A translation of a review by Heinrich Böll of this modern Russian opus. The original was entitled Die verhaftete Welt, and first appeared in May 1969 in this newspaper. Before this time, Solzhenitsyn was not as widely known as he would become a few years later when Soviet authorities forced him to turn down the Nobel prize then booted him out of the country altogether (he would return in 1993 and recently celebrated his 89th birthday back at home*). To the best of my knowledge, this essay has never been translated into English.
1. Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle has enormous breadth, numerous moments of tension, and several dimensions: a prose dimension, a humanistic-historical dimension, a political-historical dimension, and a societal dimension. It is vaulted from many sides, a cathedral among novels, with carefully measured calculations that hold solid. That it also contains suspense in the traditional understanding of the word does not involve novelistic means but precisely those calculations or statics which every reader fears may not maintain the breadth and tension of its other parts. Here tension and suspense become architectonic concepts. That it covers historical information as well only confirms the novel as a sort of construction material with little time before it is put to use.
The plot begins with a telephone conversation between Volodin, a state councillor of second rank who wants to warn a friend of his, a professor, about foreign contacts. This initial break into the consciousness of a gifted diplomat, whose career has been completely secured with all the attendant privileges, is only the entry into the cathedral. The conversation takes place around Christmas 1949; the novel ends exactly two days later with a description of the prison transport through Moscow. In a delivery van with the inscription “мясо - Viande - Fleisch – Meat,” prisoners are taken away from the first circle of hell without knowing in what circle they’ll end up. The correspondent from the French newspaper Libération, on the way to a hockey match in Dinamo stadium, reads the inscription on the delivery van, pulls out his notebook, and writes down with his ballpoint in Bordeaux-red: “Again and again in the streets of Moscow one sees delivery vans with foodstuffs, extremely clean and unobjectionable in terms of sanitation. Provisions in the capital can only be described as marvelous.”
2. The novel comprises 87 chapters, 670 pages in order to survey its dramatis personae, and is difficult even after the second reading. It would be easier if the publisher resolved to include a detailed list of all the characters, with age, gender, function, job, and political position provided. This last point because there are so many transitions and ensnarements between the prisoners as well as between the non-prisoners (we’ll talk about the concepts of free and unfree a bit later on). They are all incarcerated, not of course in the technical prison sense; their incarceration has many causes, most of which would hardly be intelligible to the West. The fact that Solzhenitsyn’s novels were banned from publication in the West may be understood both literally and figuratively as this sort of incarceration. That he became – and this alone could be a reason for the Soviet government to join the Berne Convention – the victim of every condition so protected by the Convention may be seen as an ironic component in the game of mutual “freedom of publication.”
It is this incarceration which has made Russians into the nation on earth least enthusiastic about emigration. And here I designate all the characters of the novel, prisoners and non-prisoners, as politically incarcerated in the Soviet Union. I should add the following so as to eliminate any type of misunderstanding or malevolent falsification: I don’t mean incarceration by the police, I mean the type of incarceration one imposes upon oneself. Let semanticians do their research on the novel and discover the true meanings behind “self-incarceration” and “decarceration,” “carceration” and “incarceration.” In my understanding, James Joyce was, essentially to the end of his life, incarcerated both by Ireland and Catholicism.
3. The collective slap in the face for the West’s stupidity at the end of this book may be related to the fact that Western observers keep seeing signs here and there, even occasionally leading to recognition, a key of decryption with which these signs could be interpreted, but which they never get a hold of. Perhaps because this key changes daily, hourly, weekly and may be subject to an enormous amount of coincidence in this mammoth empire. Even I did not get a hold of this key; I’m short of breath, East Europe takes its time and breathes in very deeply. This key is not only based on passion, occasionally addicted to passion, it is impassioned in the true sense of the word and not just because of the revolution, and not just because of Stalinism.
Against the multifaceted breadth buttressed by the aforementioned statics of The First Circle, not only do some highly recommended Western novels become decorative ancillary chapels, but the results of decades of literature remain constructs outside this cathedral as auxiliary or, at best, elegant residences. Of course, the horrible dialectics in the face of such a work are thanks to the fact that it sums up and illuminates an unbelievable mass of suffering and history. The form, the expression, the style in which Solzhenitsyn writes his prose and keeps it in order is remarkable. This order allows one to see a composition carrying every last freedom, which indicates that we have a master at work, as well as a mathematician, someone to whom the formulas of science are not foreign. Here prose becomes a formula, spiritual and epic lucidity, and they meet in a parable in the mathematical and physical sense of the word.
