Solzhenitsyn’s Posthumous Output

Admirably, Solzhenitsyn’s death in 2008 has not stopped him from publishing more books over the last few years. In October 2009 we had the new and radically altered edition of In the First Circle (previously published as The First Circle) and now this autumn Apricot Jam and Other Stories, a collection of nine short stories, has been published. Less productive yet still living authors should take note.

Back in September(ish) I finally got round to reading In the First Circle. I wrote about The First Circle as part of my BA dissertation, so I was slightly nervous about reading the updated version in case the changes utterly destroyed the tentative undergraduate conclusions I had drawn. In the… is undoubtedly the better work, as it deepens and makes more explicit what exists in the earlier published version. Volodin’s fateful phone call at the beginning of the novel is not to warn his family doctor about betraying drug information to the West: it’s a call to the American Embassy about atomic bomb technology, an incident drawn from the real-life events of Georgy Koval’s defection to the West. Obviously, Solzhenitsyn couldn’t write about this as directly when he was trying to get his novel published in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Neither could he hope to include his most inflammatory, and fascinating, chapters written from the point of view of Stalin himself.

Overall, the version called The First Circle is lacking nine chapters that Solzhenitsyn restored in In the First Circle. Volodin’s character is far more fully drawn in the second version, with chapters following him to visit his uncle, and on a walk with his wife’s sister Klara. These chapters are striking as they take the reader outside of the city and into the Russian countryside, which Solzhenitsyn depicts skilfully.

Volodin’s Uncle Avenir and his hidden archive of condemnatory newspaper cuttings is a particularly interesting addition. Avenir is engaged in the exact opposite occupation to Winston Smith in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: while the latter rewrites history to suit the present needs of the state, Avenir preserves evidence of inconvenient truths from newspapers that prove the changeable nature of Soviet ‘reality’. I thoroughly wish I’d had access to this chapter when I was writing up my dissertation in 2005.

It is definitely worth reading the new version even if you have already read its predecessor, especially as an absorbing afternoon can be whiled away comparing the two. Over at The Faculty of Useless Knowledge Katia Shulga has written about the fun to be had comparing different versions of books written in the Soviet Union – Grossman’s For a Just Cause in her case – and her points apply here too. As she says

 It is always fascinating to see the progress of a novel from inception to publication, but in this case it would also illuminate the inner workings of Soviet censorship.

With the new In the First Circle we have the novel republished exactly as the author wanted it, freed from the immediate demands of the state. I always thought that The First Circle was a pretty good, but In the First Circle is a very great novel indeed.

Next on the posthumous Solzhenitsyn list comes Apricot Jam and Other Stories. About a month ago I went to a talk on this book at Pushkin House with the writer’s son, Stephan Solzhenitsyn, who translated one of the stories in this collection, but I’ve only just got around to reading the book. Solzhenitsyn Jr was very interesting on the subject of his father. You can listen to him talking to Mark Lawson on Radio 4 (from about 5:38); the talk he gave at Pushkin House covered much the same ground.

Stephan is rather keen on drawing a firm distinction between Solzhenitsyn the writer and Solzhenitsyn the ‘newsmaker’, as he puts it: the man whose fame puzzled his son when the latter was a child. It seems that Stephan would like a line to be drawn between Solzhenitsyn’s work and the more dubious utterances of his later years. This is always a complicated argument to have about any writer: I quite like VS Naipaul’s books, especially A Bend in the River, but I’ve completely gone off him since discovering what an appalling sexist he unfortunately is. Likewise, Solzhenitsyn’s rants rather cloud one’s opinion of him. Yet I find Solzhenitsyn easier to forgive than Naipaul; very possibly this is because none of Solzhenitsyn’s xenophobia touches me directly, whilst Naipaul’s reactionary drivel does.

The nine stories in Apricot Jam are written in what Solzhenitsyn called a ‘binary’ structure. Each had two sections separated by a switch in character or a significant break in time. They are all fairly long short stories, at about forty pages each (the book is 365 pages long). There is a good review here at Books, Books & More (New) Books.

