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 whole 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 hopeful.

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

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