4. If I avoid the word metaphysics, it is only because I do not have a name for this kind of metaphysics. In any case, order is neither given nor pushed forward, but order is created nonetheless. It is integrated in the mathematical and physical sense and it may well be that from here a new materialist metaphysics arises, as many physicists have suspected it would. As Western authors have laid aside the dogma of secrecy, so does Solzhenitsyn not quite reject the future, but instead no longer includes it as an ideal goal comparable to the heaven of the metaphysics passed down to us. He sums up the present, and one should not forget that this is the present of 1949, four years before Stalin’s death, and that this book was written from 1955 to 1964. In the Soviet Union of 1969, being incarcerated is something different than what it was in 1949.
Thankfully, Solzhenitsyn avoids giving all this a meaning, and elects simply to note, register, and develop his text from elements familiar to him, from experiences. And since he has no need to polemicize the order he gives or pushes forth, he achieves a sobriety and dryness which are superior to both optimism-riddled socialist realism and the intentions of the nouveau roman. This is not only because he experienced firsthand what his colleagues in the West did not: Stalinism. It is also because the West has lost its sense of hidden suffering, which now causes the most outrage as a component of sexual lust as yet undetected or unacknowledged. I ascribe to Solzhenitsyn’s work the quality of revelation, an unpathetic revelation, and not just regarding the book’s historical content, Stalinism, but also regarding the history of humanity’s suffering. In this respect, Stalinism here is only an “occasion,” sufficiently frightening, but “only an occasion” nevertheless.
The prisoners in The First Circle, incarcerated in the camp of Mavrino near Moscow, are responsible for various tasks, all of which have the purpose of refining and further developing surveillance methods, and therefore of hauling in additional prisoners. They are permanently entrapped, but as prisoners and researchers they are free, while their wardens are also free and still a permanent source of fear to the prisoners. They could always be incarcerated and perhaps taken to another circle of hell. It is in no way certain whether landing in the seventh circle of hell would be a lucky move or a fate worse than death. In the course of further developing the phonoscope, which would enable the identification of a person by his voice recorded on tape, five taped voices are handed over to the prisoners so they can compare them to the voice of Volodin, whose voice was just recorded. His voice is found to be one of the five. The sole triumph of these prisoners is that they were able to rule out three of the five suspects, with their consolation being that only two of the five, including Volodin, will be incarcerated. When he’s brought into Lubyanka prison as described in detail in the penultimate chapter, we see the subjection of a state councillor of second rank, a man who already has a plane ticket to Paris in his pocket, to pedantic, protracted, and absurdly unclear initial humiliations – all of which vividly remind the reader of the incarceration in the first circle of hell of the prisoners already well-known to him.
Certainly it’s no coincidence that this first circle of hell turns out to be a laboratory. A well-functioning, well-equipped laboratory. I imagine that astrophysicists, astromedics, astrotechnicians, and all their assistants are under strict surveillance and constant monitoring by various secret police forces, possibly even subject for months on end to severe enclosure. Given the fact that we are dealing here not only with chemical, physical, and technical laboratories, but also with national economic and, most of all, recruiting laboratories in which new methods of manipulation are being concocted, and old methods are being analyzed and developed further, and given the other fact that even the dreams of those working in the innermost circle of these heavens probably have to be monitored as well so that they don’t spill the beans, so to speak, and one sees how quickly Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle is de-Stalinized. Here captivity and freedom, intuition and ingenuousness on the part of both the prisoners and the free, of the manipulated and the manipulators, are all rather relative. I don’t know the proportion of wardens and free persons in a space research center; in the “first circle of heaven,” I think the proportions and conditions differ only slightly from those in The First Circle. There are enough secret worlds, as well as worlds of hidden suffering whose revelation would not only involve sexual suffering. In this respect I look at The First Circle as both bound to the historical material and a revelation that goes beyond it.
