Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) (Vol. 18) - 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 outspoken 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 human soul. 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, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

Andrej Kodjak

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Solzhenitsyn's short stories and novels … are closely linked with one another philosophically. There is, however, a significant difference between the three novels and the short stories. At least two of the novels deal directly with prison life, and the third, The Cancer Ward, alludes to it through the figure of Oleg Kostoglotov; in his short stories Solzhenitsyn does not concern himself with this feature of society. There he seems rather to be attempting to break out of the context of forced confinement in order to project his ideas and philosophy in a more familiar setting. And yet even Solzhenitsyn's short stories do not omit the experience of the zek altogether. "Matryonin Dvor" (Matryona's House) and "Pravaya Kist" (The Right Hand), both highly autobiographical, contain veiled references to the convict's world…. In Solzhenitsyn's short stories, prison life is thus no longer a major topic in itself, but an experience which engenders in his characters a more profound view of the world. (p. 104)

As one of Solzhenitsyn's most important literary achievements is his highly developed narrative style, his efforts as a playwright necessitated an enormous adjustment in craftsmanship. The reader who can fully appreciate Solzhenitsyn's language in the original finds his dynamic narrative, his precise and often unusual lexicon, exceptionally persuasive. But in drama the narrator is absent, the entire text consists of the direct speech of characters whose language cannot deviate very substantially from the standard of a given social milieu. If Solzhenitsyn's plays fail, they do so partly because of an inherent feature of the genre itself—the absence of the narrator.

Solzhenitsyn's didacticism also helps account for his lack of success in playwriting. His intensely moralistic tone is much more acceptable in narrative prose than on the stage. As his characters usually advocate opposing philosophies, an omniscient narrator who analyzes their thoughts and feelings without constantly placing them in direct confrontations can develop the personages more convincingly. On the stage, however, Solzhenitsyn's characters develop their philosophies through continual ideological clashes that fail to develop into plausible dialogues, for their very intensity lends an artificial quality to them. (p. 123)

Immediately upon the publication of Solzhenitsyn's first book, his readers and critics recognized two vital characteristics of his art—his language, and his straightforward depiction of the inhumanity of Stalin's labor camps. Solzhenitsyn's Russian readers appreciated the innovative form and content of his fiction from his initial appearance on the literary scene. His style—which contrasts sharply with the bleak, stereotyped language of contemporary Soviet fiction—is based upon the Russian vernacular, flavored with the jargon of the labor camp and with archaic, long-forgotten word formations. The latter are often so surprising and refreshing that one might think Solzhenitsyn had invented his own neologisms….

The idiosyncracies of Solzhenitsyn's style blend organically with the content of his various works. His use of the vernacular and the jargon of the labor camp enables him to create in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich a very effective skaz, oral narration, that adds credibility to the story and contributes to its powerful effect upon the reader. The oral character of Solzhenitsyn's narration, coupled with his use of archaic word formations, makes his prose unusually dynamic; and the exceptionally rich content of his lexicon lends additional nuances to the text. By concentrating a large amount of information within relatively brief passages, Solzhenitsyn engenders a rapid flow of ideas and images which create the impression of a totally spontaneous, improvised account. This apparent spontaneity of Solzhenitsyn's narrative makes his works unusually convincing and powerful. (p. 139)

Solzhenitsyn incorporates [the technique called "polyphony"] into his novels: almost every one of his characters shares in the development of the theme as if he were the book's...

