of an entire society in the policies perpetrated in its name, and on the other hand, the necessity for communal acknowledgment of this complicity and acceptance of individual responsibility as the basis for a more honest and open political system.
As in the works of socialist realism, Solzhenitsyn achieves his social purpose by utilizing socializing modes of expression, and his writings share the polemical orientation of socialist realism. In place of the "positive hero" who mindlessly upholds the Soviet state, Solzhenitsyn provides the writer-hero whose role is to exemplify an ethical and independent outlook. He also creates an "anti-hero" who serves as an ironic parallel to the acquiescent "positive hero" of socialist realism. In contrast to the "uplifting" plot structure of socialist realism, the inconclusiveness of Solzhenitsyn's novels demonstrates the problematical nature of opposition to the regime. In both his nonfiction and his fiction, Solzhenitsyn maintains the values of truth, sincerity, and completeness in opposition to the standards set by socialist realism. On a linguistic level, Solzhenitsyn attacks the totalitarian quality of Soviet society through mimicry and parody of its literary and political discourse. The profound displacement which may at any time overtake the ordinary citizen and suddenly transform him into a political exile—a reversal Solzhenitsyn knows through personal experience—is conveyed through this displacement of Soviet literary norms and values to give us the world seen anew through that reversal. (p. 515)
Luellen Lucid, "Solzhenitsyn's Rhetorical Revolution," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1978, Hofstra University Press), December, 1977, pp. 498-517.
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[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.
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