Books: Bitter Seeds: Solzhenitsyn |
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Bitter Seeds : Solzhenitsyn

I wonder if, despite the critical success of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s reputation is quite as high as it was when August 1914 had not yet seen the light, when its author was still in Russia and when the K.G.B. were obviously looking for some plausible means of stopping his mouth. Even at that arcadian stage, however, I can well remember arousing the scorn of some of my brighter contemporaries by calling Solzhenitsyn a great imaginative writer. This was put down to my customary hyperbole, to my romanticism, to my bad taste, or to all three. Yet it seemed to me a sober judgement, and still seems so. I think Solzhenitsyn is a creative artist of the very first order.

What tends to disguise this is an historical accident — the accident that most of his imaginative energy has had to be expended on the business of reconstructing reality. He has been trying to remember what a whole country has been conspiring, for various reasons, to forget. In such a case it is a creative act simply to find a way of telling some of the truth, as many people realized instinctively when they greeted Nadezhda Mandelstam’s first volume of memoirs as the poetic work it is. But to tell as much of the truth as Solzhenitsyn has already told — and all of this truth must be recovered, from sources whose interests commonly lie in yielding none of it up — is a creative act of such magnitude that it is hard to recognize as a work of the imagination at all. On the whole, it seems, we would rather think of Solzhenitsyn as an impersonal instrument, a camera photographing the surface of another, airless planet. Hence the common complaint that he is a bit short on human warmth, the general agreement that there is something eerily mechanical about him. Even before August 1914 (whose characters tended to be described by reviewers as having keys sticking out of their backs) there was talk of how Cancer Ward and The First Circle proved that Solzhenitsyn was not Tolstoy.

I can recall this last point being made in an argument I had with one of the more gifted members of what I must, I suppose, with chagrin, get used to thinking of as the next generation. He hadn’t yet got round to reading War and Peace or Anna Karenina or Resurrection, but in the intervals of urging upon me the merits of Northrop Frye he nevertheless conveyed that he thought he had a pretty fair idea of what Tolstoy had been all about, and that Solzhenitsyn’s novels weren’t in the same league.

Not only did I concede the truth of such a judgment, I insisted on it. Solzhenitsyn’s novels are not Tolstoy’s, and never could have been. Tolstoy’s novels are about the planet Earth and Solzhenitsyn’s are about Pluto. Tolstoy is writing about a society and Solzhenitsyn is writing about the lack of one. My argument might have a touch of sophistry (perhaps one is merely rationalizing Solzhenitsyn’s limitations), but surely there is something wilfully unhistorical about being disappointed that Pierre Bezhukov or Audrey Bolkonsky or Natasha Rostov find no equivalents in Cancer Ward. Characterization in such wealthy detail has become, in Solzhenitsyn’s Russia, a thing of the past, and to expect it is like expecting the fur-lined brocades and gold-threaded silks of the Florentine Renaissance to crop up in Goya’s visions of the horrors of war. Solzhenitsyn’s contemporary novels — I mean the novels set in the Soviet Union — are not really concerned with society. They are concerned with what happens after society has been destroyed. And August 1914, an historical novel in the usual sense, looks to be the beginning of a long work which will show the transition from one state to the other. It is already fairly clear that Solzhenitsyn plans to carry the novel forward until he ends up telling the story of the 1917 Revolution itself, as well as, if he is granted time enough, of the Civil War afterwards. Here one should remember his talks with Susi in the ‘eagle’s perch’ of the Lubyanka, in Gulag Archipelago, part I, Chapter 5. While recollecting them he writes: ‘From childhood on, I had somehow known that my objective was the history of the Russian Revolution and that nothing else concerned me.’

