THE ‘LOST’ BOOKS OF ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN
When Aleksandr Solzhenistyn died aged 89 in August 2008 his
reputation had been in flux for a long time. Even so, most obituaries
acknowledged the power and significance of The Gulag Archipelago and
his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, although he was
nevertheless dogged to the grave by accusations of anti-Semitism,
reactionary nationalism, and even pro-Putinism. And while he may have
won the Nobel Prize in 1970, interest in his later works was low: indeed,
many of his books had not even been translated into English. To many,
Solzhenitsyn was an anachronism- a man, a hero even, who had
nevertheless outlived his time.
This past October Harper Perennial tentatively dipped a toe in the water
to see if conditions were favorable for a Solzhenitsyn revival, by
publishing a radically revised version of his great novel In the First
Circle. Originally published in English in 1968 (minus the preposition) In
the First Circle is the story of four days in a ‘sharashka’, a special prison
camp where the scientist-prisoners carry out top secret research on
behalf of the Stalinist regime. From this narrow focus Solzhenitsyn paints
a detailed picture of soviet society in the 1950s. Although the 1968
version was acclaimed as an instant classic, few people at the time knew
that they were reading a butchered, politically neutered version of the
text, which had been reduced from 96 chapters to 87. Solzhenitsyn
himself had carried out the edit in the hope that he could get his novel
past the soviet censors. He failed, and forever afterwards considered the
truncated book ‘ersatz’. Thus in a sense hardly any English speakers
have read In The First Circle- even if they think they have.
The restored text has done reasonably well, but it has not set the world
on fire. Indeed, it is yet to be reviewed in that hallowed arbiter of good
taste The New York Times. Perhaps then it is too early for Solzhenitsyn’s
legacy to be re-assessed. And yet what is really strange is how long it
took this unexpurgated text to reach an English speaking audience in the
first place. Solzhenitsyn set about restoring the novel as soon as he was
exiled from the USSR and published it in Russian in 1978. A French
edition appeared in the 1980s. But for English speakers? Nothing, nada,
zip until now, thirty years later- and even then no specifically British
edition of the ‘real’ novel is planned.
Now the reluctance of British and American publishers to take on works
in translation is notorious, but even so, Solzhenitsyn is one of the most
famous authors of the 20th century, and more than 30 million copies of
his books have been sold worldwide. Finally, In the First Circle, is one of
his most famous and celebrated works. So even allowing for the
traditional Anglo-American terror of books by Johnny Foreigner this
slowness to pick up on the definitive edition of a 20th century classic
seems particularly retrograde.
Recently I had an opportunity to speak with the Solzhenitsyn’s son, Ignat,
a celebrated concert pianist and conductor and I pursued the mystery of
the lost books of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
In the First Circle
D.K.: Why did it take so long for the restored version of In the First Circle
to be translated?
I.S.: There’s no satisfactory answer really. English editions have always
lagged behind. And you know, some publishers are more intelligent than
others…. they say: isn’t this title out already? So perhaps they felt that
there was no great rush. But I’m glad that at last the original version of In
the First Circle has been translated. Now my friends in the USA,
England, and Australia will know what I’m talking about.
D.K.: Are there any alternative, director’s cut versions of Cancer Ward,
the Gulag Archipelago or Ivan Denisovich lurking in the shadows?
I.S.: No, this is it.
The Red Wheel
But what of Solzhenitsyn’s later books, yet to be translated into English?
Foremost among these is the series he considered the major creative
work of his life, the Red Wheel cycle. Solzhenitsyn spent decades writing
these four massive volumes, or ‘knots’, which when taken together
constitute a toweringly ambitious reinterpretation of the Russian
Revolution. He started writing in the USSR (there are hints about the
project in In the First Circle, written in 1955-58) and continued to labor
painstakingly over the project while living in Vermont in the 1970s, 80s
and 90s. Indeed, according to Ignat Solzhenitsyn it was the need to
concentrate on the Red Wheel and not disdain for yanks or a propensity
for reclusiveness that led Solzhenitsyn to disappear into his family home
during his years in America.
In truth, The Red Wheel has always had a tortured history, even by the
standards of Solzhenitsyn’s books which were variously concealed,
banned, burned, microfilmed and smuggled out to the West. This
difficult, dense epic was alienating readers even as the first volume
August 1914 was circulating in samizdat in the 60s. Solzhenitsyn himself
condemned the first English translation, carried out by Michael Glenny
and a team of graduate students in the early 70s, and which received
lukewarm reviews in the press. The book reappeared nearly twenty
years later in 1989, entirely redone by his favorite translator (H.T.
Willetts, who also translated the restored First Circle). The second
volume, November 1916 followed in 1998. And since then: nothing- in
English at least.
I.S.: It remains stuck in limbo.
D.K.: Are there any plans to translate the remaining volumes?
I.S.: (visibly frustrated) No.