Perhaps the key to understanding the Soviet Union is the difference between being incarcerated in terms of your soul and in terms of the law. However much the matter is debated and however much such a judgment does not correspond to the Russian frame of mind, the Soviet Union is still run by Russians and by Russia. That does not need to mean what it keeps threatening to become: imperialistic, nationalistic, and under Stalin once again Tsarist. Only when reading Solzhenitsyn did I first realize the significance of the changes towards more openness by Khrushchev in 1956. Among other things was the allowance for Solzhenitsyn to be released from captivity, and for him to write and have his works published. That he still writes but may no longer be published, that he lives in the Soviet Union but is incarcerated, although he has not been taken into custody, can only mean one thing. It means that the jury’s still out as to whether the Soviet government will ever understand what politicians all over the world never quite understand: that an author is already incarcerated in his own language. That Solzhenitsyn as a person and author, as an author born in 1918 and not at all determined by the history of the Soviet Union, is neither typical nor symbolic; that he is real and present for the Soviet Union. If he weren’t denounced and branded a heretic, the Soviet Union could actually be proud of him. Ultimately, he doesn’t go any further than Khrushchev did in his famous speech; Solzhenitsyn only took the word de-Stalinization literally and fashioned it into something more. He is incarcerated in the Soviet Union just like one of the “heroes” of his book, the prisoner Rubin, who remains beholden to socialism as much as he does to the Soviet Union. Rubin is in no way unnationalistic but is also not cosmopolitan and, as a Marxist who sees right through his own prisoner-incarceration quandary, is far superior to his wardens. And I have long since assumed that all those people who are accused of draggling their own nests are usually those who strive to keep them clean.
Solzhenitsyn’s book comes from afar, it is vaulted high into the heavens, and it is also a revelation for the more or less helplessly operating parts of Western literature. It stems from the great Russian tradition, it has bypassed, overcome and renewed socialist realism, and in the temerity of its construction, which is also secured by its statics, it is also topical: it has Tolstoy’s breath and the spirit of Dostoevsky, and it unites these two as antagonistic minds in the nineteenth century up to contemporary literary criticism, and, without a doubt, it is Solzhenitsyn. Moving past Sartre and Camus, he completes the age-old debate of “free” and “captive,” but not prettily, not philosophically, but with material that is unassisted, unadulterated and unemphatic. Take the meeting between the apparently all-powerful minister Abakumov and the prisoner Bobynin: the trembling minister who knows all too well how many circles hell has, and the poised Bobynin, who has already endured many a circle of hell.
In such scenes of which there is no paucity, the unity of reality and symbol is neither invented nor found, it is derived from the material at hand like the result of a solved mathematical formula. It would be useless to enumerate additional examples. Were I a painter or a graphic artist, I would try to depict The First Circle visually within a system of order yet to be invented which may have the form of a giant rosette. I can only imagine the possibility of, at one glance, making literature illuminated and visible, and not with the claim of total understanding so typical of literary criticism, but as an aid to understanding. This prose does not, in any case, flow with great placidity; it is not a current, but a lake made of many sources, both big and small. I know I am providing simile after simile: a cathedral, a lake, a rosette, yet this but attests to the book’s many dimensions.
There are very few novelistic elements in this novel: on page 9 Volodin places a phone call; on page 232, the specialists in Mavrino are given the assignment of identifying his voice and they ask for additional material as a basis of comparison, which leads to more phone tapping; on page 588 Volodin’s voice is partially identified; at the end of the novel he is incarcerated. The book is most novelistic about half the way through: the material which the prisoners request so as to conduct a voice comparison is taken on the occasion of a dinner party in the classic opulent bourgeois style, as held by state prosecutor Makarygin. It is at this gathering that a few, but only a few, of the novel’s many threads come together. Volodin is Makarygin’s son-in-law; his wife Dotnara (called Dotti, a Western abbreviation that cannot fail to remind us of the habits of the noble class depicted in Tolstoy’s work) is completely preoccupied with problems that are in no way the problems of a classless society: servants and adultery. Meanwhile Volodin in his apartment gradually moves from being one of the oblivious and privileged to someone who has more of a clue. And it is precisely this phone call with his wife, which “is recorded in a particular central news office” that is recorded on tape, and comes “on the heels of the decision by Rubin earlier that afternoon to have all the suspects’ long-distance calls monitored without exception.” And the prisoner does not only invade the life of the state councillor. Some other absurd “coincidences” occur here at the dinner party at Makarygin’s: Klara, Makarygin’s unwed daughter, a warden at the Mavrino camp with the rank of lieutenant, falls in love with the prisoner Rostislav (and he with her!). She is the first person to pick up the receiver and cannot guess that in that same camp, just a few hours later, this telephone conversation will lead to the incarceration of her brother-in-law. Thus in two chapters the threads come together and then just as quickly come undone. Apart from that, the banter at the Makarygin party is very witty and spirited, it is the entertainment of the oblivious, the talk of the privileged, of dignitaries: “It would never have occurred to any of the people here that in this polished black receiver, in this unobtrusive conversation, there lurked a secret decay which knew how to find each of us, even in the bone of a dead horse.”