Solzhenitsyn is explicit about his belief that he is linked to Tolstoy in some sort of historical mission. His detractors have made much of the meeting between Tanya and Tolstoy in Chapter 2 of August 1914. But Solzhenitsyn, even though he is a proud man (and it is a wonder that his pride isn’t positively messianic, considering what he has been through and the size of the task which circumstances have posed him), isn’t, it seems to me, an especially conceited one. He doesn’t see his connection with Tolstoy as one of rivalry. What he sees is an apostolic succession. He knows all about Tolstoy’s superiority. But when Tanya fails to get Tolstoy to admit that love might not be the cure for everything, Solzhenitsyn is showing us (by a trick of retroactive prophecy, or clairvoyance through hindsight) that Tolstoy’s superiority will be a limitation in the age to come. What will count above everything else for the writer in the Russian future is memory. In the prison state, you should own only what you carry with you and let your memory be your travel-bag. ‘It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday.’ (Gulag Archipelago, Part II, Chapter 1). The lesson is Tolstoyan, but the context is not. Solzhenitsyn’s argument has nothing to do with the perfecting of one’s soul. All he is saying — in a tone unifying realism and irony — is that if you try to keep anything tangible the prison-camp thieves will break what is left of your heart when they take it. (An instructive exercise here is to read some of, say, Resurrection just after having absorbed a chapter or two of Gulag Archipelago. The unthinkable has occurred: Tolstoy seems to have become irrelevant to Russia.)

There can’t be much doubt that August 1914 did damage to Solzhenitsyn’s stature in the short run. But in the long run it will probably be the better for him to be liberated from the burden of fashionable approval, and anyway it is far too early to judge August 1914 as a novel. Most of the reviewers who found it wanting in comparison with War and Peace had probably not read War and Peace recently or at all: certainly those who talked of its shape or construction had never read it, since War and Peace is a deliberately sprawling affair which takes ages to get started. August 1914 reads like a piece of scene-setting, a slow introduction to something prodigious. I would like to see a lot more of the project before deciding that Solzhenitsyn has failed as a novelist. But it is possible to concede already that he might have failed as a 19th century novelist.

It can be argued that because the setting of August 1914 is pre-Revolutionary the characters and situations ought therefore to be more earthily lifelike than they are — more Tolstoyan, in a word. I suppose there is something to this. Tolstoy was a transfigurative genius and probably Solzhenitsyn is not; probably he just doesn’t possess Tolstoy’s charm of evocative utterance. But the loss in afflatus is surely a small thing compared to what we gain from Solzhenitsyn’s panoramic realism. In clarifying the history of the Soviet Union (and Solzhenitsyn is already, by force of circumstance, the pre-eminent modern Russian historian) he is making a large stretch of recent time his personal province. He has been writing a Bible, and consequently must find it hard to avoid the occasional God-like attribute accruing to him: omniscience, for example. It must be a constant temptation to suggest more than he knows. Yet when dealing with events taking place in the course of his own lifetime he never seems to, and I would be surprised if he ever did much to break that rule when writing about the pre-Revolutionary period. The use of documents in August 1914 has been called a weakness. The inspiration for this technique is supposed to come from John Dos Passos, and the purported result is that August 1914 is as flawed as U.S.A.. Well, for any novel to rank with U.S.A. would not be all that bad a fate, and anyway critics who take this line are underestimating the importance to Solzhenitsyn of documentation of all kinds. He goes in for this sort of thing not because he lacks imagination but because that is imagination — to suppose that the facts of the Russian past can be recovered, to suppose that evidence can still matter, is an imaginative act. But to assess the boldness of that act, we must first begin to understand what has happened to the truth in the Soviet Union. And it’s Solzhenitsyn who more than anyone else has been helping us to understand.

In writing about World War I, Solzhenitsyn can’t help having the benefit of his peculiar hindsight. Everything in August 1914 and its succeeding volumes is bound to be illuminated by what we know of his writings about the Soviet Union. There is no way he can escape this condition and it is childish, I think, to wish that he could. It could well be that the war novel will be artistically less than fully successful because we will have to keep thinking of its author as the author of Gulag Archipelago or else miss out on its full force. But we had better accept such a possibility and learn to be grateful that at least the novel is being written. Because nobody else — certainly not Sholokhov — could have written it: Solzhenitsyn’s war novel is based on the idea that the truth is indivisible.

At a guess, I would say that Solzhenitsyn’s lack of the Tolstoyan virtues will turn out to be an artistic strength as well as a philosophical one. Until recently the key Russian novel about World War I, the Revolution and the Civil War was Dr. Zhivago. The book was overrated on publication and is underrated now, but it will always be an instructive text for the attentive reader. One defends Pasternak’s right, argued through the leading character, to live and create without taking sides. One can see the importance of the principle which Pasternak is eager to incarnate in Zhivago and Lara. Lara is, if you like, the Natasha that Solzhenitsyn seems doomed never to create. Lara and Yuri are Natasha and Audrey, lovers surrounded by chaos, a private love in the middle of public breakdown. But Pasternak can’t seem to avoid an effect of Tolstoy-and-water. Really the time for all this is past, and the rest of his book helps to tell us so. The point about the Civil War lies with the millions who are not surviving it — Pasternak, in focussing on these blessed two, is luxuriating despite himself.

