Monday, August 11, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

 “THE FIRST CIRCLE” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn  (written 1955-64; English translation first published 1968)

I’ve often wondered how well the literary reputation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) will hold up in future years. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. When his work first appeared in English, he was generally reviewed positively and sometimes enthusiastically. Yet it was perhaps unavoidable that he was always seen from a particular political perspective. He was the dissident writer of the late Soviet era. I am old enough to remember that when his first exposes of the Gulag Archipelago came out, there were still doctrinaire old Hard Leftists who, like Holocaust-deniers, wanted to pretend that no such thing existed. Vigorous attempts were made by Soviet officials to discredit him once he was settled in the West (from 1974). Every so often, stories still appear telling us that Solzhenitsyn was an anti-semite or that he had even cooperated with the KGB. But he outlived the Soviet Union. He returned to Russia in 1994, four years after the Soviet Union had become history.
But here is the fate of a writer too closely identified with a certain point in the world’s political history. Once that point is past, he fades out of the general consciousness. Am I right in saying that Solzhenitsyn rarely comes up in literary discussions now? And when he does, his reputation is very mixed. Even when he was at the height of his popularity (in the West), some critics were clearly annoyed that he had become a Christian and rejected the dogmatic materialism in which he had been raised. There were others who situated him in the tradition of Great Russian ethnic nationalism, and wondered where this would lead him. Cold Warriors, who assumed that his critique of the Soviet Union would lead him to embrace Western liberalism, were taken aback to encounter a man who was as opposed to consumerism and the abuse of liberal freedoms as he was to communism. When he returned to his homeland, Solzhenitsyn saw Russia becoming a tacky copy of the West in the new age of Russian capitalist oligarchs and gangsters. In his last years, he wanted a more disciplined society and – in his mid-eighties – he endorsed the strong-arm Russian nationalism of Vladimir Putin.
Oh well. A writer can’t be right about everything and can’t always be an accurate prophet. Solzhenitsyn died six years ago, but it’s at least possible that, if he were still alive, he would have changed his mind about Putin. One hopes so.
After all this throat-clearing, however, I come to this obvious assertion: it is by his written works that we should judge a writer and, regardless of changed historical circumstances, I think there is still much to be said for Solzhenitsyn’s novels. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich remains a key text on imprisonment and the survivalist mentality it produces. Cancer Ward is a painful and dramatic confessional. August 1914 and its sequels are bracing post-Soviet rewritings of revolutionary history. But the one I would pick out as the masterpiece is The First Circle, which Solzhenitsyn wrote, on and off, over nine years, 1955 to 1964. Its 700-plus pages have a large and well-delineated dramatis personae. Its psychological observation is acute. It takes in momentous events so that, even though it is set in a constricted place and its action covers a mere three days, it has an epic tone. More than one critic has remarked that it has the weight and feel of a solid nineteenth century novel.
The First Circle is set in Mavrino a “special” prison camp just outside Moscow, where prisoners are given more lenient treatment than others are given elsewhere in the Soviet Union’s extensive prison system. This is because most of them are scientists, engineers (like Solzhenitsyn) or other specialists who can be of use to the state and can be put to work on classified projects.
The date is 1949. Stalin’s paranoia is reaching its baroque stage. It is the era when communist Yugoslavia is being denounced for adopting an independent line and an anti-Jewish campaign is beginning. The action of the novel takes place in three days around Christmas time, but every major character is introduced with a full backstory and therefore extensive flashbacks. The prisoners at Mavrino are almost all “politicals”, many of whom have been arrested simply for having become prisoners-of-war during the Great Patriotic War. In telling us about them, the novel shows a surprising degree of wit and has no obvious villains (not even Stalin!) despite the horrors that are suggested.
 “Plot” as such is the desperation of the prison’s security officers to get prisoners to perfect a telephone “scrambler” and a “voice printer”, so that they can identify the voice of the petty official who has tipped off a doctor that he is about to suffer an MGB or NKVD (i.e. KGB) frame-up. In fact, we are early made aware that the official in question is Innokenty Volodin, an epicurean Foreign Office man, married to the daughter of Makarykin, a big-shot state prosecutor. Through Volodin’s memories, we are introduced to the privileged life of the prosecutor’s family circle in Moscow and to Stalin himself; and we eventually see the crumbling of Volodin’s hedonistic pleasure-principle morality in the face of the brutal arrest procedure and the stripping away of his easy, conscienceless life.
But this is simply the novel’s “frame”. Its real subject is the prison – crawling with informers, run on petty and vindictive regulations and inspiring constant fear lest one says something that is ideologically unacceptable.
