Prussian Nights: A Poem
To Be Preserved Forever
In 1941, directly after his graduation from the University of Rostov, Solzhenitsyn entered the army and spent four years at the front. He was awarded two decorations and the rank of captain. In January 1945 he commanded an “observation battery” in the East Prussian campaign, at the end of which, in early February, he was arrested as a political criminal on the evidence of unflattering remarks he had made about Stalin and Soviet literature in letters to a friend. During the next twelve years, he endured interrogations, prisons, labor camp, and exile, and was “rehabilitated” in 1951. He was “discovered” as a literary artist in 1962 with the publication in Novy mir of his momentous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
What would he have written, he has asked himself, had it not been for the experience of arrest and imprisonment? That he would have written, there is no question. He was already writing (and receiving rejections) in the Thirties, but he was working in an aimless way without understanding why he needed literature or whether literature had anything to gain from him, and was mostly concerned about finding fresh themes for his stories. Now he was overwhelmed with themes. And the purpose of writing had become clear to him: to make what he had lived through unforgettable and to transmit its meaning to posterity. But writing materials were not permitted in captivity, and so he “wrote” without setting anything down on paper, learning to compose any time, anywhere—on forced marches over the frigid steppe, in thundering foundries, in crowded barracks. “As a soldier falls asleep as soon as he sits down on the ground, as a dog’s own fur is the stove that keeps him warm in the cold, so I, instinctively, became adjusted to writing everywhere.” He memorized his compositions, and since verse lent itself more easily than prose to memorizing, he composed in verse.
This is how Prussian Nights came into being. It is now published in a bilingual edition with the English version facing the original page by page. It is called “A Poem” but “A Verse Narrative” would be more appropriate, for Solzhenitsyn, a great writer in prose—those who read his novels in translation cannot realize that, in addition to his other merits, he is a stylist and an innovator in his use of language—is not, and does not claim to be, a poet. Nevertheless, Prussian Nights is not the doggerel to which Mr. Conquest’s lamentably poor translation has reduced it, not the limping, creaking, tiresome chronicle he has made of it, but, for all its shortcomings, a powerful and moving work. Mr. Conquest has not succeeded in giving “a true and fair echo of the original” as, in a sensitive and appreciative “Translator’s Note,” he says he hoped to do.
In this, although admittedly inferior, piece, Solzhenitsyn is, just the same, the historian, moralist, and realist he is in his prose works, the contemplative …
A Matter of Taste February 23, 1978