Tuesday August 4th, 2009

The Highest and Best Circle of Hell


In the First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Harper Perennial, 784 pp., $18.99

(Ed. Note: In October, Harper Perennial is reissuing this novel with its original title, In the First Circle. This new edition will include a significant amount of material that was originally cut by Soviet censors. The essay below makes reference to the truncated version first published in the U.S., and calls the book throughout by its title from that time, The First Circle.)

When Alexander Solzhenitsyn died in August 2008, the obituaries were respectful, if distant. The Los Angeles Times referred to him as “the reclusive icon of the Russian intelligentsia and chronicler of Communist repression.” The New York Times, in its extensive, nearly manuscript-length appreciation of his life, paid tribute to the explosive impact of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which was, in the words of diplomat George F. Kennan, “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.” Solzhenitsyn was a prophet, calling down the wrath of God on the criminal Communist enterprise, contributing in no small part to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Political dissident, Nobel Prize winner, American exile, post-Soviet Russian nationalist: the list of appellations appended to Solzhenitsyn’s name was long and astoundingly varied. The one title which best described him, though — novelist — was only lightly acknowledged. And when his fiction was summoned, it was often to be disparaged: The Economist said that “he was not another Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Often the characters in Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s books were one-dimensional, the tone sardonic, the detail turgid.”

Memories are short, and writers with dense bibliographies often suffer most from the telescopic vision of critics, who hone in on one or two essential works and ignore or offhandedly malign the rest. Solzhenitsyn was the author of two books that contributed to the fall of an empire, published against the stiffest odds, which cost him his homeland and won him the highest prize in international letters. They are the works that shed the strongest light yet on the Gulags, and forever ended the Western romance with Soviet Communism. It is understandable that The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich take up so much mental space in any appreciation of Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre, but the obsession with those two works, to the exclusion of all others, has led to a warped view of the author that severely undercuts his actual writerly virtues. Solzhenitsyn is, by the most widespread understanding, a righteous scold, a man more at home with ideas than people. His work is cold, precise, outraged, but ultimately disappointing to those who admire Solzhenitsyn for his humanism. In this version of things, he is a particularly Russian paradox: the defender of human rights with no particular affection for human beings.

By most accounts, Solzhenitsyn was a prickly, difficult character. Having demonstrated enormous courage by opposing Communism, he then frustrated his admirers by also heaping scorn on American values, and becoming, in his last years, a quasi-mystical, possibly anti-Semitic Russian nationalist. His work — or its reputation — suffered as a consequence. The biographical fallacy snapped into place with predictable precision. How could so unpleasant a man have anything of interest to say about the human condition? Solzhenitsyn remains, in this reevaluation, an important writer, even a great one, but not a particularly enjoyable one, or one with much to offer beyond his political impact.

How wrong this view is. One suspects, in fact, that few have taken the opportunity in recent years to read Solzhenitsyn’s fiction, for Tolstoy is precisely the writer best suited for comparison. Perhaps lacking the milk of human kindness in his personal life, Solzhenitsyn’s novels are rich in detail and overflowing with compassion. Cancer Ward (1967) is a dazzling allegory of Soviet life, its patients riddled with the tumors of totalitarianism. In later life, Solzhenitsyn devoted himself to the massive Red Wheel series of novels, explicitly intended as a Tolstoyan historical novel of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. His true masterpiece, however, is 1968’s The First Circle.

Solzhenitsyn was an autobiographically informed novelist. Arrested in 1945, as the Second World War was coming to an end, he was accused of belittling Stalin, having referred to him in a letter to a friend as “the man with the mustache.” “Mine was, probably, the easiest imaginable kind of arrest,” Solzhenitsyn would remember in The Gulag Archipelago:

It did not tear me from the embrace of kith and kin, nor wrench me from a deeply cherished home life. One pallid European February it took me from our narrow salient on the Baltic Sea, where, depending on one’s point of view, either we had surrounded the Germans or they had surrounded us, and it deprived me only of my familiar artillery battery and the scenes of the last three months of the war.

Shuttled between Moscow prisons for the first two years of his sentence, Solzhenitsyn spent the years 1947-1950 at a sharashka, a research complex where essential scientific workers were employed in relative comfort. Only after ill-advisedly criticizing the sharashka’s head was he sent east, to Ekibastuz camp in Kazakhstan, 2,500 miles away from Moscow. Three years in Ekibastuz were followed by an intended period of “perpetual exile,” only to be interrupted by treatment for a cancerous tumor in his stomach. Each of these periods — sharashka, camp, cancer ward — received fictional treatment.

Ivan Denisovich, the book about Ekibastuz, is haunting, its one day metonymically symbolizing the endless days of deprivation and desolation. We are summoned to bear witness to the tiniest details of the titular character’s existence, from the scramble for an extra bowl of mush at lunchtime to his craving for a small supply of tobacco. The detail makes Ivan’s life seem familiar, even tolerable, but it is only the author briefly lulling us before the killing blow. It is doubtful that Solzhenitsyn ever read Henry James — they hardly seem to belong to the same human race — but there is something Jamesian, something of the terrible force of The Bostonians’ subtly ironic brutality, to the abrupt conclusion of Ivan Denisovich:

Shukhov went to sleep, and he was very happy. He’d had a lot of luck today…. Nothing had spoiled the day and it had been almost happy. There were three thousand six hundred and fifty three days like this in his sentence, from reveille to lights out. The three extra ones were because of the leap years….

