Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle
"The Perfect Novel" (*****) 79/ 82
The theme of this book is not prison camps: it is nothing narrower than life itself. And it is almost as rich in characters and stories within stories (here Solzhenitsyn is very like Tolstoy) as life: constancy in love, artistic integrity, the whimsy of fate, literacy in Medieval Novgorod, the prison in the Count of Monte Cristo, snow, how to sew, the law of unintended consequences.
A few major abiding themes run like threads throughout the book, providing unity: First, the life of the "zek," the prisoner in Stalin's camps. Second, loneliness: not just of (male) prisoners longing for a woman or lost loved ones, or of persecuted wives trying to make lives for themselves, but ultimately of each person. Every conversation carries a different meaning for the people involved. The author "gets inside of peoples heads" in an amazing way -- from the janitor Spiridon to the "Best Friend of Counter-Intelligence Operatives," Joseph Stalin himself. Third, and on a deeper level, the theme of this book is integrity, both artistic and moral.
Fourth, and I don't know if this was the conscious intent of the author or not, the book reminds us of the unity of Western civilization. Aside from mentions of Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Pushkin, and Lermontov (which, I might add, also describes the company Solzhenitsyn belongs in, with honor), the book is honeycombed with references to the great thinkers and artists of European civilization -- from the ancient Greeks and the Gospels, to Dante, the Holy Grail, Bach and Beethoven. The Marxist Rubin even quotes Luther. Primarily, no doubt this is a reflection of the fact that the prisoners in the "sharashkas," the top-secret scientific work camps, were educated men, unlike, say, the hero of his shorter novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. (The contrast Solzhenitsyn draws to their well-paid Neanderthal captors is just one form of the irony that is his most distinctive and powerful stylistic weapon. But even the Neanderthals, including Stalin himself, are portrayed not as cardboard villains, but with insight and imagination.) These references also remind us that, as much as Solzhenitsyn has been accused of being a "Slavophile," as if that were an insult, the Russian culture he loves is an integral part of Western civilization. This iconic dialogue of the ages, similiar to the works of great Chinese painters, also adds another layer of delight to the book.
The final and greatest thread that unifies this work is the idea of achieving humanity, of becoming what a person ought to be, of heroism. The prisoners are poets, eccentric, and philosophers (though there are also scoundrels, and everyone is tempted that way), beaten down by life and the forces of disolution within, trying to preserve their souls, or civilization, from the barbarians who are their masters. In describing the simple heroism of some of his characters, Solzhenitsyn achieves brilliance. In my opinion, First Circle is the greatest of his works, and one of the most powerful pieces of writing of the 20th Century, at least. And it is not about the Gulag, primarily: it is about what it means to be human, and the choices we all face.
Aside from the characters and stories, many of the scenes are wonderful (again like Tolstoy): of Rubin standing in the courtyard at night in the snow when he hears the train whistle, of the party at the prosecutor's house, of the arrest of the diplomat. If life is sometimes too strange for fiction, (and it is) there are also pieces of fiction that seem truer than life. First Circle is a marriage of style and substance made in heaven, or at least, the highest circle of hell.