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Stephen F. Cohen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Oak and the Calf"] is a story that should attract diverse readers. Professional students of the Soviet system will read it for what Solzhenitsyn saw inside the political and literary bureaucracies during his brief stay in official favor. Literary scholars will mine the memoirs for insights into Solzhenitsyn's artistic creativity. (They will conclude, I think, that his work belongs primarily to the genre of holocaust literature, a view disliked by more impassioned admirers who want to make even larger claims for him.) General readers may find parts of the story elusive, since it is embedded in Soviet political history, but they will be swept along by Solzhenitsyn's power as a narrative writer…. (p. 36)

Courage, inspired devotion to his cause, literary genius, intense religious faith and something akin to miraculous energy have made Solzhenitsyn, as his American publisher tells us, "a hero of our time." On one level, his greatness is intact. But Solzhenitsyn is also a survivor of cancer and concentration camps, and these experiences have left their mark. (pp. 36-7)

Solzhenitsyn … does not want to be called a "Soviet" writer. His memoirs, like all else he now publishes, insist that there is a yawning abyss "between Russian literature and Soviet literature." And yet, should it surprise us that Solzhenitsyn, who was born one year after the Revolution and whose fate has so paralleled his country's, may turn out to be—in his themes, style, passions and psychology—the greatest Soviet writer of them all? (p. 38)

Stephen F. Cohen, "Voices from the Gulag: 'The Oak and the Calf'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1980, pp. 1, 36-8.

Tomas Venclova

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Oak and the Calf is interesting in a purely literary sense as well [as for its political and social implications]. Like a diary, it pieces itself together before the reader's eyes. Each sentence is written in an unpredictable situation with unknown consequences for the author—and for history. That the reader is to some extent already aware of the outcome only gives the work its distinct double perspective. He is unnerved by the possibility that the author may be arrested and his manuscript destroyed at any moment, even though he realizes that the book in his hands has been miraculously rescued. These games with time and these mirror reflections remind one of Proust …, with the difference that here personal time is replaced by mortally dangerous historical time.

Indeed, Solzhenitsyn's book is unique in the way it interlaces the written word and the making of history. Supplement follows supplement; then, at the end, the book virtually transcends itself in a long series of documentary appendices. Even the five years that have passed since its publication in Russian figure in the present English edition. It possesses a kind of "open structure"; it is unfinished and cannot be finished.

The Oak and the Calf is, however, no mere continuing record of events. It combines the qualities of the political thriller—made more thrilling by the fact that not a line of it is invention—with those of the Gothic tale and of science-fiction, for the civilization Solzhenitsyn describes is perhaps as alien to the Western reader as the imagined civilizations of outer space. In addition, it is a dashing war story in the grand style of August 1914…. (pp. 15-16)

This book is a magnificent linguistic exercise, too, since Solzhenitsyn skillfully uses language to attack the unreasoning, rigidly ideological official Soviet way of thinking. He amalgamates archaisms and sharp neologisms, prison slang and lofty theological speech, the language of a math teacher and of a Russian peasant, into his own...

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Hans Koning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Oak and the Calf is not fiction; it is a political diary and must be judged on its politics. If Solzhenitsyn sees himself as the calf butting and uprooting the Soviet oak, well, fine, but why then is he so endlessly surprised that during all those years the publishing apparatchiks were less than fond of him?… Why does he not show more sympathy, or maybe even some guilt, toward Tvardovsky of Novy Mir who, though a party member, stuck out his neck for him and in the process lost first his magazine, then, from sorrow, his life, and who is perhaps the real hero of this book?

It will be answered that Solzhenitsyn was consciously but secretly at war with the Soviet establishment, and that in this unequal struggle he was entitled to any and every subterfuge and tactic.

An acceptable postulate. But what does not seem acceptable to me is that this man, in a lifetime of political thought and writing, has not once come to grips with the question: Are these men and women of the Soviet establishment indeed nothing more than devils "with the mark of Cain"? Is that all there is to the system?… [Would] a majority or even 10 percent of the people in the U.S.S.R. agree with his statement that "Life in Russia will never again be as sweet as in the summer of 1914"? Not only has he not come to grips with this question, it obviously has never existed for him, and in his stand against the Russian Revolution and all similar attempts, he has no more reassuring political thought or remedy to offer than a return to the orthodoxy of the Russian Church complete with saints and holy days. (p. 631)

Hans Koning, "Looking Backward," in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 230, No. 20, May 24, 1980, pp. 630-32.

