I’ve often wondered how well the literary reputation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) will hold up in future years. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. When his work first appeared in English, he was generally reviewed positively and sometimes enthusiastically. Yet it was perhaps unavoidable that he was always seen from a particular political perspective. He was the dissident writer of the late Soviet era. I am old enough to remember that when his first exposes of the Gulag Archipelago came out, there were still doctrinaire old Hard Leftists who, like Holocaust-deniers, wanted to pretend that no such thing existed. Vigorous attempts were made by Soviet officials to discredit him once he was settled in the West (from 1974). Every so often, stories still appear telling us that Solzhenitsyn was an anti-semite or that he had even cooperated with the KGB. But he outlived the Soviet Union. He returned to Russia in 1994, four years after the Soviet Union had become history.
But here is the fate of a writer too closely identified with a certain point in the world’s political history. Once that point is past, he fades out of the general consciousness. Am I right in saying that Solzhenitsyn rarely comes up in literary discussions now? And when he does, his reputation is very mixed. Even when he was at the height of his popularity (in the West), some critics were clearly annoyed that he had become a Christian and rejected the dogmatic materialism in which he had been raised. There were others who situated him in the tradition of Great Russian ethnic nationalism, and wondered where this would lead him. Cold Warriors, who assumed that his critique of the Soviet Union would lead him to embrace Western liberalism, were taken aback to encounter a man who was as opposed to consumerism and the abuse of liberal freedoms as he was to communism. When he returned to his homeland, Solzhenitsyn saw Russia becoming a tacky copy of the West in the new age of Russian capitalist oligarchs and gangsters. In his last years, he wanted a more disciplined society and – in his mid-eighties – he endorsed the strong-arm Russian nationalism of Vladimir Putin.
ShareOh well. A writer can’t be right about everything and can’t always be an accurate prophet. Solzhenitsyn died six years ago, but it’s at least possible that, if he were still alive, he would have changed his mind about Putin. One hopes so.After all this throat-clearing, however, I come to this obvious assertion: it is by his written works that we should judge a writer and, regardless of changed historical circumstances, I think there is still much to be said for Solzhenitsyn’s novels. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich remains a key text on imprisonment and the survivalist mentality it produces. Cancer Ward is a painful and dramatic confessional. August 1914 and its sequels are bracing post-Soviet rewritings of revolutionary history. But the one I would pick out as the masterpiece is The First Circle, which Solzhenitsyn wrote, on and off, over nine years, 1955 to 1964. Its 700-plus pages have a large and well-delineated dramatis personae. Its psychological observation is acute. It takes in momentous events so that, even though it is set in a constricted place and its action covers a mere three days, it has an epic tone. More than one critic has remarked that it has the weight and feel of a solid nineteenth century novel.(Read more.)