Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 192

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 entire section contains 5338 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn study guide. You'll get access to all of the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1711

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 protagonist. In any given passage the narrator focuses exclusively on a particular character. The effect is one of intense interaction among a multitude of independent and seemingly unrelated characters, or "polyphony." Only a tight structure can unify them within the framework of a novel or short story.

Ironically, Solzhenitsyn's characters act independently in just those circumstances that would seem to offer little possibility of individual freedom…. [While] constraining his characters physically, Solzhenitsyn expands their intellectual independence and spiritual freedom. The reader thus witnesses the paradoxical depiction of free men in chains…. The contrast between the author's portrayal of individual personalities and the bureaucratic equation of a man with a number or a medical chart eloquently conveys Solzhenitsyn's humanism. (p. 140)

Time in Solzhenitsyn's novels [as well as location] is extremely condensed. His Dostoevskian concentration of a great many events within a brief span strengthens the depiction of the characters' inner freedom. Though they are deprived of their liberty, their lives still appear rich and meaningful because of the concentration of a wide range of emotional states and intellectual endeavors within a short period of time. The tightness of space and time reinforces the polyphonic presentation of the characters in such a way that each appears intellectually free and independent. This kind of presentation requires a certain distance between the narrator and his characters: the latter's independence is directly proportional to their distance from the former. Although Solzhenitsyn's style is highly personal, his narrators' emotional involvement with the events they describe is slight…. (p. 141)

It is conscience rather than compassion … that rests at the heart of Solzhenitsyn's works. Conscience as the last spiritual resource of a society governed by a completely materialistic philosophy is one of Solzhenitsyn's central concepts; it provides the sole motivation for heroism. Solzhenitsyn expresses this idea when he adds to the cliché "You have only one life," the phrase "and also one conscience," thus implying that conscience is as precious as life. If conditions force one to choose between the two, one must choose conscience, not life. (pp. 145-46)

Solzhenitsyn organizes all of his novels and short stories with the tight precision of a mathematician. Frequently one central idea serves as the backbone of an entire work….

One may argue that Solzhenitsyn's novels are structurally too schematic. This point might carry some weight had not Solzhenitsyn so skillfully covered the compositional lines of each of his works with rich and colorful details which conceal its framework. Furthermore, the structure of his novels provides the key to their interpretation and thus plays an important part in the development of his philosophy, for his major themes may be defined in large measure through an analysis of the interrelationship of various signs in the texts.

Solzhenitsyn through his works utilizes two basic types of signs—those of suppression and those of resistance—to characterize Soviet society. The most obvious signs of direct suppression are those associated with the punitive system in the USSR, most especially the concentration camps and prisons. To this group of signs belong the three basic themes of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—starvation, labor, and the authorities…. Usually the signs of resistance are dual; one is obvious, the other much less apparent. Shukhov's stealing a few extra bowls of gruel for his brigade, for example, is an obvious sign of resistance, while the psychological implications of his elaborate eating ritual are a more subtle sign of his battle against starvation. (p. 149)

A dualistic sign system is likewise characteristic of sexual differences in Solzhenitsyn's works. Solzhenitsyn's female characters are never oppressors or seekers of power. The worlds of his male and female characters are radically different. While violence and suppression characterize the men, the women are entirely oppressed and almost totally immersed in their passive but extremely tenacious struggle for freedom, both for themselves and their male counterparts. (p. 151)

The signs of cognition, alternately suppressing and emancipating, comprise [another] dualistic system. Solzhenitsyn depicts the suppression of truth and knowledge as the government controls all information and continually inundates the country with newly manufactured propaganda. In The Cancer Ward, Shulubin, a college librarian, describes the suppressive activity of the government when he recalls being forced to withdraw from circulation and destroy great numbers of books considered harmful by the authorities. Another example of suppression is the depiction of the creative process of the prominent Soviet writer Galakhov in The First Circle. Galakhov's self-censorship actually has the same effect as the burning of undesirable books, with the important difference that in this case the author himself destroys the truth before it even appears in the form of a manuscript. These two examples illustrate the complete expunging of the old as well as the new nonconformist ideas by Stalin's totalitarian regime. (pp. 151-52)

Solzhenitsyn appears to represent contemporary Soviet society as intellectually sterile, deprived of the basic human faculty of critical and creative thought. All the messages countering Stalin's propaganda stem from authoritative sources, for the most part as distant as the dictator himself. On the other hand, very few original ideas derive from the characters who are fully drawn and spotlighted and who possess neither authority nor mystery. Solzhenitsyn's protagonists form a neutral territory, an intellectual no-man's-land bombarded from the one side by Stalin's indoctrination, and from the other by messages, usually in code, opposing Stalin's ideological conditioning.