The Red Wheel is available in other European languages, such as
German, French and Swedish- while Russian speakers can download
the while thing for free from the official Solzhenitsyn website which is run
by his widow, Natalia. Edward Ericson, a noted Solzhenitsyn scholar who
edited the one volume edition of the Gulag Archipelago and co-edited
The Solzhenitsyn Reader is pessimistic that the Red Wheel will ever
appear in English. ‘That would take a rich benefactor. It’s never going to
make a profit. I don’t even think the sales would pay the cost of the
translation. And so this great work is lost to us.’
The Little Grain Managed to Land Between Two Millstones
Considering the herculean effort it took Solzhenitsyn to write the Red
Wheel, there is something a little tragic in the fate of that particular text.
On the other hand, the situation with another of Solzhenitsyn’s late works
The Little Grain Managed to Land Between Two Millstones is more
This memoir of the author’s life in exile was published in Russia in
installments between 1998 and 2003. The title is a reference to his
status as an irritant (the little grain) to both the USSR and also the USA
(two millstones), where he alienated liberal opinion for good with his
notorious 1978 Harvard address in which he railed against Western
culture. When this memoir was published in Russia it reignited a feud
that had long simmered between Solzhenitsyn and Olga Carlisle, the San
Francisco based granddaughter of the Russian author Leonid Andreyev.
In the late 60s Solzhenitsyn had entrusted the manuscript of the Gulag
Archipelago to Carlisle, and he blamed her for delays in getting it
published in English. After he criticized her in his earlier memoir The Oak
and the Calf, Carlisle filed a $2 million lawsuit against Solzhenitsyn for
defamation and lost. When Solzhenitsyn repeated his accusations
against her in ‘The Little Grain’, she responded by having her own
critique of Solzhenitsyn translated and published in Russian.
As usual the book has been available in German, French etc for years.
But English? Nope, even though the memoir covers his years in America.
According to Ignat Solzhenitsyn however this book is finally going to see
print in a two volume edition at end of 2010. It will be translated by
Judson Rosengrant, who- ironically enough- earlier translated works by
Eduard Limonov, a soviet émigré writer who Solzhenitsyn considered an
‘insect’ and whose books he decried as ‘pornography’. The firm handling
the book is the Intercollegial Studies Institute, a small house specializing
in ‘Conservative Books from Yesterday and Today’.
The Binary Tales
ISI also issued the Solzhenitsyn Reader in 2006, an anthology
authorized by the family and which featured translations by Solzhenitsyn’
s three sons. Included in that book was one of Solzhenitsyn’s late
stories, which are collectively known as ‘the binary tales’. There are eight
of these stories, and all of them were written after Solzhenitsyn returned
to his homeland in 1994. Here the news is especially positive:
I.S: A collection of the late stories is forthcoming from a major publisher
soon, although I cannot say more now, since the contract is being
reviewed as we speak.
200 Years Together
The most controversial of all the ‘lost Solzhenitsyn’ books however is 200
Years Together, a history of relations between Russians and Jews which
was published in Russia in two volumes in 2001 and 2002. Editions
swiftly followed in every major European language except, as usual,
English. Considering that Solzhenitsyn had been dogged by accusations
of anti-Semitism since the 1970s (which he dismissed as a slanderous
‘whispering campaign’ whipped up by his enemies among fellow
dissidents) he was surely playing with fire by choosing this topic.
Reviewing the Russian edition in the New Republic, the historian Richard
Pipes (himself no fan of Solzhenitsyn) absolved the author of all charges
of anti-Semitism. Natan Shratansky, a fellow dissident and ex-political
prisoner didn’t consider Solzhenitsyn anti-Semitic either although he was
no fan of 200 Years Together which: ‘…will be forgotten. For anti-
Semites, his critique lacks bite. For Jews, his arguments are nonsense.
For the rest, it is simply boring.’ Even so, should 200 Years Together
ever appear in English it seems likely that the old accusations will once
more rear their head. Even in death, Solzhenitsyn courts controversy.
An American agent connected with the Solzhenitsyn family confirmed for
me: ‘we are actively seeking an English-language publisher. However,
we are being selective about this, as all parties are agreed that the work
must be brought out by the right house.’
Ignat Solzhenitsyn adds that the book is nevertheless far from
publication ‘as it is a very big translating job.’
Thus it seems that the lost books of Aleksandr Solzhenitysn’s are
becoming a little less lost (although in truth they have only ever been
lost to English speakers). If his reputation is not yet enjoying a full
renaissance, then there is at least more interest in his late work than
there was while he was still alive. But with the Red Wheel trapped in
limbo, it seems that literary judgment will always rest primarily on the
works from the first part of his career, and in particular Ivan Denisovich
and the Gulag Archipelago. Then again, how many authors can claim to
have written books of even a fraction of that magnitude?
Thus Solzhenitsyn will always be remembered, regardless of the fate of
his other work.
From Publishing Perspectives Jan 19th 2010