Commentary Magazine

The Example of Solzhenitsyn

The scene is a room in a hostel for girl students at Moscow University. The time is December 1949. There are four girls in the room. One is dressing up to go out with her boy friend for the evening; another is ironing a blouse; a third is reading a book. The fourth, Muza by name—a plump, plain, bespectacled girl, older than the others, suffering from rheumatism in one knee, a student of literature who is especially devoted to the works of Turgenev—is writing a letter to her parents in the provinces. The girls talk about clothes and men, they gossip about the fifth occupant of the room, who is not present, they frighten each other with stories about the rats that sometimes scurry about the floors of the dormitory. Muza pays as little attention to them as she can; but it isn’t only because of their talk that she finds it difficult to concentrate on the letter she is supposed to be writing. A secret is tormenting her. A few days previously she had been called into a room by two men, strangers to her, who had revealed themselves to be members of the secret police, and had told her that they had picked her out to supply information to them about her fellow-students and teachers; to become, in short, a police-spy. If she didn’t agree to cooperate, they had said to her, they would wreck her career; they would begin by having her expelled from the university with a bad record.

And so on Tuesday she would again face those two cocky men with their ready words, who were prepared for all eventualities. . . . Everything had come to an end. Because they would not yield. And she would not yield either. She would not yield because how could she judge the human qualities of Hamlet or Don Quixote, remembering that she was an informer, that she had a code-name like “Daisy” or something, and that she had to gather information against these girls or against her own professor.

Muza is among the most minor of the many characters in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s long novel, The First Circle1 That one scene is all we see and hear of her; she does not reappear in the book. Nevertheless, she provides as good a point of entry as one can hope to find into the whole of this impressive work. The crisis into which Muza is thrust provides a clue to the essential subject matter of the novel; and the way she is made to respond to it by her creator tells one a great deal, I think, about the nature of his approach to his art. Through the question which Muza asks of herself, we can see that Solzhenitsyn takes for granted an absolutely direct and open connection between literature and morality, art and life. He believes our responsibilities in the one to be inseparable from our responsibilities in the other; indeed, to be all but identical with one another.

In the West today such an assumption about the relationship between art and morality is distinctly unfashionable. We like to insist nowadays on the detachment of art from moral considerations, on the element of sheer “play” in it, on its aesthetic autonomy and aloofness from the messiness of the world in which decisions with real consequences have to be made. Or if we admit any commerce between art and morality—and it is damned difficult to stop the traffic altogether, for all the blowing of critical whistles and the setting up of academic check-points—then what we are likely to demand of our art is that it should subvert and overthrow all the traditional moral notions; that it should do its best to fragment the self into a thousand pieces, rather than to stress its organic wholeness. Naturally, it follows that much of our most fashionable art is extreme in its modes of expression, dislocated in its techniques, committed to irrationality and outrage. What else can it be, we ask each other, in so dislocated a time and in so irrational a world? How can our art not reject with all the vigor it can muster the moral ideas that have had everywhere such evidently disastrous social consequences?

The life and work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are difficult to reconcile with the line of this argument. Tactless though it may be to begin with this observation, one can’t help noticing the fact that many of our rejecters of society and subverters of what they declare to be the conventional morality are promptly rewarded with university chairs, television interviews, and double-page spreads in the glossy magazines. Whereas Solzhenitsyn, the upholder of the old-fashioned literary and human virtues, has been rewarded by his society with many years of imprisonment in the unspeakable conditions of Arctic labor camps, followed by exile, the banning of his books, and a continuous series of petty administrative persecutions. Moreover, it is Solzhenitsyn, who is so committed to the traditional (and rational) modes of his art, who deals directly in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle with the effects of precisely that kind of overwhelming social cataclysm which writers in the West call upon as justification for their own leap into irrationality and excess.



In fact, the simplicity of Solzhenitsyn’s language, the straightforwardness of his methods of portraying character and developing incident, the freedom with which he makes his comments on the action he is presenting, and above all, the extraordinary moderation of tone with which he speaks of the most appalling psychic and physical tortures inflicted on innocent men and women—all these suggest strongly that some of the hysterias and deliriums of our most widely-admired art in the English-speaking world is in a curious way an expression of ignorance, or of bad conscience. That is to say, the hysteria expresses the horrified fascination with the overthrow of all order to be found among those who know such an event only as an abstraction, who have experienced it only as readers, onlookers, noncombatants. There is plenty of evidence to suggest, at any rate, that among those who have actually lived through the most violent ordeals of our era—the trenches of the First World War, say, or the concentration camps of Hitler or Stalin—a common response is to set the highest store by facticity, by the obligation to record the unadorned grit and detail of the human truth experienced and recalled.