To conscience and heroism, the two main defenses against totalitarian oppression, a third faculty may now be added—human sensibility, a fine ear and sensitive vision that enable the central characters to perceive barely noticeable signals from another medium. Thus the intellectual faculties of the recipients are of little importance, and their development of the emancipating ideas they receive is virtually nil. They accept these messages almost as dogma, as divine revelations subject neither to analysis nor elaboration. (p. 156)

Precisely this is perhaps the main difference between Solzhenitsyn and the great nineteenth-century Russian authors, especially Tolstoy, whose characters do, of course, receive signals of truth from highly unexpected sources. These messages, however, generally initiate a lengthy and usually complex intellectual as well as spiritual search for the solution to philosophical religious dilemmas. Unfortunately, this type of intellectual seems to have vanished from contemporary Russia, at least as Solzhenitsyn presents it…. Since these new ideas contradict the ideology of the power structure, conscience, heroism, and a fine perceptivity typify Solzhenitsyn's principal characters. (pp. 156-57)

Andrej Kodjak, in his Alexander Solzhenitsyn (copyright © 1978 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1978, 170 p.

Stephen F. Cohen

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 278

["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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846

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 inimitable idiom. He uses proverbs in an offhand manner (occasionally coining one of his own), parodies Soviet bureaucratic clichés, quotes well- and lesser-known Russian poets, and captures decades of history in one word….

Solzhenitsyn weaves [two psychological dramas] into the fabric of the book. The first describes Aleksandr Tvardovsky [, publisher of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, who came to look upon Solzhenitsyn as his creation]…. The story of this Soviet Pygmalion becomes almost unbearably poignant when his beloved child defies him: He had refused to publish Cancer Ward, and Solzhenitsyn went ahead and had it appear as samizdat.

The second psychological drama deals with Solzhenitsyn himself. He insists on the immutability of his identity, yet he changes from page to page; only the direction he is traveling in remains the same. The former prisoner, having survived many devious plots and sharp blows, straightens up, matures, and ultimately acquires the stature of a prophet. In his own eyes—and in the eyes of the government—he becomes a political leader, an accuser, a Samson in the sanctuary of Soviet Philistines. In the process, respect for Tvardovsky and subtle understanding of his psyche grows into condescension: Tvardovsky … is now seen as a "Solzhenitsyn who failed." Nasty characterizations of people fully deserving such treatment give way to even more venomous tirades against liberal editors, promoters of human rights, and democratic intellectuals who may have little in common with Solzhenitsyn but have still less in common with his true enemies….

Once "trivial" contrasts within Soviet literature are magnified in Solzhenitsyn's eyes; liberals are much more objectionable than neoslavophiles, no matter how foolish the latter might be. He somehow forgets the literary axiom formulated in one of his first pages: "I discovered, to my surprise, that a piece only gained … as the harsher tones were softened."

As he begins to make sense of his life, to understand the weight and significance of external events, to perceive reality in theological terms—and nobody can reproach him here—Solzhenitsyn also abandons "the weak," alienates his friends and acquires a chilling mercilessness. At the end of the book he is no longer a writer: He is "a sword made sharp to smite the unclean forces, an enchanted sword to cleave and disperse them." No one has the right to become a sword, even for the loftiest of purposes. Solzhenitsyn knew that when he wrote The First Circle.

I am not happy about writing these words. Yet I feel compelled to write them because I remember the samizdat copies of Solzhenitsyn's works that set a standard of dignity and human freedom for many of us. I belong to that small army of people who, following his example, decided to "write, write, write," and finally were exiled…. But even if The Oak and the Calf clearly reveals its author's imperfect character, it is a great book that adds to the reputation of a great writer. (p. 16)

Tomas Venclova, "On the Art of Writing in the USSR," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 8, May 19, 1980, pp. 15-16.

Hans Koning

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 308

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

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 see repeated in Solzhenitsyn the same Tolstoyan dualism between novelist and prophetic sage….

Solzhenitsyn's political shrewdness comes out in his superb portrait of Lenin in the short novel Lenin in Zurich, to my mind one of the best things he has done. This really is Lenin, the conspirator, the cynic, the man of genial intelligence and inflexible will power. And as a portrait in a novel it convinces where Solzhenitsyn's own dogmatic assertions about the nature of the Soviet state do not. (p. 4)

[When Solzhenitsyn the prig pontificates, The Oak and the Calf becomes] positively boring. The points are made obsessively, the feats of Jack the Giant-killer mount up to more and more legendary proportions; and of course the stifled yawn the Western reader cannot help indulging would be taken as one more proof of how unfeeling, corrupt, and incapable of salvation he has become. But [Solzhenitsyn] the novelist is always alive, never taking himself quite seriously, and the detailed account of his final expulsion is a masterpiece of humor. This, too, is its only retrospective element: the rest was written at top speed more or less at the time it was taking place…. So the somewhat gimcrack air, as of things and persons and thoughts disturbed and couchés provisoirement, is itself a proper part of the effect this memoir creates. Solzhenitsyn's regular novels and povesti, whatever the difficulties of their conception and birth, are more solidly fixed in art and time.