The binary structure is effective, allowing Solzhenitsyn to achieve a breadth of scope that is otherwise difficult to draw out of a short story, and the juxtapositions are startling. Two of the stories handle these juxtapositions particularly effectively: the eponymous ‘Apricot Jam’ and ‘Zhelyabuga Village’. In ‘Apricot Jam’, the first half of the story is devoted to a letter sent by a semi-literate worker to a nameless famous writer, detailing the hardships of life in Soviet Russia. In the second half, the pampered ‘Writer’ entertains a guest in his well-appointed, well-stocked dacha, and mentions the letter he has received, discussing it only as an interesting insight into indigenous writing style rather than as a desperate plea for help. In ‘Zhelyabuga Village’ we see the same village as a chaotic battle during the Great Patriotic War and then many years later, in the fizzling end years of communism, as a forgotten, dying pocket of Russia. Both juxtapositions are heartbreaking, yet still subtly drawn.

Some stories, such as ‘Times of Crisis’ about Zhukov, read more like extracts from a longer work than as short stories in their own right. I read somewhere that other people suspect that some were chiselled out of the hefty unfinished cycle Solzhenitsyn was working on in his later years, which included The Red Wheel, his take on the Russian civil war. Yet they are all good, well-written stories, full of character. Solzhenitsyn’s war stories make for an interesting comparison with Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and The Road; both writers concentrate on character and atmosphere rather than the usual whizz-bang heroic deeds and blood and guts often found in war stories, although both have distinctively different voices.

Stephan Solzhenitsyn has said that there is plenty more work by his father to be translated, so it looks like Solzhenitsyn’s posthumous productivity will continue for years to come. It will be interesting for English-speaking readers to gain an understanding of the writer outside of his Gulag output. Apricot Jam certainly shows that his talents extended far beyond the reach of the archipelago; I’m looking forward to reading more.


Still more about Vasily Grossman

My Google Alert for the terms ‘life and fate vasily grossman’ has come up trumps again. A series of interviews with Grossman’s English translator, Robert Chandler, have been put up on Youtube. I offer you the first of these to whet your appetite: the rest can be viewed on the aforementioned tube.


The Eurozone crisis is rather dominating the news of late, to the extent that the continued violence in Syria is being somewhat drowned out. Yet today Human Rights Watch has released a dossier of evidence that shows systematic crimes against humanity are occuring in the country. The document catalogues evidence of torture and unlawful killings in the town of Homs; at least 587 civilians are known to have been killed.

Mum and I were in Homs briefly in 2009 to have a look at a huge crusader castle, the Krak des Chevaliers (above), during our holiday in Syria. The next day we went to Hama, a nearby city that made it into the news in 1981 when current President Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, ordered the violent suppression of a revolt: no one knows how many people died, but the lowest estimate starts at 10,000. When we were there it was one of those things that Syrian people didn’t want to talk about yet were keen for foreigners to know. The city looked modern, as the majority of the old city had been destroyed in 1981/2.

We were in Hama for the ancient water wheels (norias)  in the centre of the city: big Byzantine structures that still work, taking water from the Orontes River. As you can see in the picture below, while we were there some daft teenagers were testing themselves in Hama’s own extreme sport: riding around inside the water wheel as it turned. Some of them were very adept at it, managing to keep themselves upright in the spokes as the wheel spun. It looked both fun and bloody dangerous: I bet many a boy’s limbs, head and mother’s heart have been broken as a result.

Like Homs, Hama has been in the news lately as a site of mass demonstrations against the government and therefore, inevitably, as a site of lethal repressions by the state. When the news first hit it struck me that the boys I’d seen riding the water wheels are exactly the sort of daredevil, act-before-you-think kids who would be in the centre of any demonstration going on in the city, throwing rocks at the police, bellowing demands for freedom. Obviously I have no idea whether they were actually involved, but it really brings home the tragedy of the situation when I think about what might be happening to them, those ordinary teenage boys who should be getting up to no good on the water wheels of Hama; and all the limbs and heads and hearts broken by this latest repression.