Only in these two chapters right in the middle of the novel, no coincidence for such a mathematician, is tribute paid to the format of the classical novel and only here are the threads of fate “hemmed together.” All other destinies, and they are numerous, are only documented: Spiridon, Sologdin, Simotschka, and Myschin, Stalin and the prisoner Dryssin, who is deprived from receiving letters from his wife, and may only read them in the office of major Myschin:
No, read it here. I can’t let you take letters like that with you into the common rooms.
What type of impression of life outside of prison would that give the prisoners? Read!
And so Dryssin reads, among other things: “Dear Vanya, you’re hurt that I write so rarely, but I come home late from work and go almost daily into the forest to look for firewood. And then later in the evening, I’m so tired that I practically keel over. This is not a life but forced labor. If I could only sleep in on Friday, but I’ve got to drag myself to the demonstrations.” A completely demoralized Dryssin is then ordered to write a letter to his wife: “optimistic, cheerful, prop yourself up.” And then: “Write a response. An optimistic and hopeful response. I’ll allow you to write more than four pages. You wrote once that she should trust in God. Then better to stay with God than ....”
The prisoner Dryssin, whose fate is chronicled in a few pages, has no novelistic function. He is only one of millions and he is obliged to trumpet optimism and cheerfulness from his prison. Ths insane absurdity of the incarceration of prisoners already documented in magnificent personal detail in the books of Lydia Chukovskaia (The deserted house) and Evgenia Ginzburg (Journey into the whirlwind) is now deepened, widened and, to a certain degree, de–individualized by Solzhenitsyn, who has up to now no peer in terms of expression.
5. Apart from everything else it may be, our century is the century of camps, of prisoners. And to all those who were never captives, may you boast or be ashamed of the good fortune or chance of being spared the experience of our century, and you can take that for whatever it’s worth. For those who survived, and that is all of us, those of us reading and writing – indeed, everyone – there is only the possibility of acknowledging our captivity, whether or not one experienced something like that. Whoever did experience it knows how relative luxury is: amidst the wasteland of a hundred-thousand-man camp a bit of soap and a saucer of water are real luxury, because they are luxury at hand. And five twelfths of a cigarette when a whole one costs one hundred and twenty marks and fifty marks represents your entire fortune, that is truly, not only symbolically so much more pleasure than that of the zillionaire who loses a hundred thousand in an evening and thinks nothing of it because he doesn’t feel it. But the person who pays fifty marks for five twelfths of a cigarette knows all the while that he could pay his rent with that money. The stupidity of the West’s luxury-driven society and its victims, the criminals who wish to take part in it, consists of thinking of luxury as something absolute. In this century you simply have to know that, in order to evaluate and enjoy luxury, having a can of preserves and an empty bottle really means life or death for a prisoner. This secret philosophy of prisoners (which has a lot of theology in it) glides invisibly and yet perceptibly throughout The First Circle.
Yet another philosophy is even more perceptible: that of love, prudishness, and marriage. “Yes, yes, to love!” whispers the young prisoner Rostislav. “To love! But not the story of love, not the theory of love, but girls!” And later: “But what have they taken from us? Tell me now! The right of assembly? The right to sign for state loans? The only way that beast wanted to hurt us was by taking us away from women! And that’s what it did. For more than twenty-five years. The swine! Does anyone know what a woman means to a prisoner?”
