Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Back to (Modern) Classics: Solzhenitsyn's "One Day"

The Writer: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

Work and Date: Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) (1959). The book’s Russian title would be translated literally as One Day of Ivan Denisovich.

Why it’s important: The literary journal Новый мир (Novyi mir or New World) published One Day in 1962, during the Khrushchev-era thaw, providing readers with a fictionalized account of one day in the bleak life of a political prisoner in a Soviet camp.

Online criticism, analysis, and background: Harrison Salisbury’s 1963 review from The New York Times. Sheila Fitzpatrick’s “Like a Thunderbolt” is a London Review of Books piece about Liudmila Saraskina’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Fitzpatrick includes background on the publishing of One Day and the nonpublishing of other works. Michael Scammell’s “Solzhenitsyn the Stylist,” from the New York Times Book Review, is a brief but helpful piece.

IMHO: I first read One Day about 20 years ago, in English translation. Rereading it this fall in Russian was a completely different experience. I’d remembered simple language, but the original is a complicated blend that incorporates dialect and accents, curses, and camp slang.

Since I was already familiar with what happened during Ivan Denisovich Shukhov’s day and have read many other accounts of prison camps, what struck me most during my rereading was how Solzhenitsyn varied his language to create atmosphere. The central portion, for example, when Ivan Denisovich works as a member of a brigade, seems to contain many passages with choppy writing and lots of exclamation marks, highlighting the fast pace of lunch and work, both of which warm Ivan Denisovich.

Back in the barracks, when Shukhov returns from work, Solzhenitsyn’s language feels stylistically simpler, calmer. There is less dialect, sentences seem longer, and my impression is that exclamation marks become sparser. This was my favorite part of the book: the more relaxed style truly reflected the content, as the men waited in line for packages, went for their evening meal, submitted to two evening headcounts, and conversed.

Although I gained a new appreciation for how Solzhenitsyn wrote and structured One Day, I still can’t say it’s a personal favorite. It’s a very, very good book, and I have tremendous respect for Solzhenitsyn’s ability to describe so much, so humanly, so almost-perfectly, in so few words. I have occasionally heard Russians praise One Day but downplay its importance a bit because it shows a relatively easy day in a prison camp – solitary confinement cells, for example, are only mentioned, not observed. To my mind, Solzhenitsyn simply chose to focus on one side of camp life, writing a publishable book and showing, very successfully, how prisoners can maintain their dignity despite the system’s constant humiliations. 

I can’t honestly tell you why I’ve never felt enthusiastic about One Day. Perhaps it’s because I read and enjoyed Solzhenitsyn’s full-length novel, В круге первом (The First Circle), first. The First Circle and Раковый корпус (Cancer Ward) both have plenty of space for extended metaphors that specialized settings – a prison camp for scientists and a hospital, respectively – can spawn. Another thought: unless Dostoevsky is the author, I generally prefer long, messy novels to short, neat books or stories… though there are short stories, like Pushkin’s “Пиковая дама” (“The Queen of Spades”) or Gogol’s “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”), that I love every time.

I’ll leave you with two motifs from One Day that I particularly liked. Solzhenitsyn makes nice use of two recurring symbols in One Day: the sun and the moon, representing the passage of time. They also seem to refer to universality and separation since everyone, whether inside or outside the camp, sees the same sun and moon. Still, I think the saddest line in the book is when Ivan Denisovich wonders whether or not he wants to be free again.

Summary: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich focuses on a Soviet political prisoner’s workday, incorporating bits of material that tell of his life and family. The book is neatly structured and provides glimpses into the freedoms and limitations of a prison camp and Soviet life. It is an excellent introduction to fiction about Soviet prison and political “crimes,” and I particularly recommend it to readers who either don’t like long novels or have difficulty keeping track of Russian names.


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