However reluctantly and fragmentarily, Dr. Zhivago affirms that Life Goes On: Pasternak is old-world. Solzhenitsyn, one of the ‘twins of October’ (his term for Russians who were born in the first years of the Revolution and came of age just in time to witness the 1937–8 purges, fight in World War II and be imprisoned by Stalin), doesn’t believe that life went on at all. He thinks that it stopped, and that death started. In his World War I novel we can expect to hear portents of the future strangeness. But the predominant tone — and this we can already hear — will almost certainly be one of scrupulous political realism. Not realpolitik, but the truth about politics. This is what Pasternak was in no position to treat and what the great common ancestor, Tolstoy, simply got wrong. Tolstoy’s early appearance in August 1914 is undoubtedly strategic: he is the innocent, dreaming genius who just has no idea whatsoever of the new world to come.

Two representative moments serve to show how the force of August 1914 is potentiated by acquaintance with Solzhenitsyn’s later work, especially with Gulag Archipelago. In Chapter 6 we are told that Roman thinks of himself as superior and imagines that his superiority lies in his brutal frankness. But the truly illustrative detail, presented without comment, is Roman’s admiration for Maxim Gorky. (Solzhenitsyn’s contempt for Gorky is touched on in The First Circle and expressed at length in Gulag Archipelago.) And in Chapter 61, when the two engineers Obodovsky and Arkhangorodsky meet in amity, their friendly optimism is a mere hint of the intense, regretful passage in Gulag Archipelago I, 5 where Solzhenitsyn laments the destruction of the engineers in the 1920s as the blasting of Russia’s best hope. In the August 1914 passage we read:

Although there was no similarity or even contact between the lives, experience and specialised interest of the two men, they shared a common engineering spirit which like some powerful, invisible wing lifted them, bore them onwards and made them kin.

In the Gulag Archipelago passage the same emotion is multiplied, in the kind of paragraph which led several critics to comment (approvingly, let it be admitted) on the book’s supposed lack of sobriety:

An engineer? I had grown up among engineers, and I could remember the engineers of the twenties very well indeed: their open, shining intellects, their free and gentle humour, their agility and breadth of thought, the ease with which they shifted from one engineering field to another, and, for that matter, from technology to social concerns and art. Then, too, they personified good manners and delicacy of taste; well-bred speech that flowed evenly and was free of uncultured words; one of them might play a musical instrument, another dabble in painting; and their faces always bore a spiritual imprint.

It is evident that the optimism of the two friends about the new Russia to come is being treated ironically, but unless we know about Solzhenitsyn’s feelings concerning what happened subsequently to the engineers (whose show trials in 1928 are treated at length in Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, but without, course, the epigrammatic power Solzhenitsyn unleashes on the subject in Gulag Archipelago) we are unlikely to realize just how bitterly ironical he is being. Whether this is a weakness of the novel isn’t easily decided. My own view is that Solzhenitsyn has done the right thing in neutralizing his viewpoint. We have to provide a context from our own knowledge — knowledge which Solzhenitsyn is busy supplying us with in other books. The most pressing reason he writes history is to make the truth public. But a subsidiary reason, and one that will perhaps become increasingly important, is to make his own fiction intelligible. He writes history in order that his historical novel might be understood.

Because Solzhenitsyn deals with modern events over which there is not merely dispute as to their interpretation, but doubt as to whether they even happened, he is obliged to expend a great deal of effort in saying what things were like. The task is compounded in difficulty by the consideration that what they were like is almost unimaginable. To recover the feeling of such things is an immense creative achievement. In Coleridge’s sense, it takes imagination to see things as they are, and Solzhenitsyn possesses that imagination to such a degree that one can be excused for thinking of him as a freak. He is a witness for the population of 20th century shadows, the anonymous dead: all the riders on what Mandelstam in his poem called the Lilac Sleigh. Solzhenitsyn can imagine what pain is like when it happens to strangers. Even more remarkably, he is not disabled by imagining what pain is like when it happens to a million strangers — he can think about individuals even when the subject is the obliteration of masses, which makes his the exact reverse of the ideological mentality, which can think only about masses even when the subject is the obliteration of individuals. Camus said it was a peculiarity of our age that the innocent are called upon to justify themselves. Nowhere has this been more true than in Soviet Russia, where the best the condemned innocent have been able to hope for is rehabilitation. But Solzhenitsyn has already managed, at least in part, to bring them back in their rightful role — as prosecutors.

