Alexander Solzhenitsyn is, I believe, the only contemporary Soviet novelist whose total published work—at least up until the end of 1963—has been translated into English. This is something to be grateful for, since Solzhenitsyn is a good, sometimes excellent, writer. But there is no point in pretending that it is his literary quality which promotes such enthusiasm for his writing in the West. Like his less talented colleague Yevtushenko, Solzhenitsyn is another of those aesthetic barometers the experts use to forecast the political weather in the Soviet Union; by what he publishes and how it is received they can tell whether the skies are set fair for a liberal spell, or a repressive storm is looming.
No doubt this is a legitimate activity, a useful one, and even, at times, relevant. It is, after all, an old tradition in Eastern Europe for the writers to act as the social conscience of the nation, voicing the dissatisfactions which are never aired by a one-party government. Hence Khrushchev himself is said to have okayed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as part of his campaign against Stalin. Similarly, For the Good the Cause was published, as David Floyd explains in his Introduction, at a particularly sensitive point in the post-Cuban battle between the reactionaries and the liberals. A critical battle followed in the correspondence columns of the orthodox Literaturnaya Gazeta and the more daring Novy Mir, where all Solzhenitsyn’s work has appeared. The liberals won; the barometer, apparently, is rising again.
For the non-Kremlinologists, there is a certain fascination about all this, of a rather gossipy kind. But it hasn’t much to do with literature. Unfortunately, no one on either side of the Iron Curtain seems able, or willing, to avoid politics when discussing Solzhenitsyn. The publication of One Day was celebrated in the West by a vulgar wrangle between the rival translators as to whose version was “free world” and whose “Kremlin authorized.” The author’s two subsequent stories, We Never Make Mistakes and Matryona’s House—the latter might well be something of a masterpiece—have been turned into leaden schoolboy prose and supplied with a minatory Introduction by an exstalwart of the US Psychological Warfare Department. For the Good of the Cause, more imaginatively, has appended to it the contributions to the critical debate which followed its publication. These are intriguing, but I suspect that they are there in order to make the work seem more significant and controversial than would otherwise have been believed. (Their other function is to swell those 94 short pages of text into four dollars’ worth of book.) Though buried deep in the provinces, poor Solzhenitsyn is still part of the Cold War.
Unluckily perhaps for him, he seems to be even more on the political battle front in Russia. In an oddly old-fashioned way, less Marxist than Bradleyite, the critical debate on his new novel was concerned almost entirely with how probable his story and characters were. Are the “little Stalins” obsolete or merely obsolescent? What kind of research institute could it be which would be allowed to take over a school’s new buildings? Could a really good Communist be impetuóus? And so on. How many children had Lady Macbeth of Mtensk?
No doubt Solzhenitsyn likes it that way. Though he lives in Ryazan—somewhere in the interior—and is said to be a great scorner of publicity and Moscow literary life, For the Good of the Cause is very much the kind of novel his less literary-minded supporters might have wished him to write. It is more a tract or a polemic than a work of art. In a small provincial town the students of a technical college have spent their summer helping to finish a shining new home for their school, with lecture halls, proper laboratories and workshops, playing fields and dormitories. But at the last moment, while the students are enthusiastically organizing the final move, the building is requisitioned for a homeless research institute. Moscow has ordained it, though vaguely and from a distance, and this suits the local party bosses: Knorozov, the Stalinesque secretary of the District Committee, because an institute will increase the status of the town, and his power with it; Khabalygin, his attendant managerial hyena, because he sees in it a better job and bigger graft for himself. The harassed principal of the school, Fyodor Mikheyevich, is helpless before them, while his friend Grachikov, head of the Town Committee and representative of a fighting Leninist morality, has the courage but not the power to get the decision changed. So the institute gets the building and the children are faced with the same old grind all over again: a new site, a new building to erect, another overcrowded spell in their old school, and disillusion.
The theme of the novel is simple: What is ultimately for the good of the cause, and what is not? Should power be centralized, bureaucratic, and monolithic, or should it find breathing space for the human thing? Does real communism come in the shape of the students’ group effort and enthusiasm, or in sacrificing what you have worked for to the remoter good of the cause? In short, is politics merely expediency and manipulation, or can it also be moral?