The ellipsis marks the end of the novel, its evocation of the 3,653 days just like it eclipsing all understanding. What could it possibly mean to endure so long a season in hell? The additional seventy-two hours of imprisonment — the leap days of Ivan’s sentence — would be ludicrous in their attempt at precision were it not for the fact that those three days alone triple the scope of this book.

The First Circle concerns worker-prisoners in the Soviet Gulag who are critically needed intelligence workers — mostly scientists and researchers. These intellectuals are, relatively speaking, the lucky ones. They live and work in an urban complex, and face little in the way of physical privation, regularly fed and decently clothed. They are the residents of the first circle of hell, with Solzhenitsyn explicitly comparing the Soviet dystopia to Dante’s Inferno. The novel haunts us with the awareness that far, far worse was taking place elsewhere. As a prisoner headed for the Gulag observes, with terrifying accuracy, at the end of the novel: “We are going into hell now. We are returning to hell. The sharashka is the highest, the best, the first circle of hell. It was almost paradise.”

Even in hell, the zeks (slang for prisoners) debate, above all, about politics. Is their imprisonment a product of their own iniquities, those of their jailers, or that of Communist ideology itself? For prisoners like the Jewish Rubin, a devoted socialist, arguing his point requires castigating himself for his own failures in fulfilling his duty as a Communist worker. For others, this first circle provides a paradoxical freedom — when in prison, one becomes free to speak one’s mind again. And yet, the specter of the ninth circle lurks around every corner, in the gaps of every sentence spoken. Workers are reassigned without warning and disappear, never to be seen again.

The most astonishing aspect of Solzhenitsyn’s book, which feels almost sacrilegious to mention — but which is too important to ignore — is its humor. “We get used to seeing the humorous side of it,” a prisoner tells his wife, and it is the prisoners’ point of view that The First Circle privileges. Solzhenitsyn is a gifted mimic of the prisoners’ speech, of the circular nature of their endless debates, of the ways in which even in this prison the elemental human desires — for sex, for companionship, for satisfaction — continue on. One prisoner insists on a precise but roundabout locution that he calls the Language of Maximum Clarity, while another praises Stalin as “the Robespierre and Napoleon of our Revolution.” Solzhenitsyn takes a particularly twisted delight in mocking the terminology of the state. A prisoner pretends to read from a document for the amusement of his friends, sending up the bullying tone of official rhetoric: “His traitorous activity was manifest from the very beginning, when, duped by an eclipse of the sun, a provocation arranged by the reactionary clergy, he failed to direct mass political propaganda work among his own troops.”

Later, we hear the story of an American dignitary (presumably intended to be Eleanor Roosevelt) visiting Butyrskaya prison at the end of the Second World War, where prisoners have suddenly received silk underwear, silver spoons and a selection of pro-American magazines. She asks if they have any complaints, and a cacophony of voices ring out. Her interpreter provides his own, decidedly creative gloss: “They unanimously protest against the serious predicament of Negroes in America and demand that the Negro question be submitted to the United Nations.”

The First Circle’s luxurious language and good cheer initially belie Solzhenitsyn’s reputation for stark reportage from the heart of the 20th century’s worst horrors, but Solzhenitsyn knows precisely what he is doing — distracting our attention elsewhere before piercing the skin of the prisoners’ experience and revealing the core of Stalin’s cruelty.

There are numerous such examples in the book, but one will suffice. Gleb Nerzhin, a mathematician-prisoner in his early thirties, is being transported by bus for a 30-minute visit with his wife, whom he has not seen for a year. They had been together for only a year before his imprisonment, and it will be at least a few years more before he is released. The greater likelihood, as he well knows, is that his sentence will be extended for the rest of his life. Gleb watches out the window of the bus as the driver sharply brakes for a little boy dashing across the road:

Nerzhin, who had not thought about children for years, suddenly understood clearly that Stalin had robbed him and Nadya of their children. Even if his term should end, even if they were together again, his wife would be thirty-six, maybe forty. It would be too late for a child. Dozens of children dressed in different colors were skating on the pond.

Solzhenitsyn has spent the preceding 200 or so pages allowing us to get comfortable in the sharashka, familiarizing us with its routine and its residents, in order to shock us with the horror of Gleb’s plain-spoken thought. It is a moment terrifying in its emptiness, chilling not because something has taken place, but because something has not.

In one paragraph, utilizing the simplest possible language, Solzhenitsyn has pulled back the curtain on the true horror of Soviet life. He has replaced the enormous, incomprehensible levers of political and social calamity with a simple equation. One man has denied to another man and his wife the right to bear children.

In an act of dazzling artistic courageousness, Stalin is present here as a character, too, a sleepless pensioner combating ill health and wielding the state’s cudgel. His presence is testament to the profound leap of imagination taken by The First Circle, which struggles to understand not only the prisoners, but their jailers, too. Solzhenitsyn’s inclusion of Stalin is also aggressive — a willful act of defiance against the totalitarian state. Set on the page, he is no bigger than those forgotten men whose lives he casually destroyed.

Saul Austerlitz is a writer in New York.

Mentioned in this review:

The Gulag Archipelago
The First Circle
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Cancer Ward
The Bostonians