Abraham Brumberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With the publication of The Oak and the Calf, Solzhenitsyn lays claim to yet another realm—that of autobiography….

Since Solzhenitsyn clearly possesses both literary credentials and a sense of mission, it is not surprising to find his book absorbing and significant. (p. 3)

It is as hard not to admire the author of The Oak and the Calf as it is not to be appalled by qualities so at variance with his calls for moral "repentance." Even his generally compassionate sketch of his benefactor, Tvardovsky, often reeks of acid….

Even more dismaying than Solzhenitsyn's personal characteristics are his political convictions and opinions, more worthy of a crude pamphleteer than of a responsible thinker. Those who have wondered whether Solzhenitsyn's increasingly strident and simple-minded views on the nature of Russia, communism and the West … represent perhaps some kind of an aberration, need wonder no longer: They are all expressed, in one form or another, in this memoir—the West is impotent, deprived of both "will and reason," and "practically on its knees" before the Soviet juggernaut,… communists—whether in Italy or in the Soviet Union—are all cut from the same cloth, and "liberals" and "social democrats" (many of whom, as the book so plainly demonstrates, came to his support in his most dire moments) are not much better.

The clue to the apparent contradiction between the "early" and "present" Solzhenitsyn is provided by the author himself. In a remarkable passage, Solzhenitsyn admits that in his "first works I was concealing my features from the police censorship—but by the same token, from the public at large. With each subsequent step I inevitably revealed more and more about myself." He knew that he would "inevitably lose [his] contemporaries," yet by so doing he was equally confident of "winning posterity." Many of Solzhenitsyn's splendid works—including pages of The Oak and the Calf—have no doubt already won him a place in the eyes of posterity. Yet it is sad to contemplate that if he indeed goes on to reveal "more and more" about himself, he stands not only to lose an increasing number of his contemporaries, but to win a more paltry verdict from posterity as well. (p. 12)

Abraham Brumberg, "Solzhenitsyn Ascendant," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), May 25, 1980, pp. 3, 12.

John Bayley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a religious man Solzhenitsyn is no doubt humble; as a writer he is sublimely conceited. Conceit rather than pride seems to be the word, for pride goes with humility, and Solzhenitsyn is still, and no doubt always will be, the fearless, intelligent, self-centered prig whom he portrayed with such endearing accuracy in "Prussian Nights."… (p. 3)

There are two Solzhenitsyns, one the believer, the sublime prig, the only man in step; the other, the novelist who watches himself as acutely as he does other people, who looks into himself and them with the penetrating eye of a Tolstoy, but also with the same worldly understanding, the same charity. Certainly, without drawing any other comparisons, one can...

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Geoffrey Hosking

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] The Oak and the Calf, as in Gulag Archipelago, we have in fact two Solzhenitsyns at work. While the field-marshal surveys his battle formations and issues his orders, the shrewd and sceptical novelist is standing at his side, noting down all his inconsistencies and foibles. One must never underestimate Solzhenitsyn's capacity for 'polyphony', that is to say, for assuming two or more narrative voices almost simultaneously, allowing each to reflect on and question the other. This is true of all his best works, early and late. There is a good example of it in his account of his eventual arrest and expulsion from the Soviet Union …: here the self-appointed positive hero is continually being restrained...

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Ken Coates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Solzhenitsyn's new book [The Oak and the Calf] is not really new. It was written in the Soviet Union, and has been revised for this English edition. It is part autobiography, part indictment of Soviet literary politics and censorship, and part onslaught on the entire Soviet system.

But the largest indictment of the Soviet political establishment is not what Solzhenitsyn writes about it: it is what it has made of Solzhenitsyn himself. This book reveals it all.

As an inhabitant of Gulag, and later as an ex-convict, teaching in school and writing by night, this writer may once have been self-centred in the limited sense of the term, but he was obviously profoundly sensitive to...

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