All this is complicated enough; still, I am simplifying. In the first place, honesty of the kind that the girl Muza is asking of herself—and that her creator asks of himself—is always going to be unfashionable and awkward to deal with, in any society; it is always going to give pain to those who try to live by it; it is always going to be held in contempt by place-seekers and timeservers of every conceivable political and aesthetic persuasion. In comparing the rewards and punishments meted out by our society and the Russian to writers of one sort or another, the last thing I would wish to suggest is that we in the West, because of the greater liberty of expression we are permitted, have “gone beyond” the need for Muza’s kind of honesty. We haven’t. We never will. The second point is that I don’t for a moment believe that such honesty will always express itself in the direct and simple ways chosen by Solzhenitsyn. Not at all. There is no need to rebut the suggestion by rehearsing the names of many of the masters of modern literature; but as a peculiarly relevant contemporary witness I would like to mention Solzhenitsyn’s fellow-Russian and fellow-convict, Andrey Sinyavsky, some of whose surreal fantasies in such books as The Icicle and The Trial Begins seem to me successful and compelling works of art. Of Solzhenitsyn’s works all one can say is that, being as much of a piece as they are, it is inconceivable that he could have produced them in any form other than the one he has chosen. The loss will be ours if our new orthodoxies—masquerading, as so many orthodoxies nowadays do, in quasi-revolutionary garb—prevent us from appreciating and responding to his achievements.



As most readers will probably by now know, much of The First Circle is set in a prison of a rather unusual kind on the outskirts of Moscow. In this prison are a number of scientists and technologists who have been hauled out of forced-labor camps in Siberia and the Arctic Circle and set to work on various research projects which the regime is anxious to have completed. That the scientists are innocent of ever having committed any crimes goes without saying: they are simply victims—at the moment the most fortunate victims—of the terror that has imprisoned or killed, more or less at random, millions of their fellow-citizens.

For four days we live among the prisoners and their jailors. We listen to their conversations; we join a handful of prisoners who are allowed a pathetically brief, constricted annual visit from their wives; we participate in the struggles for power among the different groups involved in the running of the prison; we follow the progress of the research projects to which the prisoners have been assigned. Two projects are of particular importance in the book: the one is the development of a kind of “scrambler” to make telephone conversations impenetrable to an eavesdropper; and the other—the exact opposite of the first, in a way—is research into a method of recording and interpreting “voice-prints,” which would be as individual and unmistakable as thumb-prints, taken from tapped telephones. In addition, we see how the families both of the prisoners and the jailors go about their lives in the streets and homes of Moscow; we meet a cabinet minister, himself under threat by Stalin, who terrorizes his underlings, who in turn terrorize theirs, until the shock waves of the threats reach the prisoners, in their isolation from and ignorance of the world beyond the walls of the institution. In one unconvincing chapter, we even meet the arch-terrorist, Stalin himself, in his lonely room in the Kremlin. (Like much else in the book, the chapter about Stalin looks straight back to War and Peace: one remembers that Tolstoy was not afraid to tackle head-on the portrayal of Napoleon.)

By the end of the novel, Nerzhin, the central figure, a long-term prisoner, has been arbitrarily dispatched back into the lower circles of the inferno of Stalin’s penal system; while a minor character, Innokenty Volodin, has just begun to make his acquaintance with the workings of that system in the Lubianka prison. Volodin has been arrested for having warned another Muscovite that the secret police are after him; and it is part of the ironic pattern of the book that he is tracked down because of the progress made in the “voice-print” project by Rubin, one of the most sympathetic of the prisoners, and a particular friend of Nerzhin’s.

A much larger irony, however, which informs the whole book, is that if all Russia is in the hands of a sadistic jailor and his omnipresent henchmen—as my initial quotation about Muza should suggest—then the only free men are those who are already in jail. This idea is stated explicitly, on many occasions, by the prisoners themselves; it is also implicit in what the author tells us or shows us about almost every one of his characters. It is the men outside the jail, not the prisoners, who are tormented by fear, suspicion, greed for possessions, a hopeless longing for a security the system never for an instant grants them. The prisoners, by contrast, have the serenity of having nothing to lose; they are able to cherish their friendships with one another and express their thoughts freely to those who are closest to them; they are able to create among themselves a community that is far more genuine than anything outside the walls.



But it is in his treatment of this theme that one can accuse the author of a certain degree of sentimentality. Not because he fails to make real and deeply moving to us the prisoners’ sense of their precarious, naked freedom, or because his account of their loyalty to one another is not completely persuasive. (Far more persuasive, I may say, than the attempt to describe the same phenomenon in Into the Whirlwind, Evgenia Ginzburg’s non-fictional description of her experience of prison life during the Great Terror.) No, the problem is that while we believe Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of the particular group of prisoners he concentrates upon, we can’t help asking: what about the others? He himself says at one point that one in five of the prisoners is an informer. Why then does he not anatomize for us, as he anatomizes the greeds and dreads of the people outside the prison, those which drive the informers into their treachery and sycophancy? He acknowledges them, certainly; but that, one feels, in view of the ironic pattern of the book as a whole, is not enough.

On the other hand, the paradoxical notion of an invaluable freedom which only prisoners can enjoy never lapses into a sentimentality of another kind which might seem to threaten it: namely, a view of the tyranny as a power which, to adapt Goethe’s words, wills forever evil yet does forever good; as a vessel or medium of wrath from which or through which a purification of the soul can be achieved. Solzhenitsyn never kisses the rod. His hatred of the tormentors and persecutors of his people remains unalloyed, even while he sees the wretched ordinariness of the motives of the servants of the tyranny and understands their miseries. The expression of his hatred is made all the more intense by a savage humor which breaks through, with an effect in such a somber context of startlingly high spirits, both in certain set scenes and in numerous narrative asides.

