A new book by by Russian giant of literature Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) seems like a throwback to the 1960s and 70s when the Soviet Empire was threatening the world with nuclear holocaust and American politicians spent their days worrying about the spread of communism. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Cancer Ward, the majestic Gulag Archipelago – all these titles were huge publishing events when they first came out, providing as they did a revelatory insight into daily life into the labour camps of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 leading to his deportation from Russia in 1974.
In 1976, Solzhenitsyn moved to the USA where after an initial period of adulation, the opinion of many turned against him as they became aware of his contempt for American society and his support for Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox Church – “..the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits … by TV stupor and by intolerable music”. While offending many, Solzhenitsyn’s “reactionary” views increased Solzhenitsyn’s popularity with more conservative commentators such as Malcolm Muggeridge who wrote in 1978,
The pack is after him because what he says is unbearable: that the answer to dictatorship is not liberalism, but Christianity. I mean, that is an unbearable proposition from their point of view, and it is where he stands . . . It has been something wonderful to watch and, to more people than you might think, enormously heartening: that that is what this man should have to say instead of a lot of claptrap . . . They started off by never mentioning that he was a Christian. I mean, for a long time, he was made a hero of the cause for freedom, but it was never mentioned that an integral and essential part of it was his Christian belief.
The stories in Apricot Jam date from the period 1994 to 2008 when Solzhenitsyn had returned to Russia and was living in a dacha outside Moscow. They look back at the days of Soviet Russia and include stories about the persecution of peasant farmers (the “kulaks”), stories set in the Second World War and stories of everyday life in Russia before the fall of the Soviet Empire. While I enjoyed reading these stories, I found myself thinking that the outrage Solzhenitsyn felt about the terrible living conditions of the previous century was a bit of a spent force, an almost nostalgic look back to a period which had provided him with such fruitful ground for developing his earlier successes.
Many of the stories are written in the “bipartite” form Solzhenitsyn experimented with towards the end of his life, in which two sections complement one another and provide a balancing narrative. The title story, Apricot Jam for example, tells the story of Fedya, the son of a kulak who leads a dreadful life of slave labour and oppression and eventually writes an impassioned letter to a “famous Writer” appealing for help. The scene then switches to the “famous Writer” a member of the privileged intellectual class, who is deep in discussion with a professor of cinema studies about literary forms in a revolutionary age. They have the most arcane debate about linguistics and the need to find a language which reflects the glorious state of the Russian worker. To illustrate a point, the writer declares,
“I had a letter not long ago from a workman building a factory in Kharkov. His language doesn’t follow today’s rules yet it has such compelling combinations and use of grammatical cases! I envy the writer! And his vocabulary! It makes your mouth water”.
“Are you planning to reply in the same fashion?” asked Vasily Kiprianovich.
“What can I say to him? The point isn’t in the answer. The point is in discovering a language”.
In another bipartite story, Ego, Pavel Ektov, the leader of a peasant rebellion against collectivisation ends up in the Lubyanka prison where under torture he finally gives way when he is threatened with having his wife and daughter abandoned to Hungarian soldiers and agrees to commit a dreadful act of treachery against his former comrades.
In The New Generation, a professor of engineering helps a student from a poor background gain a pass by marking up his exam papers. Many years later, the student has risen to a position of prominence while the professor is in the cellar of a prison being interrogated. The interrogator is about to send him to a prison camp but then offers him the option of informing on his colleagues in return for freedom. The interrogator turns out to be the young man the professor helped earlier by falsely marking his exam papers. The story ends with the professor dropping his head to the table and sobbing, but, “A week later he was set free”.
The military stories are perhaps the best, particularly Adlig Schwenkitten which describes a Russian battalion advancing into East Prussia towards the end of the Second World War. This is noteworty because Solzhenitsyn is describing a battle he himself took part in and he writes himself into the story as Sasha, a reconnaissance battery commander.
These are of course stories in the great Russian tradition (Wikipedia records 147 Russian writers of short stories) and are a delight to read in terms of vivid characterisation and forward moving narrative. They are what might be called “traditional” short stories rather than the type of literary snapshot with neither beginning nor end which so characterises the form today. But something is missing somehow. Had they been contemporaneous with the oppressive systems described in they would have felt more authentic: the fact that they are the product of an old man’s memories somehow diminishes them and makes them a museum exhibit rather than a living literature born out of the fires of suffering.