God and the Devil

August 1914: The Red Wheel/Knot I

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by H. T. Willetts
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 854 pp., $19.95 (paper)

It has become the fashion to write off Solzhenitsyn as a has-been, an old fuddy-duddy, still lamenting in voluminous pages at longer and longer intervals the disappearance of Holy Russia, and castigating now not so much the Soviet regime as the new-style Russian intelligentsia, both those in exile and those still in their own homeland. Intellectuals like Andrei Sinyavsky, who used to smuggle his books out to the West to be published under the nom de plume of Abram Tertz, make no secret of the fact that they find Solzhenitsyn’s attitudes and personality decidedly uncongenial, even though they admire his past work, and particularly his first short, brilliant tale from the Gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Sinyavsky has suffered trial and imprisonment under the same tyranny as Solzhenitsyn himself, and has shown the same courage and steadfastness, but his satirical fantasies, and particularly his recent free-wheeling memoir, Goodnight!, could hardly be more different in style and outlook from Solzhenitsyn’s sober traditionalism. The same goes for Sinyavsky’s friend and fellow-sufferers Yuli Daniel, Vladimir Voinovich, and Alexander Zinoviev, as well as other contemporary Russian creators of imaginative fictional polemics. As with their western counterparts, new techniques incline them to present the whole of history, and organized social life in general, as a bad joke, with the Soviet establishment representing just one particularly ripe source of black humor. Their glee may be more spontaneous and more good-natured, more generously and traditionally Russian than that heard from writers in the West, but it is essentially of the same kind.

Solzhenitsyn is a writer of a different vintage, a throwback to the heavy earnestness of the nineteenth century, to the days of Darwin, Marx, and Tolstoy. It is now routine to depreciate his “Tolstoyan” characteristics, which in August 1914 are certainly invoked with a heavy hand, but when all is said some of Tolstoy’s greatness as a writer does seem reborn in Solzhenitsyn’s pages. You cannot have one side of Tolstoy without the other: the universal crank, the solipsist and religious dogmatist were, so to speak, feeding the titanic and almost involuntary artist who could reveal the nature of life and humanity with such sureness and on such a scale. As prig and crank, obsessed with his own diagnosis and his own solution, Solzhenitsyn can seem almost a parody of his great predecessor, but the quality of artistry goes with the parody nonetheless.

This appears again and again in August 1914, and with Tolstoy’s sort of seeming inadvertence. After the Battle of Borodino Pierre meets up with some soldiers, and goes with them through the night till he finds his own friends looking for him. The soldiers watch with kindly paternal interest the meeting of their new friend with his former acquaintance, and after a few farewells disappear into the dark. In August 1914, after the disastrous battle of Tannenberg, remnants of an infantry platoon set off for home through the East Prussian forest, carrying …

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