Of the ideological mentality Solzhenitsyn is the complete enemy, dedicated and implacable. Here, perhaps, lies the chief reason for the growing uneasiness about the general drift of his work. Nobody in the Left intelligentsia, not even the Marxists, much minds him suggesting that in the Soviet Union the Revolution went sour. But almost everybody, and not always covertly, seems to mind his insistence that the Revolution should never have happened, and that Russia was better off under the Romanovs. In Dr. Zhivago Pasternak showed himself awed by the magnitude of historical forces: reviewers sympathized, since being awed by historical forces is a way of saying that what happened should have happened, even though the cost was frightful. Nobody wants to think of horror as sheer waste. Solzhenitsyn says that the Soviet horror was, from the very beginning, sheer waste. Politically this attitude is something of a gift to the Right, since it practically aligns Solzhenitsyn with Winston Churchill. It is no great surprise, then, that on the liberal Left admiration is gradually becoming tinctured with the suspicion that so absolute a fellow might be a bit of a crank.

In The Great Terror Robert Conquest valuably widened the field of attention from the purges of 1937–38 to include the trials of the late Twenties — a reorientation which meant that the age of destruction overlapped the golden era of the Soviet Union instead of merely succeeding it, and also meant that while Stalin still got the blame for the Terror, Lenin got the blame for Stalin. But in Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn does a more thorough job even than Conquest of tracing the Terror back to the revolution itself: he says that the whole court procedure of the typical Soviet show trial was already in existence in 1922, and that the activities of the Cheka from the very beginning provided a comprehensive model for everything the ‘organs’, under their various acronyms, were to perpetrate in the decades to come. He has no respect for the Revolution even in its most pristine state — in fact he says it never was in a pristine state, since pre-Revolutionary Russia was totally unsuited for any form of Socialism whatsoever and no organization which attempted to impose it could escape pollution. It is the overwhelming tendency of Solzhenitsyn’s work to suggest that the Russian Revolution should never have happened. He can summon respect for ordinary people who were swept up by their belief in it, but for the revolutionary intelligentsia in all its departments his contempt is absolute. The hopeful young artists of the golden era (see the paragraph beginning ‘Oh ye bards of the twenties’, Gulag Archipelago I, 9) were, in his view, as culpable as the detested Gorky. Solzhenitsyn’s critique of the Soviet Union is a radical critique, not a revisionist one. In condemning him as a class enemy, the regime is scarcely obliged to lie.

(Nevertheless it lies anyway — or perhaps the citizens invent the lies all by themselves. Not much is known of these matters inside the Soviet Union and Solzhenitsyn is generally just a name. One sometimes forgets that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the only book of his which has ever been published there. A friend of mine just back from Russia tells me that he got into an argument with the director of a metalworkers’ sanatorium on the Black Sea. This man was in his early fifties and had fought in World War II. He declared that Solzhenitsyn not only is a traitor, but was a traitor during the war — that he had been a Vlasov man. Now Solzhenitsyn’s understanding of Vlasov is an important element of Gulag Archipelago. But Solzhenitsyn was a Red Army artillery officer who fought against Germany, not with it. In view of how this elementary truth can be turned on its head, it’s probably wise of Solzhenitsyn to harbour as he does the doubt that the facts, once rediscovered, will spread, like certain brands of margarine, straight from the fridge. There is nothing automatic about the propagation of the truth. As he often points out, not even experience can teach it. The prison-camps and execution cells were full of people who were convinced that their own innocence didn’t stop all these others being guilty.)