There are no doubts about Solzhenitsyn’s answers, nor the firmness with which he voices them. But there is, I think, a good deal of doubt about the imaginative resources he taps. Compared with One Day or his two short stories, this new novel seems thin and fragile. It is not so very different in method from those regulation parables of social realism about the dissatisfied worker who finds fulfillment through his tractor. What is fresh about the book is its moral insistence on human difficulties and contradictions (the principal, Fyodor, sneakingly admires the conviction and power of the little Stalin who runs over him). It is as though the author were interested less in the novel itself than in defining a new tone for the party, a kind of ethical platform.
This seems to me a step down and back from his earlier work. Even at his best, his gift has never been dramatic. The power of his tales lies not in their plots but in his ability to create slightly larger-than-life figures who cast around them a curious and penetrating moral light. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is exactly what the title says: a description of a prisoner’s day in a Russian concentration camp. The hero merely endures—for ten years—and the drama is that of routine:
There were three thousand six hundred and fifty three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
The three extra days were for leap years.
It takes a kind of genius to make the facts carry the judgments so unassumingly, yet so sharply. Similarly, in Matryona’s House an old, almost destitute woman, who cooks atrociously and cleans up rarely, is cajoled into handing over the timber frame of part of her house to some newly-weds, and is killed accidentally while doing so. In both stories, nothing much happens; in both, the central figures are simple, utterly unaffected, almost saintlike:
She was misunderstood and abandoned by her husband, having buried six of his children. Her moral and ethical standards made her a misfit. She was considered “odd” by her sisters and her sisters-in-law—a laughingstock—because, as they said, she was so stupid as to work for others without pay. She never accumulated property against the time of her death when her only possessions were a dirty-white goat, a crippled cat, and rubber plants…
We all lived beside her, and never understood that she was that righteous one without whom, according to the proverb, no village can stand.
Nor any city.
Nor our whole land.
In both stories, as in biblical parables, the real drama is not in the action so much as in the closing judgment. Solzhenitsyn’s art is deliberately stripped down and self-effacing so that the morality may shine more plainly through.
The source of both his morality and his power, however, is in something distinctly Russian. He has found a contemporary way of talking about a perennial national theme—the concern also of Tolstoy and of Turgenev—the Slavic peasant soul. Like his predecessors, he has made a myth out of intuitive simplicity, using it both as a standard by which to judge the most complex issues, and as an abiding reassurance.
This is why One Day is unlike any other literature of the concentration camps. The brutality, regimentation, hunger, and fear are all there, yet they somehow add to Ivan Denisovich’s humanity. Instead of nihilism and the burnt-out end of existence, the book is oddly hopeful, fertile. However ghastly the system, there is in the hero’s simplicity a certain enduring goodness that suffering only enhances. In our own dominantly urban literature simplicity usually means deprivation. Beckett’s figures have nothing and know nothing; but they are not simple, they are sick. If Hemingway seemed simple, it was by hard work—an achievement of extreme literary sophistication. Only those great, mothering negroes of Faulkner’s might be at ease in a Russian novel.
For Solzhenitsyn simplicity is both stirring and normative. It helps his best work to a certain moral sweetness and optimism which is hard to define. Ultimately, I suppose, it is based on some kind of transformed and rather patriotic Christian ethic. Secularized, it runs easily to brashness; witness the enthusiasms of the schoolmistress youth-leader and her students in For the Good of the Cause. Yet secularization is precisely the artistic problem Solzhenitsyn is trying to face: to what extent is this slightly mythic quality translatable into terms of party politics? His most moving characters gain their stature, I think, from their creator’s feelings for that undefined but potent force, Mother Russia, not from the Communist Party. His concern is to inject their particular brand of instinctive righteousness into political behavior, so as to fuse the myth of the country and the myth of the party into one.
For the Good of the Cause, on the other hand, is precisely about a domestic political issue. It is about the tribulations of decent citizens and the frustrations of petty bureaucracy. But frustration is a tricky theme to handle; it comes off on the work like pollen, until the author seems as frustrated imaginatively as his heroes are by life. Solzhenitsyn is a moral artist who is inspired most powerfully by suffering and its corollary, endurance. Neither quality has much to do with For the Good of the Cause. As a work of political conscience and duty, it may be all very imposing, and even important. As a work of art, it is negligible.
September 24, 1964