In prison, the main character is Gleb Nerzhin, clearly based on the author himself. He is (like Solzhenitsyn) an engineer and an ex-prisoner-of-war. His whole story seems designed to show the importance of personal (as opposed to collectivist) morality. He is tempted to have an affair with one of Mavrino’s “free” workers, especially as in one scene his wife Nadya visits him and it is clear that they are drifting apart. He is developing a belief in God while she remains a materialist. But Nerzhin stays loyal to Nadya as he understands what strains she endures (as the wife of a known “class enemy”). By novel’s end, Nerzhin is about to be shipped off to a harsher life in a Siberian labour camp.
Lev Rubin is an idealistic communist who clings faithfully to the idea that Stalinist aberrations will pass. He spends his time reading ‘progressive’ American novels (Hemingway, Upton Sinclair etc.) and cheers himself up by plotting on a map the advances communists are making in the Chinese civil war (remember, it is 1949). Lev is Jewish, but as a philologist, he has the wild scheme of purifying the Russian language by driving out all foreign words and “proving” that all words derive from “hand” and “work”, an idea that would validate socialist conceptions of the primacy of the workers. While Rubin is not presented negatively, there is the suggestion that his outlook is limited. He does, after all, out of purely scientific curiosity, throw himself enthusiastically into a project that will only benefit the security police of a totalitarian state. Yet he also has twinges of conscience about the persecution of religious people. He is open and honest and clearly Nerzhin’s best friend. In ideological arguments, Dmitry Sologdin is Lev Rubin’s foil, baiting him for his inconsistencies. Sologdin is one of the novel’s three main characters, but he is not as fully analysed as the other two – or at least not in the 1968 translation that I read.
The minds of security officers, wardens, “free” workers, informers and other prisoners are also analysed in some detail. Many of these other people are awarded full chapters to themselves as a panorama is built up.
This is a novel in the realist tradition, but it has a strain of unobtrusive, unemphatic symbolism. The prisoners’ sleeping quarters at Mavrino are in a former chapel, where a blue electric light has replaced the sanctuary lamp. By brutal means, doctrinaire materialism attempts to trump religion. The painful absence of Christianity is reinforced by the fact that the story is set around Christmas time, when Christ’s coming is expected and then celebrated. As the novel’s title makes clear, this privileged prison is only the First Circle of Dante’s Hell – that is, the place where, in Dante’s schema, good non-Christians (pagan philosophers and the like) fare reasonably well. Solzhenitsyn in no way ridicules or criticises characters for having no God-consciousness. They are good people, but they are missing out on a major part of cosmic reality. The prison is also only the First Circle inasmuch as characters, by the novel’s end, are clearly going to be plunged into the deeper Hell of Siberian punishment camps. Solzhenitsyn also places in his novel “objective correlatives”, such as the drinking mug depicting a cat spying on a mouse in the sequences where Volodin is shut up in the Lubyanka. And yet no such symbol is strained or dwelt upon for too long. It is there for readers to pick up in the midst of a naturalistic narrative.
From a purely historical perspective, there are scenes from this novel that have stuck in my mind because in each case Solzhenitsyn is providing a rational (and witty!) critique of a reality of Soviet life. One such is the gullibility of Western liberals as they enjoy conducted and monitored tours around the Soviet Union. This is pilloried in scenes where naïve Westerners visit the prison camp, not once understanding its purpose (Chapter 54); and also in the novel’s closing pages, where the blindness of a Western journalist to cruel realities is satirised. Another is Solzhenitsyn’s peasant’s eye-view of the whole sequence of revolution, civil war and purges (Chapter 62), which manages to deflate the pomposities of Soviet propaganda in a “Good Soldier Schweik” sort of way. Then there is his unsparing portrait of Stalin (Chapters 18 to 21), who is depicted at the unexpected outbreak of Operation Barbarossa as completely unbelieving that he could be betrayed by the only man he had ever trusted - Adolf Hitler.
I could add many, many other passages that justify seeing the novel as the critique of a particular regime and period. Yet this would be to undermine its real merit, as a critique of intellectuals too absorbed in their own expertise to either see the greater good or to develop a real personal morality.
This is a great novel in many ways. But I fade out on one passage that particularly tickles me. In Chapter 40, a former student ponders on the way she has been taught Russian literature, and she remarks:
Tolstoy spoiled himself by playing the peasant patriarch. (Their teacher had advised them not to read Tolstoy’s novels, because they were very long and would only confuse the clear ideas which they had learned from reading critical studies about him.)
Now doesn’t that part in parentheses make your gut heave?
To study literature without actually having to read the literature. To reduce literary works to neat summaries and formulae. Aren’t these in fact the real ambitions of many students and academics? Solzhenitsyn is dealing here with a game that was more overtly propagandistic in the Soviet Union than in the liberal West. But it is a fairly universal sickness nevertheless.

Important footnote: I am aware that, although it is 700 pages long, the version of The First Circle I have read is the “shorter” (87 chapter) version as opposed to the longer (96 chapter) version which was not published until the 1990s and which contains material which Solzhenitsyn self-censored for the novel’s Western publication during the Soviet era. I am also aware that it has twice been filmed; but as (unusually for me) I have seen neither of the film versions, I have stuck here to the task of talking about the novel I read.

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