A man who made history, Solzhenitsyn has lost focus

THE ARGUMENT

The novelist's job is to make sense of the world -- but this great Russian's huge new novel simply shovels chaos.

January 10, 1999|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

In 1974, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn startled the world with the publication of "The Gulag Archipelago." This huge work, based on interviews and reminiscences, documented the Soviet slave labor system from 1918 to 1956. No other statement, with the possible exception of Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 20th Communist Party Congress report, "The Personality Cult and Its Consequences," had its impact. In effect, it destroyed forever any illusion that Soviet communism was anything less than the most vicious form of totalitarianism.

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, Solzhenitsyn had endured years of labor camps and cancer; his books had circulated through the Soviet underground samizdat editions, providing images of reality for people swamped in agitprop. The Soviet authorities had tolerated him at first, but soon they realized his opposition was uncompromising. In February 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested again, formally charged with treason, stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and deported to the West. After more than two decades in the United States working largely on "The Red Wheel," he returned to Russia in 1996, where he has been largely ignored as a voice from the past Russia would like to forget.

He has left a legacy of witness, including not only the "Gulag," but also the haunting "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," which portrays the labor camps as endured by one man; "The First Circle," depicting the moral ambiguities of scientists working for Stalin; and "Cancer Ward," about the politically charged world inside a government hospital. David Remnick, currently editor of the New Yorker, declared, "In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the twentieth century."

"November 1916: The Red Wheel 1/8 Knot II" (translated by H.T. Willetts, Farrar Straus and Giroux, $35) attempts to create a metaphor for the chaos of Russia on the eve of revolution with a chaotic 1,010 page novel. It is as close to total failure as it is conceivable that a gifted writer can be. Nothing hangs together. A dozen separate stories appear and disappear with no connections with each other; descriptions run on in compulsive and irrelevant detail; whole sections in microscopic print are given over to the minute political maneuverings of the Russian Duma (parliament) or to listings of headlines and newspaper articles of the time. And the talk is endless, in the barracks, in drawing rooms, in the parliament or in bedrooms.

Clearly, Solzhenitsyn's cycle of novels on World War I and the Revolution -- "November 1916" follows "August 1914"; "Knot III" is forthcoming -- is inspired by Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Its immense size, its evocation of romance in the midst of political drama, even its interpolations of nonfiction, suggest this foundational work. But where Tolstoy could hold his readers with a storyline running through his epic, Solzhenitsyn in "November 1916" seems unable to rise above note taking and occasionally realized episodes.

Ironically, one of his characters, Fyodor Kovynev, offers the most revealing description of the novel: "What better and quicker way to relieve your soul of an importunate burden than by tirelessly taking notes, writing them up in sketches, and sending them to your editor. But when the pressure was eased, when after a while there were vacant hours to leaf through those sketches, you sighed and admitted to yourself that they were perhaps too long and too many."

What Solzhenitsyn offers is not a novel, but an entropic mess. It is virtually impossible to describe or hold it in one's mind. Great literature has always tended toward complexity, but rather than disintegration, it has created integrated structures which reinforce meanings and which limit the sprawl of attention over disparate facts. Shakespeare's "King Lear," for example, with its orchestrations and subplots, is complex but describable and memorable, because everything in the play ultimately reinforces the main story. "November 1916" is neither.

In one variant of postmodernist criticism, narrative is accused of telling a story which ultimately reflects the prevailing values of the dominant class. In this sense, the meaning of the "story" of "War and Peace," Tolstoy's focus on what happens to Pierre and Natasha, is, some postmodernists would say, a reflection of Tolstoy's endorsement of prevailing bourgeois values.

Solzhenitsyn, by presenting unrelated characters, ducks the commitment of concern. Who do we follow in this book, the young lieutenant, the Czarina, Lenin, the peasant woman, an angry monarchist army officer, a colonel in the midst of a difficult affair? Whose life is the central magnet for meaning; through whose eyes do we look? Lack of focus here may indeed mean lack of commitment to any one set of values; life takes up a neutral stance as sheer phenomena. But if the novelist lacks focus and the novel lacks structure, we cease to care. Why?

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