Alexandr Solzhenitsyn had a greater impact on the world than any other writer of the last century. You’d have to go back to the age of Victor Hugo or Harriet Beecher Stowe to find writers who shook history with a comparable force. He, more than anyone else, made the hidden history of the gulag public knowledge and through the remarkable force of his intransigent resistance sparked a moral revolution that led to the end of Soviet communism. As Mikhail Gorbachev rightly observed, Solzhenitsyn “changed the consciousness of millions of people, forcing them to think about past and present in a different way.”
Yet there is a curious disparity between Solzhenitsyn’s historical impact and his literary reputation. Aside from being a historian, he was also a novelist. Yet I don’t know anybody who has ever enjoyed his novels. You often see his novels – thick volumes with titles like The Cancer Ward and August 1914 — stacked up in used book stores, tomes that people dutifully purchased but could never quite trudge through. In thickness, but only in thickness, these books rival the great works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. In thickness, but only in thickness, these books rival the great works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Other blogs and newspapers will pay attention to Solzhenitsyn the historical figure, a man whose moral grandeur I wouldn’t want to gainsay. However a word or two should be said about Solzhenitsyn as a literary artist, an area where his stature is more questionable.
The great irony of Solzhenitsyn’s fiction is that although he fought the Soviet Union, he was a profoundly Soviet writer. As much as any other member of the Soviet Writers-Union, Solzhenitsyn self-consciously and anachronistically worked in the tradition of 19th century realism, as if James Joyce, Proust, and Kafka had never lived. Although polemically anti-socialist, Solzhenitsyn very much wrote in the style of socialist realism. It is perhaps appropriate that the major literary critic who most passionately championed Solzhenitsyn’s novels was Georg Lukacs, a committed Marxist who cherished 19th century realism while disdaining modernism.
Writing in Hudson Review in 1975, the late Marvin Mudrick enthusiastically celebrated The Gulag Archipelago as “the first true history” of the Soviet Union. But Mudrick also took time to sketch out the limits of Solzhenitsyn as a writer of fiction:
By comparison with such volcanic eruptions of fact, Solzhenitsyn’s books of fictions seem cautious, sluggish, “objective,” “universal” …; Nobel-Prize fiction, testifying to the persistence of hope, the possibility of love and justice, the validity of suffering as chapter by chapter we all lurch meritoriously through the parched desert of fictional psychologizing (“Lavrenty Pavlovich was one of those young men who…”). Ivan Denisovich is an earnest quasi-documentary; the portrait of Stalin in The First Circle is effective in a restrained and long-winded mode (Gulag and history can do it with a stoke; “The OSO … was subordinate only to the Minister of Internal Affairs, to Stalin, and to Satan”), but nothing cheerful in the novel goes much beyond the female tractor-driver school of socialist realism; The Cancer Ward is medical soap-opera.
Given all that Solzhenitsyn achieved, this type of literary assessment might seem like petty carping. And perhaps it is. Literary skill is a valuable and rare commodity. But Solzhenitsyn had extra-literary virtues that made him great: courage, honesty, and what might be called an epic obstinacy. Perhaps one lesson to draw from Solzhenitsyn’s life is the need to have a proper sense of the proportion about the importance of “literary skill” even when judging the career of a writer.