THE FIRST CIRCLE by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


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It seems clear that the works of rebellious Soviet writers have passed from the period of the "thaw" to that of power politics on an international scale. Certainly, Solzhenitsyn's world famous account of a Siberian labor camp, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, saw print principally because Khrushchev was able to use it as an anti-Stalinist ploy. Now with much fanfare, and against the wishes of the Kremlin, we have a "pirated" edition of The First Circle, probably Solzhenitsyn's major effort, a novel not only anti-Stalinist in strategy, or even anti-Soviet, but, at least in sensibility, profoundly anti-Communist as well. True, Rubin, one of the noblest characters, defends the faith, but he does so pretty much the way those Irishmen in Joyce defend Catholicism, all the while wishing to rid Ireland of churches and priests. Of course, despite the sly attitudes taken towards Marx or the scornful glimpses of Western fellow-travelers, what Solzhenitsyn really mourns is not les dieux ont soif, not the revolution consuming its children. Rather, like his "renegade" brethren, Pasternak and Pilnyak, Zamyatin and Bulgakov, for Solzhenitsyn what haunts the Bolshevik Heartbreak House is the wreckage of cultural continuity and individuation, the abandonment of reason to terror. Thus, his mammoth tale (the setting is Moscow and a grubby scientific institute where the technicians are political prisoners), though arranged in interlocking, multi-leveled scenes, and all manner of narrative incidents and types, ultimately draws its sustenance from one figure, the skeptical, inwardly sorrowing, unsubmissive Nerzhin, the hero as victim, the "survivor" with honor. Against him, in a short but extraordinary sequence, stands "The Boss," maniacally menacing, with burlesque touches: "Before a big war," says Stalin, "a big purge is necessary." Solzhenitsyn's not a graceful writer; in everything but ideology he's close to socialist realism. Still, at his best, he has composed a sardonic, shattering work, with the memorable scenes between prisoners ironically rivaling those in Gorky's The Lower Depths.... From Tsarist Russia to "The Boss," what a painfully repetitive uphill struggle, what a terrible world.
Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1968
Publisher: Harper & Row
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1968


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