Furthermore, one of the most impressive things about The First Circle—and one of the ways in which it most offends many of our own pieties about art—is that on the whole it carefully avoids what I am tempted to call “the sentimentality of symbolism.” One can remark on the symbolism of the research conducted in the prison on the nature of the human voice—that voice which the entire system has as its end to stifle—and on the overall ironic pattern of the book. Yet, allowing for these, in this book the prison remains nothing more or less than a prison, the walls around it are real walls and not metaphysical constructs, the sufferings and hopes of the prisoners are those of individuals in a particular place at one moment in human history. They do not stand for anything other than what they are; the author does not distract his gaze or ours from them in order to use them as illustrations of a larger thesis about life in general. It is enough for him that they should be what they are.

The avoidance of symbolism is in some respects even more remarkable in The Cancer Ward,2 the novel with which Solzhenitsyn has followed The First Circle, and which again deals with a closed group, the inmates of another institution. Given the nature of cancer, and given the manner in which authors have always been tempted to treat illness in general, it seems to me positively to the author’s credit that he should have been able to regard his subject not as a “criticism” of civilization, or as a punishment of God, or as the physical sign of the inner perversion of his characters’ psyches, or anything of that sort. His approach is much calmer, more stoical, but scarcely less painful to read about. Cancer is an illness, it can be treated in various ways, it kills people quickly and painfully or slowly and painfully, it is in the nature of things that there should be such illnesses and that we should be liable to die of them: that seems to be his attitude.

In fact, when he does speak metaphorically of cancer in the book, one sees that he turns the analogy well away from any kind of inward psychological or spiritual notation, into a comment on his country as a whole: he speaks of the concentration camps as tumors within Russia, growths which must surely kill the state if they are allowed to continue in existence. But even this analogy is not pressed or developed at any length; it is thrown off without fuss, among many other reflections about the disease, about the lives which it threatens, about the nature of an organization like a hospital. The chief source of these reflections is Oleg Kostoglov, an exile who has served many years in forced labor camps, and whose stay of some months in the cancer ward of a hospital in Central Asia is the period covered by the novel. In the end he is discharged from the hospital, but the prognosis is doubtful and the treatment he has undergone to “cure” the disease has more or less emasculated him. He is left to reflect on the apparently random nature of evil, on a principle of malevolence which seems at work equally in nature and in human society. But even to refer to a “principle” is to distort the author’s tone. The last bitter words of the book are: “Simply—so. . . .



If Solzhenitsyn manages to treat the central subject of the book without schematizing it, nevertheless the novel as a whole seems to me a much weaker affair than The First Circle precisely because the same thing can’t be said of its characters. They do appear to form a gallery of deliberately chosen types, each one fleshed out individually to fulfill an abstract idea, and brought together to give us a cross-section of Soviet society. There is, for example, the apparatchik who has risen to a high position by denouncing his neighbors and colleagues, and who is now almost as insulted by having to lie in a common ward as by the illness itself; there is the bully and vulgarian who is transformed into a quietist by a reading of Tolstoy’s What Men Live By; there is the eager young geologist and party member who cannot wait to get back to his work, which he is sure will bring him fame and be of benefit to his country; there is the hardworking, uncomplaining woman doctor who has for so long exposed herself to radiation that she has now developed symptoms which she shrinks from having investigated, like any frightened layman. Many of the scenes in the book are strong and poignant; but compared with The First Circle the overall effect is airless and contrived.



The house of fiction has many rooms. I have praised The First Circle for avoiding the transformation of the prison in which it is set into a symbol. Yet Little Dorrit, which, as many critics have remarked, is dominated by a series of symbolic prisons, seems to me a greater book. I have praised The Cancer Ward for not allegorizing the illness it speaks of; The Magic Mountain, which never stops allegorizing its characters’ tubercular afflictions, is a greater work of art. So what? We should be grateful to accept the books on their own terms; to recognize the sincerity and artistry which goes into each. Both The First Circle and The Cancer Ward will be read for many years, among other reasons, simply for what they tell us of conditions in the Soviet Union during the last years of Stalin’s rule and after; but it is a hopelessly narrow conception of the novel which imagines that the value of the books as documents, as records, derogates from their value as literature.

The author of these two novels is a man whose courage and generosity of spirit it would be an impertinence to praise. When so many writers in the West are committed to a new “cult of personality”—their own personalities, that is; when they seem to believe that one of the chief functions of the writer is to provide others with gossip about himself; when they write as if the public or social self, with all its pestiferous demands and hungers, is the only self any of us ever has—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has reminded us of quite another kind of unity an author can strive to achieve between his life and his work.


1 Harper & Row, 580 pp, $10.00, translated by Thomas P. Whitney.

2 The Dial Press, 616 pp., $8.50, translated by Rebecca Frank/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 560 pp., $10.00, translated by Nicholas Bethell and David Burg.

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