Book Review: Stories and Prose Poems (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

It is my intention to read more. I don’t call this a resolution of the New Year kind because it’s always my intention to read more. Having had the opportunity to kick-start that process recently, I need some means of being held accountable. This site can offer that accountability. There are book reviews all over the internet and so, in adding to that body of writing, I write here to create a personal catalogue — for public consumption if that proves of interest. It’s January 5 and I’m already a book and a half in, my partner in accountability! There will follow writing on that reading in due course.

In the meantime, I’ve dug up a review written under a pseudonym in December 2011: Stories and Prose Poems by Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

I discovered this somewhat tersely titled slim collection by chance. I’m glad that I did, despite some minor misgivings about the author’s manner of writing. Some weeks back, I chanced on a small bookshop, down an alley. On the very top floor, on a bottom shelf, nestled between other dustily forgotten literary types, was Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the 1971 Penguin Books version (translated by Michael Glenny) features a bright red square overlaid by a man’s hand holding a sickle over an open book. I had all the intrigue I needed.

Solzhenitsyn, an army captain, was arrested in an East Prussian village in 1945 for making derogatory remarks about Stalin. He spent eight years in labour camps. It must be assumed that this time was spent stewing on his lot and forming his writerly direction: to find the ‘real Russia’. In Stories and Prose Poems, which consists of six of the former and sixteen of the latter, Solzhenitsyn displays both astounding brilliance and alarming clumsiness.

In the opening story, the author focuses on Matryona: a self-effacing woman who takes the narrator into her squalid home. Solzhenitsyn expertly describes a bleak state of affairs (being semi-autobiographical, following the narrator’s search for some isolation). However, the reader isn’t depressed by bleak descriptions of a cockroach-infested kitchen, for example. Instead, Matryona is depicted as someone with beautiful grace. There is the definite undertone of Soviet mentality (whether that’s due to indoctrination or inner desire) inherent in Matryona’s work ethic: despite her physical difficulties and poverty, she does what she can for the good of her community. The ending is tragic, as one might expect. There is a whiff of allegory about the whole.

Similarly brilliant in execution are some of Solzhenitsyn’s prose poems. I was astounded by A Storm in the Mountains, for example. Barely half a page long, this piece deftly describes the raw power and beauty of its subject matter:

Everything was black — no peaks, no valleys, no horizon to be seen, only the searing flashes of lightning separating darkness from light and the gigantic peaks of Belaya-Kaya and Djuguturlyuchat looming up out of the night . . . the voice of thunder filled the gorge, drowning the ceaseless roar of the rivers . . . the lightning flashes rained down on the peaks, then split up into serpentine streams as though bursting into spray against the rock face, or striking and then shattering like a living thing.

There are, however, downsides to this collection. The story For the Good of the Cause starts with a flow of alternating dialogue — a collection of people and their overlapping conversations. It is not only difficult to follow but clumsy in its execution. Names are used in dialogue to introduce characters, or to try to indicate who says what next. It feels somewhat amateurish:

‘Susanna Samoilovna! How are you? . . . Lydia Georgievna? Lydia, my dear!’

That said though, Matryona Vasilievna Grigorieva, from the first story, is regularly referred to as Matryona Vasilievna, so perhaps this is a Russian convention I’m not aware of. Clumsiness, or dullness, can always be ironed out, however, in stilted dialogue (despite a social history inherent between the words) such as:

‘I’m in the same position: electronic and ionic appliances are separate from insulating materials, which have been left with lightning engineering.’

Solzhenitsyn can hardly be blamed for a lack of social or scientific foresight when writing forty years ago, but sometimes his writing does strike a chord with modern times. In the story, The Easter Procession, for example, he describes a rabble of bored youths spoiling to agitate at a church. One need not look too far to see such disaffected actions in modern society. However, there are other aspects that Solzhenitsyn gets wrong. In the prose poem, The Duckling, which is simple and beautiful in its own way (espousing the wonder of such delicacy as the titular creature), the author asserts — perhaps with tongue in cheek — that we will all soon be flying to Venus, yet we won’t be able to re-create such a thing as a delicate duckling. In the twenty-first century, sheep have already been cloned!

Solzhenitsyn’s prose poetry is where he really excels. Several of these pieces have reflective morals attached to them. It is perhaps a sign of the personal history of the author, of the Cold War times in which he wrote, and of the Soviet society he lived in, that such reflection is written in such a manner. The collection has been thoughtfully rounded off with the final prose poem (We Will Never Die): it explores the notion, despite the fact that ‘more men died for us Russians than any other people’, that Russia had no day of remembrance, unlike ‘all [other] nations [who] dedicate one day to remembering’. The piece, and the book, ends with a foresightful quip: why consider the past and the dead, when ‘we will never die!’?

Small pieces of huge histories can be found on the dusty bottom shelves of the very top floor of little bookshops, hidden away down side alleys. Solzhenitsyn’s writing, in this collection, does oscillate between the beautiful and the clumsy, between the sublimely tragic and the utilitarian; perhaps, though, we shouldn’t hold this against a man whose restless mind was shaped by war, imprisonment, and a search for something true in his homeland.

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