Solzhenitsyn finds it no mystery that the Old Bolsheviks condemned themselves. He resolves the apparent conflict between Koestler’s famous thesis in Darkness at Noon (Koestler said they co-operated because the Party required their deaths and they had no spiritual resources for disobeying the Party) and Khrushchev’s much later but equally famous insistence that they were tortured until they gave up (‘Beat, beat, beat ... ‘). According to Solzhenitsyn, the Old Bolsheviks were devoid of individuality in the first place, and simply had no provate convictions to cling to: certainly they weren’t made of the same moral stuff as the engineers they had connived at destroying ten years before, many of whom had preferred to be tortured to death rather than implicate the innocent. In the second place, the Old Bolsheviks had never been as marinated in suffering as they liked to pretend. Koestler was wrong in supposing that torture alone could not have cracked them, and Khrushchev was apparently also wrong in supposing that they needed to be tortured all that hard. Czarist imprisonment was the only kind the Old Bolsheviks had ever known and it was a picnic compared to the kind they themselves had become accustomed to dishing out. Solzhenitsyn sees no tragedy in the Old Bolsheviks. He doesn’t talk of them with the unbridled hatred he reserves for the prosecutors Krylenko and Vyshinsky, but there is still no trace of sympathy in his regard. Here again, is an example of his disturbing absolutism. He shows inexhaustible understanding of how ordinary people could be terrified into compliance. But for the ideologues trapped in their own system his standards are unwavering — they ought to have chosen death rather than dishonour themselves and their country further. He pays tribute to the Old Bolsheviks who suicided before they could be arrested (Skrypnik, Tomsky, Gamarnik) and to the half dozen who died (‘silently but at least not shamefully’ — Gulag Archipelago I, 10) under interrogation. He condemns the rest for having wanted to live. They should have been beyond that.

Solzhenitsyn takes a lot upon himself when he says that it was shameful for men not to die. Yet one doesn’t feel that his confidence is presumptuous — although if one could, he would be less frightening. I remember that when I first read The First Circle the portrait of Stalin seemed inadequate, a caricature. My dissatisfaction, I have since decided — and Solzhenitsyn’s writings have helped me decide — was a hangover from the romantic conviction that large events have large men at the centre of them. Tolstoy really did sell Napoleon short in War and Peace: Napoleon was a lot more interesting than that. But Stalin in The First Circle must surely be close to the reality. The only thing about Stalin on the grand scale was his pettiness — his mediocrity was infinite. Solzhenitsyn convinces us of the truth of this picture by reporting his own travels through Stalin’s mind: the Archipelago is the expression of Stalin’s personality, endlessly vindictive, murderously boring. Time and again in his major books, Solzhenitsyn makes a sudden investigative jab at Stalin, seemingly still hopeful of finding a flicker of nobility in that homicidal dullard. It never happens. That it could produce Stalin is apparently sufficient reason in itself for condemning the Revolution.

With Solzhenitsyn judgement is not in abeyance. He doesn’t say that all of this happened in aid of some inscrutable purpose. He says it happened to no purpose. There is little solace to be taken and not much uplift to be had in the occasional story of noble defiance. First of all, the defiant usually died in darkness, in the way that Philip II denied Holland its martyrs by drowning them in secret. And when Solzhenitsyn somehow manages to find out who they were, he doesn’t expect their example to light any torches. There are no eternal acts of faith or underlying loves. (The typical love in Solzhenitsyn is between the Love Girl and the Innocent, or that unsatisfactory non-affair at the end of Cancer Ward — just a brushing of dazed minds, two strangers sliding past each other. No parts there for Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.) Everything is changed: there is no connection with the way things were.

It should be an elementary point that Solzhenitsyn is a critic of the Soviet Union, not of Russia. Yet even intelligent people seemed to think that there may have been ‘something in’ his expulsion — that he had it coming. (It was edifying to notice how the construction ‘kicked out’ came to be used even by those nominally on his side.) This sentiment has, I think, been intensified by Solzhenitsyn’s argument with Sakharov. It has been increasingly common to hint that Solzhenitsyn has perhaps got above himself, that in telling the world’s largest country what it ought to do next he is suffering from delusions of grandeur. Yet it seems to me perfectly in order for Solzhenitsyn to feel morally superior to the whole of the Soviet political machine. Its human integrity is not just compromised but fantastic, and he has lived the proof. He has good cause to believe himself Russia personified, and I am more surprised by his humility in this role than by his pride. To the suggestion that he is a mediocre artist with great subject matter, the answer should be: to see that such stuff is your subject matter, and then to go on and prove yourself adequate to its treatment — these are in themselves sufficient qualifications for greatness. Solzhenitsyn’s forthcoming books (apparently there are to be at least two more volumes of Gulag Archipelago) will, I am convinced, eventually put the matter beyond doubt. But for the present we should be careful not to understand the man too quickly. Above all we need to guard against that belittling tone which wants to call him a reactionary because he has lost faith in dreams.

(The New Review, October 1974)