Solzhenitsyn's Literary Ascent

Solzhenitsyn's Literary Ascent
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The year 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle. Because the Soviets were in power in Russia at the time that Solzhenitsyn wrote the novel, it was only partially published and only in the West. Not until 2009 was the book fully restored and has gained prominence in Russia. Although the title alludes to Dante's Divine Comedy (the “first circle” refers to limbo where the pagan intellectuals reside in hell), the novel goes largely unread by Western audiences, never discussed alongside Dante. In the passing decades, Russians have come to embrace the novel and view its author as a descendant of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. However, if In the First Circle is read in the West, at all, it has a flickering life among political thinkers for what it reveals about Soviet ideology.

Even a decade after his death, Solzhenitsyn remains one of the most misinterpreted writers of the twentieth century. As Hilton Kramer noted in 1980, Solzhenitsyn, “although world famous, is virtually unrecognized as a literary artist.” Readers reduce his work to messages. If Americans know of Solzhenitsyn, they regard him through a “political prism,” to use Edward E. Ericson's words, which “distort[s] his image.” Based on his political views, the Western media denigrated Solzhenitsyn as “a freak, a monarchist, an anti-semite, a crank, a has-been.”[1] When Solzhenitsyn was asked in a 1993 interview to respond to these charges, he lamented that the Western Press did not “read my books. No one has ever given a single quotation from any of my books as a basis for these accusations. But every new journalist reads these opinions from other journalists.” Apparently, the West is as guilty of group-think, in Solzhenitsyn's estimation, as the “Soviet press was before.”

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