In response to:
Hell on Earth from the December 19, 1968 issue
To the Editors:
In his December 19 review of the two recently published novels by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle and The Cancer Ward, V. S. Pritchett makes the error of reversing the actual order in which the books were written. The Cancer Ward, not The First Circle, is the author’s “latest novel.” Both books relate to the author’s life, as described in the Publisher’s Foreword to The Cancer Ward, which Mr. Pritchett seems to have overlooked—the background to The First Circle being a research institute where the author served part of an eight-year prison term, from which he was released in February, 1953 (not 1956, as the reviewer holds); The Cancer Ward coming out of a later experience, the author’s stay at a hospital in Tashkent, where he was treated for cancer. The order in which the two books were written is verified by the dates on the manuscripts, which in both cases are included in the American editions: 1955-1964 for The First Circle, and 1963-1967 for The Cancer Ward.
To point out the reviewer’s error is for the sake of more than simple bibliographic accuracy; it bears on the whole sense of Mr. Pritchett’s review, for The Cancer Ward will be seen then not merely as “opening a window in an art” in anticipation of The First Circle, but as the author’s true culminating work to date.
New York City
V.S Pritchett replies:
Mr. Hutter of the Dial Press is right. His edition properly lists Solzhenitsyn’s novels and the Foreword is explicit. There is no information at all in the Harper & Row edition of The First Circle and no American publication date. It arrived, on this reviewer’s table, as “the latest,” after The Cancer Ward was done with. I do suggest that, in their scramble to get hold of banned books from Russia, publishers might cooperate with each other in the interests of the author and the critic. The true order of writing may invalidate the hopeful argument of an advance in a talent already considerable; but it doesn’t alter my view that The First Circle is the better book. The excellence of the Kadim episode in The Cancer Ward shows up what one had felt as a certain crudeness in the sensational allegory—if allegory was the author’s intention; in The First Circle, the allegorical overtone is subtler and slight and the whole novel is richer in character and wider in range.
March 13, 1969