April 22, 2010

Tales from the Completist: "In The First Circle," by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

In The First Circle, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In The First Circle: The Restored Edition (1968/2009)
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Harper Perennial

As an American who didn't do too much academic reading before opening CCLaP, there are of course numerous entire sections of the literary world that I could stand to learn a whole lot more about; take Russian literature for a good example, not just its beginnings with Pushkin and the like but also its heydey of the late 1800s and early 1900s (the time period of such famed authors as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov), all the way through to both the sanctioned and underground writers of the Soviet period of the 1920s through '80s. And that's why I was so excited to find out that last fall, Harper Perennial ended up putting out a brand-new edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1968 In The First Circle (originally known as simply The First Circle, one of the hundreds of details that have been put back in the book for this 2009 edition), because this gave me a good excuse to sit and finally read the thing; after all, Solzhenitsyn is one of the most important writers of the entire Soviet era, essentially the first intellectual to break the news to the Western world of what Stalin's prison camps (or gulags) were actually like, a fact which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1970 even as he was still a Soviet prisoner.

And the irony, of course, is that less than ten years before In The First Circle, he had been able to publish the first of this highly anti-Stalinst work in the actual Soviet Union itself -- namely, 1962's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is what first gained him an international following; and this was because of Nikita Khrushchev's campaign of de-Stalinization in that country then, which came as news to me when first studying this book, which gives you a good idea of just how much about Russian history I still have to learn. Even though that book went well, Solzhenitsyn knew that the original 96-chapter version of his much more expansive follow-up would never pass the muster of Soviet censors, which is why he voluntarily cut almost a dozen of those chapters from the original In The First Circle before submitting it, and radically changed a dozen more; then when he later became critical of Khrushchev himself and was once more sent back into the camps, it was this trimmed-down version that was snuck out of the country, and published in the West in 1968 to huge infamy. But like many former dissidents, Solzhenitsyn made peace with his homeland again after the fall of communism in the early '90s, moving back there in his old age and for the first time in his life going back comprehensively over his entire oeuvre; and apparently at the end of his life, he decided it was important to get the original 96-chapter version out finally to the public, the project he was working on all the way up to his death in 2008, just a year before the completely uncensored version came out.

For those who don't know, the book is a highly autobiographical look at a special kind of work camp that existed during the "Stalinist Purge," the period of the 1930s and '40s when that Modernist leader and World War Two overseer had several tens of millions of his fellow citizens imprisoned and/or killed in order to keep himself and his supporters in power; because with that many people in the camps, you could of course fill entire prisons with nothing but scientists and artists if you wanted to, which is exactly what Stalinist authorities did, called "sharashkas" and actually more like college dorms than traditional prisons, where intellectuals were treated decently and fed well in exchange for them continuing to work on various cultural and scientific projects, like the space program or nuclear weapons or Bond-style spy devices. This is where the title In The First Circle comes from, in fact, inspired by Dante's concept in The Inferno of there being nine circles of Hell, the first one not actually that terrible and designed for only light sinners; because when all was said and done, except for the lack of free movement, these sharashkas actually weren't all that bad, or at least compared to the nightmarish conditions of the Siberian hard-labor camps, where said intellectuals were shipped off to if refusing to voluntarily work on these state projects. That's a major theme of the book, the philosophical argument over which of these options is better -- to remain ideologically pure yet pay a high price for it, or to do what is simply going to be done by someone else anyway, and in the meanwhile living to fight another day.

And besides this, the thousand-page tome is also of course a highly detailed look at what daily Soviet life was like during the Stalinist years of the late '40s; and in fact that may be the biggest surprise about this manuscript, is that its details regarding the real Soviet Union in those years are so eerily similar to the speculative fancifulness of George Orwell's anti-Stalinist 1984 to not even be funny. Because let's not forget, Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 (which is how he came up with the title, by simply switching the last two numbers), while Solzhenitsyn's book is set just a year later, during Christmas week of 1949, retroactively backing up many of the most outrageous suppositions of Orwell's original, including the Soviet invention of a "Newspeak" type official new language, designed to be reductive so to literally remove from dictionaries the very words themselves that stood for subversive ideas, as well as the very real endeavor back then to officially erase the very existence of state enemies, including airbrushing them out of old photos and re-writing archived newspaper articles that once mentioned them. If nothing else, this might be the most important lasting legacy of In The First Circle, is that it dutifully chronicles many of the absurdly comedic yet horrifying things that took place during the Stalinist years, shows us just how right we in the West were to be terrified back then by the idea of a Stalinist planet, even if that did lead to some pretty horrible things on their own, like McCarthyism and book burnings.

But this isn't the only thing about In The First Circle to enjoy; there's also the inventive cyclical nature of its very structure, which like Richard Linklater's Slacker is told in a "vertical storytelling" style, where the different main characters of each chapter are introduced causally in the end paragraphs of the previous chapter. So in other words, one chapter might be about a prisoner in an electronics lab inside the camp, who at the end of the chapter has a conversation with the 21-year-old girl who's been hired to oversee them; the next chapter then might be about that girl now at home that evening, ending with her talking to her husband, a mid-level bureaucrat who works in the personal offices of Joseph Stalin, with the next chapter after that perhaps being about Stalin himself, one of the hundreds of both real and fictional people featured in this doorstop of a book. And then of course is the sly humor found throughout, the fascinating details about life inside one of these "intellectual prisons," the history lessons provided through the cynical discussions of the older "zeks," the ones old enough to remember the original 1917 communist revolution and who sit around endlessly debating what's gone wrong in the thirty years since, a big reason they're in the camps to begin with.

Now, just so we're on the same page, let me confess that there are problems as well with In The First Circle; for example, like so many other Russian novelists, Solzhenitsyn tends to be in love with the sound of his own voice, turning what could've been a truly mindblowing 400-page book into a merely important yet highly digressive thousand-page one. Despite its limitations, though, it's a highly rewarding book to actually make one's way through and eventually finish, and I applaud Harper for spending the time, energy and money needed to put out this restored version in the first place, when commercially speaking it is obviously only going to appeal to a small niche audience. This single book alone filled a huge chunk of that gaping hole in my life when it comes to Russian history and culture, and it comes highly recommended to those who are looking to fill such a similar hole in their own lives.

Read even more about In The First Circle: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:50 PM, April 22, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |