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.

Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy

“Let crazy life rush headlong on the highway for others; we shall contemplate the sunflowers, watch them sprout, blossom, fade away. Yesterday they were still giants, but now, in autumn, they are thatch on the roof.”

So says Álmos-Dreamer at the end of Gyula Krúdy’s Sunflower, one of the oddest and most entirely unique books I’ve read in a long while. John Lukacs’s introduction to this fine NYRB edition dwells rather disconcertingly on how the idiosyncratic language of Krúdy is virtually untranslatable, although Lukacs goes on to concede that the translator John Bátki has made a decent fist of it. I couldn’t possibly judge in this respect, but the language of this novel is certainly singular. Krúdy is, to say the least, unafraid of simile. Almost every action or reaction happens “like a shepherd hiding a lamb under his coat” or “like a one-legged man confronting his lost limb preserved in spirits”. This makes the prose rather hard going at times. The novel has a hallucinatory, dream-like atmosphere; nothing particularly happens, but it still makes for compelling reading. The characters circle round each other in ever-narrowingly arcs of desire, confidence and mistrust. Krúdy was an extraordinarily prolific writer, an alcoholic and a gambling addict whose writing sought to memorialise the lost rural Hungary of the end of the nineteenth century. He is said to have never re-drafted his work, disdaining proofs – moving on to the next piece of writing, and the one after, and the one after that. His writing has a not-unpleasant sense of loose ends and untamed flights of rhetorical or metaphorical fancy.

In short, I’m not sure what to make of this novel. Part of me thinks that I should desperately like it, as it’s the sort of book Central European literature lovers like myself should desperately like. Some people have gone quite dribbly with excitment over Krúdy, but I can’t say that’s happened to me. However, since finishing it, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the book, and I’ve been somewhat infected by it. My mind keeps wandering off into strange lyrical backwaters, quite pleasantly. His style haunts you; I can imagine dipping back into the book again for another measure. There’s nothing quite like it, and I’m certainly glad to have read it. Thank you AD and UG for giving it to me.

The Doll

I’ve just read The Doll by Bolesław Prus, an agoraphobic Pole who is often thought of as similar to Chekhov, but isn’t really. It’s a remarkable book, well-loved in Poland and typically unheard-of here. It’s a good, weighty, chewy read, full of thoughts and character; a masterpiece by anyone’s standards.

Though set largely in late nineteenth-century Warsaw, The Doll also has a dazzling passage in which the main character, Wokulski, travels to Paris. Both the train journey and the destination are described with visionary clarity. On the train, Wokulski’s passage through different countries is described partly through little snatched vignettes of countryside sliding past the window, and partly through the changing nationalities of the passengers who come and go in his compartment. Once he arrives in Paris, Wokulski, a successful businessman and prominent figure in Warsaw, is completely overwhelmed by the glamourous splendour of fin de siècle Paris – ‘capital of the nineteenth century’, as we now say. The dizzying effect of the city and the modernity it represented is brilliantly rendered, throwing into sharp relief the stultifying narrow-mindedness of Prus’s Warsaw.

Bolesław Prus

Prus’s characterisation is also superb. There is a horrendous moment when Izabella Łęcki, the aristocratic object of Wokulski’s fervent adoration, learns that he has been quietly trying to bail out her dissolute, spendthrift father. Instead of offering gratitude, she is horrified that a mere tradesman has been helping her family. “Why are you persecuting us?” she asks, genuinely distressed. The cruelty of this question is breathtaking.

In a guilty sort of way, I’m glad that so much East European literature has been overlooked for so long. The heroic efforts of fantastic publishers such as the New York Review of Books, Hesperus, Pushkin and Archipelago Presses are now bringing these works to the attention of the English-reading public, so a whole world of brilliant world-class literature is opening up before us. Though it’s always fun and interesting to read something like Chekhov or Flaubert or what have you, reading these equally masterful Eastern European books like The Doll, or my favourites, Miklos Banffy’s The Writing on the Wall trilogy, seems to offer a special pleasure for their freshness to the Western European eye and brain. Though, having said that, it is utterly puzzling as to why The Doll is not better known over here than it is.