For the Good of the Cause
We Never Make Mistakes
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?…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.