The First Circle
by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, translated by Thomas P. Whitney
Harper & Row, 580 pp., $10.00
The Cancer Ward David Burg, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in February)
by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, translated by Rebecca Frank
Dial, 616 pp., $8.50 (another translation of The Cancer Ward, by Lord Bethell and
When you ask your favorite Soviet Cultural Attaché why such-and-such a novelist is suppressed in Russia, the beaming answer is that he is not suppressed; he is just not published. He is known only at the typescript-and-galley-proof stage to people in literary circles. This is the situation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Apart from one or two stories and the publication—by Khrushchev’s permission—of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the magazine Novy Mir he is unknown to Soviet readers in book form. It is easy to see why The Cancer Ward and The First Circle will never do now that the Soviet line is being re-Stalinized. The last named is minutely informative about the methods of the Police State and, in one farcical chapter, makes great fun of anti-American propaganda. The deeper reason lies in the coarseness of the political mind and its chronic fear of literature: the politicals confuse literature with journalism and advertising copy. Solzhenitsyn has his journalistic side, but he is aware of its inadequacy and in The First Circle he strives to get beyond sweating at a case in detail, and when he succeeds, he is very impressive. He understands what is wrong with Soviet literature. In this novel an enormously successful writer—perhaps he is what the political prisoners of the book call “the Alexei non-Tolstoi”—is talking after dinner with a diplomat, who says:
Nikolai, does literature really have to repeat military statutes? Or the newspapers? Or the slogans? Mayakovsky, for instance, considered it an honor to use a newspaper clipping as an epigraph for a poem. In other words, he considered it an honor not to rise above the newspaper! But then why have literature at all? After all, the writer is the teacher of the people; surely that is what we’ve all understood? And a great writer—forgive me, perhaps I shouldn’t say this, I’ll lower my voice—a great writer is so to speak a second government. That’s why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers, only its minor ones.
This is true of Russian governments throughout history.
Twenty years ago Koestler gave us his theatrically conceptualized account of Stalinism and the purges in Darkness at Noon; Solzhenitsyn makes the subject more spacious, and, as a real novelist must, places it in the lives of men and women. He shows the lives out of which opinion has grown. Like other Soviet novelists he is very much a nineteenth-century man, and since that period gave the Russian novel its supremacy, he can draw on a tradition that is spacious even if it has nothing new. It is a relief that he is not experimental. His only innovation, the use of documentary, is forty years old! But since Russian life runs wild and is rich in startling characters and events, documentation cannot standardize as it does with us. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a simple, stark piece of reporting …
Publishing Solzhenitsyn March 13, 1969