Solzhenitsyn as a Soviet Writer

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.

5 thoughts on “Solzhenitsyn as a Soviet Writer

  1. I may be the exception that proves the rule, but I found both The First Circle and Cancer Ward gripping when I read them in high school. I haven’t tried to read any Solzhenitsyn since, and have heard nothing good about his later historical novels. Still, I remember those two with nothing but admiration (nearly three decades after reading them).

    I like to live in a world where any mode of expression is available to an artist, and artists can achieve greatness is many ways. Wasn’t it Arnold Schoenberg who wrote that it was still possible to write great music in the key of C?

  2. I agree with RWB. True, he was no post-modernist but I think he must have felt an urgency to speak clearly and plainly given all that was at stake in Russia – and his novels were written for Russian people, not for academics in western universities. Even so, I think he found a wide audience for his novels in the west, and I simply don’t believe that people don’t enjoy them (now Joyce, he was hard to enjoy).
    But really, the conceit that they are at all akin to Socialist Realism is, with all due respect, nonsense. Solzhenitsyn’s work had realism in them – so refreshing for a country whose Government forced its people to live on lies in virtually every aspect of their existence. A defining feature of most socialist realism was precisely that they were unreal, while Solzhenitsyn’s concern, very clearly enunciated in his fiction, was with human beings coming to grips with truth in a society of lies. A person can say they don’t like Solzhenitsyn’s novels, or that he failed to convincingly convey what he tried to convey, but to compare him to social realist writers? Maybe it’s true every one gets the Homer they deserve.
    And who the heck is Marvin Mudrick? How glib and dismissive he is of what many believe is some of the greatest literature to come not just out of Russia but out of the 20th c. MM reads like a clever People magazine reporter summarizing this weeks movies. If he were alive I might suggest he move up north and reread One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in January or February on a bitter day, outside, in one stretch. Then, as Solzhenitsyn might say, we’d understand each other perfectly.
    Thanks for letting me comment.

  3. RWB and phx both eloquently make the case for Solzhenitsyn’s fiction, so I’ll let their comments speak for themselves.

    I did want to note that phx’s question, “And who the heck is Marvin Mudrick?” echoes the earlier made in the April, 30th, 1964 number of the New York Review of Books: “Who the hell is Marvin Mudrick and what gives weight to his pronouncements anyway?” (The questioner was Sam Wellbaum, a reader of the Review; see here:

    Marvin Mudrick (1921-1986) was a fierce and sharp-witted literary critic, best known for his book on Jane Austen and his many essays on Joseph Conrad. His best work can be found in the volume Books Are Not Life But Then What Is?

  4. Hi Jeet: Late to the party as always, I’ll simply say that I read The First Circle a few years ago and remember enjoying it very much. It seemed relatively fast-paced and even quite humorous in parts, none of which undermined the gravity of its theme.

    Then again, my reading tastes are still stuck in the era of Joseph Conrad, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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