The memoir prompts us to ask: what really is Solzhenitsyn's position, and how should we reasonably respond to him? I would reject at once the charges that he is as intolerant as his opponents, a reactionary fanatic, a dotty Ayatollah who takes more relish in lambasting the corrupt West than in denouncing the Eastern Antichrist. That is all beside the point, and some of the liberals who resent his reproaches … seem to do so because they are sensitive above everything to having the right position, not only to be washing their clean linen in public but to be seen to be doing it….

It's unfair, but there is a gap, and an unbridgeable one, between the bien pensant and the soldier at the front, the believer who has witnessed in the arena. Maybe Solzhenitsyn has been too eager for martyrdom, and to tell us all about it, but that does not make him any less of a great man, a man entitled to utter what [Irving Howe, in his letter to The New Republic] calls "coarse jeremiads" against the Western world whenever he feels like it. (p. 8)

John Bayley, "The Two Solzhenitsyns," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 11, June 26, 1980, pp. 3-4, 8.

Geoffrey Hosking

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363

[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 by the keenly observant, self-aware novelist…. [Even] as he braces himself for the imagined negotiations with Brezhnev and the Politburo, in which the future of the Soviet Union will be decided, he is simultaneously laughing at himself for imagining that the walls of the Kremlin will collapse at the first blast of his trumpet. (p. 21)

Solzhenitsyn has, it seems to me, always been at his best when he is able to function as a 'voice from the chorus', letting other voices mingle with his own, not letting the 'Olympian narrator' within himself gain the upper hand. This was pre-eminently true … of Ivan Denisovich and Gulag Archipelago. It is also true of the best parts of these memoirs, and not least perhaps of the picture of Tvardovsky, who somehow succeeds in bouncing back from the body blows Solzhenitsyn the 'Olympian narrator' directs at him and standing out as a fully rounded personality. In spite of himself, Solzhenitsyn responds to Tvardovsky's greatness and communicates it.

The 'inside' picture of the warm but mutually watchful relationship between these two great men is the outstanding feature of The Oak and the Calf. Looking back a decade later, one feels that both of them were probably right in their literary strategies. Tvardovsky and Solzhenitsyn both, in fact, still haunt the bien pensant hacks of the Soviet literary hierarchy. (pp. 21-2)

Geoffrey Hosking, "Thick End of the Wedge," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 100, No. 2574, July 18, 1980, pp. 20-2.

Ken Coates

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681

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 human feelings, frailties and dignities. The early novels, which are great novels, were characterised by Lukacs, the most eminent of Marxist critics, as real achievements of "socialist realism".

It would be interesting to have Lukacs' appreciation of this work. The author who is its subject is not merely anti-socialist; he has become the very antithesis of the society he condemns.

From opposing mindless conformity in a numb collectivism, he has reached out to an almost equally mindless individualism, a kind of mystical self-centredness which is an article of faith. A species of Great Russian Ayatollah now confronts us, with a whole series of prescriptions for the restoration of the old values, between which the only logical connection is the network of his own prejudices.

But these prejudices have been learned, formed in a struggle against a powerful and unscrupulous machine, which has always justified its meanest actions by appealing to disembodied ideals of socialism and humanism. Solzhenitsyn's rejection of the meanness has grown over to become a rejection of these misrepresented ideas, and in so doing it has left him standing on his own, a virtual negation of everything he condemns.

He wants to be the polar opposite of communism. But arriving at this state, he now looks almost identical to his chosen hate object. All the pluses boasted in the system are now minuses in Solzhenitsyn's antidote, but because they have all been systematically switched, it would take a very learned analyst to detect the difference between poison and cure….

The hero (anti-hero) of the book is Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir at the time that Solzhenitsyn's first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, was considered for publication. Any person with liberal proclivities would see, in Tvardovsky, a good and gentle man, a man with a deep love of truth and an unerringly humane instinct. Anyone else who merely followed the development of events, however cynically, would be compelled to admit that, had it not been for Tvardovsky, no one in the world would ever have heard of Solzhenitsyn, outside the circle of the school pupils who had the benefit of his instruction.

Yet here we have a portrait which, for sheer rank ingratitude, probably beats all the coarsest appreciations of either Solzhenitsyn or his victim in the very nastiest of police files….

With a singleminded political passion, Solzhenitsyn has not merely bitten, but devoured raw, the hands of all those who fed and helped him.

While Russia produces an opposition like this, it has no opposition. Somewhere, between the stones, green fronds of personal loyalty and decency will grow alongside the argument for political democracy, and that will really be something new. That this great author has been reduced to such a caricature of its own vices will not spare the present Soviet leadership from criticism, whenever such criticism becomes openly and freely possible.

Solzhenitsyn in this book is too close for comfort to Emmanuel Goldstein, who wrote the forbidden text which Winston Smith read with such avidity in 1984. Goldstein's other name, it will be remembered, was O'Brien, and when he was not composing subversive tracts he worked at the Ministry of Love, straightening out those who read them. The Soviet exile hates that ministry, but in this work he applies its code.

Ken Coates, "Great Russian Ayatollah," in Tribune (reprinted by permission of Tribune, London), Vol. 44, No. 32, August 8, 1980, p. 4.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

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

Next

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) (Vol. 2)