And who knows what it means to the women of these prisoners to have this freedom handed to them and, in most cases, not to know what to do with it. Who can guess the meaning of freedom for someone sentenced to at least twenty-five years of imprisonment? Here there arises that disdained something which may possibly have not arisen in the event of the freedom of both members of a couple: there arises from captivity the concept, much reviled in the West, of faithfulness. The tortures of sex and the sex of tortures extant in Western literature are also an expression of an unacknowledged captivity and an absurdly interpreted freedom.
That these features – the tortures of sex and the sex of tortures – are completely uninteresting not only to Soviet censorship, but also to the enlightened, the aware Soviet citizens, to the non-oblivious, is one of the signs that is hard to decipher. It would probably have been interesting to the bloated, jaded class of privileged and oblivious persons in the Soviet Union, for whom servants are a veritable topic of conversation. For an entire chapter (chapter 39), the female state security lieutenant Klara Petrovna Makarygin, daughter of a state prosecutor, and the prisoner Rostislav talk about Soviet society in the laboratory in Mavrino. They talk about methods of falsifying documents and about privileges. And here it is the prisoner Rostislav who plants the seed of wondrous corruption. And what does the prisoner whisper to the highly privileged daughter from the class of the classless bourgeoisie?
What was the revolution aimed at, anyway? It was aimed at the privileged! What did not sit well with the citizens of Russia? Privileges! Some only had work clothes, others wore sables; some walked, others rode in carriages; some had to heed the whistle of factory sirens, other gorged themselves rotten in restaurants. Isn't that right?
“Of course,” said the good and enamored daughter of the state prosecutor, who that same evening would take part in an opulent party at the apartment of her pushy bourgeois mother. There would be crystal and silver, exquisite foods and wine, spirited conversations and even loaned-out servants. And she would pick up the receiver and the conversation with her brother-in-law Volodin would begin to be taped that very night in the same laboratory where she fell in love with the prisoner Rostislav Vadimovich Doronin, and it would serve to expose her brother-in-law. “That’s right,” says Rostislav, “but why don’t people renounce all privileges instead of trying to obtain them?” Thus the wondrous corruption of the female lieutenant continues.
6. All these quotes and allusions may give you the impression that we are dealing with many novels and many romances all united into one novel. It is rather difficult to restrict oneself to citations when you want to quote most of the 670 pages the novel contains. The book does not possess that infamously epic flow: it keeps stumbling, starting over, stumbling again; it has whole chapters of bitter soliloquies and paraphrases on the inspections by human rights commissions that are led astray, thoroughly and completely astray. Or the wives’ horrible half-hour visits which are allowed to many prisoners once a year. The stumbling is the stumbling of deep breathing, of lengthiness, not a shortness of breath, which may arouse the appetite of the Western European novel. It is this pacing which reminds one of Tolstoy, and it is this sarcasm and subtlety of psychological perception that remind one of Dostoevsky. And yet all the while it is Solzhenitsyn, undeniably, because one knows more from him.
There are also specialists in the Mavrino camp who refuse to develop surveillance methods or who cleverly sabotage this development, since only they, the lone specialists incarcerated for this purpose, know or could know how these methods might be developed. These seem to me to be the true socialist scientists. In addition, the female employees, all the state security lieutenants, young women most of whom were born after Lenin’s death in 1924, appear to be most unreliable. But many a prisoner turns out to be someone you can count on. That we can see this makes the material, despite the staggering amount of pain and suffering, almost optimistic. Pensions are still being paid nowadays to the victims of Stalinism. And what does Solzhenitsyn’s horrible crime consist of? Naturally, there cannot be so much absurdity in a state founded and operated on Marxist principles. But can this acknowledgment of Stalinism-driven mass incarceration possibly find closure in the long run with pensions still being meted out to its victims?
One hundred years after Crime and Punishment and War and Peace, we now have this book, unfortunately only in the West, for whom it was not written. It was written for the liberation of socialism. We have no reason, not the slightest reason, to revel in The First Circle as a portrait of Stalinist misdeeds, absurdities, and entrapments. But we do have a reason to ask ourselves whether a Western author could manage, in our complicated entanglement, such a depiction of the world of the oblivious and the world of those suffering in secret.
*Note: Solzhenitsyn passed away on August 3, 2008, four months shy of his 90th birthday.