I’ve been reading and re-reading Solzhenitsyn’s early stories. No doubt Solzh is a great stylist and, although young Russians with literary interests see him more as a dull, irrelevant, curmudgeonly patriarch, his style is no less brilliant now than ever. Granted, novels may not be his strength, but there are other genres; perhaps the novel is dead. A few months ago, I read Solzhenitsyn’s essay on Joseph Brodsky — it’s as lively as can be. Not that I agree with Solzh’s criticisms or applaud his extolment of peasant virtues, but he is anything but an old bore in his writing — on the contrary, his language is both inventive and pithy, and enjoyable.
Brodsky himself admired Solzhenitsyn for using precisely the right artistic means for the larger-than-literature task in the Gulag Archipelago. The book’s subtitle is, “An experiment in literary investigation” (literary, “artistic investigation”). No, it is not a work of fiction; based on accounts of prisoners and on Solzhenitsyn’s own research, it is a truthful text informed by great passion. No doubt Solzhenitsyn, once an honest and naive communist, came to hate all things Soviet, and his righteous hatred seethes under the stylistically brilliant surface etched with his sardonic wit and sarcastic bile. Some of that must be lost in translation, and many of the Soviet realities Solzhenitsyn alludes to speak nothing to a Western reader. But if a Russian reader — one with at least some knowledge of the Soviet period — takes the Archipelago indifferently, he must have an elephant’s skin and a frog’s heart. Historians tend to get coldly objective; stories of individuals’ suffering, with all their excruciating details, are painfully objective. This is why I think the Archipelago and/or One Day…, rather than scholarly works on the subject, should be placed on school and college curricula from Koenigsberg to Vladivostok.
Most Russian intellectuals object to Solzhenitsyn’s apology of the Russian peasantry. Myself a city dweller, I think Solzh’s attitude is somehow related to his conclusion that the peasants both suffered the most from Stalin’s tyranny and, of all social groups, remained the most immune to his propaganda. He was born and reared in a city (Rostov-on-Don) and graduated from a university with a math degree; his opponents still accuse him of talking like a math teacher. Coming in close contact with peasants on the front and in labor camps, and living in a village after serving his time, Solzhenitsyn must have observed certain qualities in peasants that were, in his view, sadly lacking in urban intellectuals, especially artistic and humanities types. Those peasants’ down-to-earth attititudes, skepticism, level-headedness, unwillingness to fall for slogans and ideologies were precious. This is not Tolstoyan holiness: Solzh is much more reserved and incredulous. Yet peasant characters are in the center of both his best-known story, One Day… and his second most important short piece of fiction, Matryona’s Yard, initially titled A Village Can’t Stand Without a Righteous Man.