Essays: Solzhenitsyn's 'Love Girl' |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Love Girl’

THE Solzhenitsyn play The Love Girl and the Innocent (BBC1) couldn’t help but dominate the week, even though it became clear, long before its two hours and 10 minutes had ticked away, that the drama could never have equalled the novel as a form for this particular author’s experience.

While confining itself to relative understatement and glancing lyricism, the play still could not neutralise the desperate air of strain it necessarily shares with pornography. Pornography tries to tell you how it feels, and is bound to fail. Solzhenitsyn set himself to re-create an epoch’s memories for those who had suppressed them — or had never had them: he was trying to tell us how it feels to inhabit a universe of suffering. Only in his novels could he find the room, and take the time, to fulfil such a dominant intention without bleaching his art-form into a featureless pallor. And even then — even though ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,’ ‘Cancer Ward’ and ‘The First Circle’ go astonishingly far towards assimilating the terror into an artistically balanced world — the reader still has trouble in remembering the characters of Solzhenitsyn’s books as people.

It’s less likely to be a failure of Solzhenitsyn’s talent than a triumph of Stalin’s. A minor character in Tolstoy can ride out of a wood, glance into your eyes, and ride away to an anonymity in which he will never be forgotten. But this vivid, limitless individuality was homogenised beyond recapture by the fear Stalin injected into Russian history. The true measure of Solzhenitsyn’s gift is that he has been able, with the novel, to achieve almost the same penetration as Akhmatova and Mandelstan in poetry: charged with a mission for which to be an accurate essayist (like, say, Ginzburg) would have been more than sufficient, he got beyond documentary authenticity and created a poetic moment during which the feeling of the terror takes over in our own minds.

The poets were prescient: they guessed the magnitude of the tidal wave in the early thirties, before it rolled over them. But hindsight is the harder task. How can you describe all that? How does torture feel? Who will believe, if he has not been through it, that you could not only die for your thoughts, but could die for not having had any — and that your children could die for not being quick enough to report that fact? To re-create an inhuman world on a human scale — a problem big enough to buckle greater talents than Solzhenitsyn’s. Not that there have ever been many of those.

As usual in a production by Cedric Messina, the insuperable was tackled with boundlessly innocent confidence. An old RAF station enthusiastically pretended to be a labour-camp. Snow was doled out in several directions. The camera crew professionally abetted the impersonation by crowding the colour-range down among pale greens and browns and bringing out the chill of sapphires in the tower spotlights. The actors dressed up with self-sacrificing care, purpling their gums with fake gingivitis, dusting on a liberal supply of tinned pellagra and conjuring up the appropriate eczema with carmine, mascara and white eyeliner. Guards had been chosen for plumpness, prisoners for thinness. It looked a pretty rugged place to serve 10 years. What it didn’t look like was the reality, which all ex-inmates are agreed on assuring us is a brain-snapping place to spend 10 minutes. There isn’t an actor in Britain who can embody what it feels like to live on a few hundred calories a day. Nor does it get cold enough here to provide the circumstances for a plausible invocation of that line in the first chapter of ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch’ where Solzhenitsyn states the two contrasting temperatures — of the air and of Ivan — and says the fight is on. Reproducing the intensity of experience is a matter of art, not the art department. You must find an artistic equivalent for these things or else commit blasphemy.

Gabrielle Lloyd as the Love Girl and David Leyland as the Innocent both did as well as could be done with roles which are essentially emblematic. Lovers barely touching in the gloom of chaos is one of Solzhenitsyn’s recurring themes, and the heart of the theme is that the loved ones can never know each other. In ‘The First Circle’ they took fleeting refuge in a loophole, but in ‘Cancer Ward’ — the perfection of the theme — they declared their desire too late to do anything about it, and like blind spaceships unable to navigate by the stars they slid past each other and were lost. In Solzhenitsyn love is a tenderness too fragile to transform the brutal power of reality: in him romanticism settles back towards the classic, with an all-pervading coolness that makes us think of his work as a cold compress for Dostoevsky’s fever.

The Observer, 23rd September 1973