Stories and Prose Poems Author:Alexander Solzhenitsyn A collection of short stories by the noted Russian author. — New York Times review: — July 16, 1971 — Solzhenitsyn's Short Fiction — By RICHARD LOCKE — -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- — STORIES AND PROSE POEMS — By Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. — Translated by Michael Glenny. — -------------------------------... more »-------------------------------------------------
van Denisovich Shukoh, prisoner S-854, is laying cinder blocks. He's in a rush. It's the end of the day, and it's more than 20 degrees below zero. "Slap on the mortar! Down with the block! Press down! Check! Mortar. Block. Mortar. Block. . .The boss had said not to worry about the mortar--chuck it over the wall and push off. But Shukhov wasn't made that way, and eight years of camp life hadn't altered him: he still worried about every little detail of work--and he hated waste. Mortar. Block. Mortar. Block. . .'We've finished,--it! Senka shouted. 'Let's be off!' He seized a hod and went down the ladder. But Shukhov--and the guards could have put the dogs on him now, it would have made no difference--ran back to have a look round. Not bad. He ran over and looked along the wall--to his left, to the right. His eye was true. Good and straight! His hands were still good. He ran down the ladder."
This is the essence of Solzhenitsyn. In this brief passage from his first novel, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," he shows us a prisoner seizing his freedom, reclaiming his humanity through work, discovering for a moment in the midst of all the brutal alienations of a Stalinish labor camp what Marx had called "unalienated labor." The style is taught, the ironies and implications rich. We think, inevitably, of Dostoyevsky's "House of the Dead" and Tolstoy's peasants in the field. "He is our only living classic," said the poet Yevtushenko several years ago. It is moments like this that the Swedish Academy had in mind when it awarded Solzhenitsyn the Nobel Prize for Literature last October "for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature," or that George Lukˇcs, the later Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic, thought of when he wrote in his little book "Solzhenitsyn" (first published by M.I.T. Press): "Solzhenitsyn is heir not only to the best tendencies in early socialist realism, but also to the great literary tradition, above all that of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky." Such judgments from the European right and left are disputed only in the Soviet Union.
Too Obvious Symbolism
This first comprehensive collection of Solzhenitsyn's "Short Stories and Prose Poems" appears barely three weeks after Farrar, Straus and Giroux acquired the rights to his new novel, "August 1914," and his became his official American publisher. Though three of the six short stories have been available in various American editions, this new volume brings them together with three others and 16 short prose poems. Unfortunately, these poems lack intensity and grace (at least Michael Glenny's translation) and read like excerpts from a private notebook of random sketches illustrating the value of freedom or the desecration of Russian traditions. Too frequently they verge on sentimentality or too obvious symbolism: a puppy ignores a gift of chicken bones in his joy at being let off his chain, ants climb back on a burning log because it's the only home they know.
The three new stories in the book are also small. "The Easter Procession," dated Easter Day, 1966, is an embittered sketch of the "snotty hooligans" who disrupt a church ceremony and push around the few remaining believers. "The Right Hand" is something of a minor footnote to "Cancer Ward." "Zakhar-the-Pouch" describes a visit to a neglected historical monument but depends too much on automatic Russian associations to the site.
The older stories (all originally published within months of "One Day," in 12963) are more substantial. "For the Good of the Cause" brought the wrath of Soviet officials down on Solzhenitsyn's head and in many ways marks the beginning of this persecution (see the forthcoming "Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record" edited by Leopold Labedz for Harper & Row or the Praeger edition of the story, which contains a good appendix). Yet I can't imagine American readers will find it easy to accept the boy-scout enthusiasm of the central characters or be much surprised or outraged by the revelation that Stalinistic bureaucrats ride roughshod over human needs and distort party ideology.
"Matryona's House" is altogether finer: a Russian variation on Flaubert's "A Simple Heart," a portrait of an oppressed Christian soul, an impoverished but cheerful and generous old peasant woman who is abused by her family and neighbors and finally killed through the Karamazovian avarice of a former suitor. Its naturalistic attention to the details of Matryona's daily routine and the miseries of village life, essentially unchanged by Communism, offended Soviet critics in its "pessimism." But for American readers the story is rich with memories of Tolstoy and Gorky and brings a touch of the brute humanity of Samuel Beckett's tramps to the ancient image of holy Christian poverty.
"Finally," "An incident at Krechetovka Station" has all the makings of a classic Hegelian tragedy of a man caught between two equal moral imperatives. Through the bustle and bustle of a wartime railroad station at night and a small group of flashbacks, Solzhenitsyn draws a character with all the political and moral ironies of Brecht at his best. He turns the hero's tragedy into the reader's lesson in history, and conveys the fatal cruelty of blind faith in Stalin and his political bureaucracy.
But sadly, for all their interest as political documents and early examples of Solzhenitsyn's craft, the "Stories and Prose Poems" even at their best never approach the literary stature of his novels. Michael Glenny's translation may being part responsible for this: as English it seems slack at times, and it's unfortunately shot through with Anglicisms that seriously distort the meaning for American readers. One hopes that Farrar, Straus and Giroux's translation of "August 1914" will be as good as their fluent new version by Gillian Atken of "One Day," quoted above. (Is there no translator from Russian as fine as Gregory Rabassa from Spanish or Ralph Manheim from French and German?) But irrespective of translation, there is cause to rejoice that in "August 1914" Solzhenitsyn has apparently not written short stories such as these, which compare so poorly with the brevity of "One Day," but rather has given us another lengthy novel on the scale of "The First Circle" and "Cancer Ward."« less