And Other Stories
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Counterpoint 2011, hardcover) 375 pages including glossary, $28 msl
In ‘Fracture Points’, one of the nine stories comprising what one assumes is the last collection of work drawn from the final years of the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, there is a quote from Gogol: “I’ve given birth to you, and I can kill you as well.” If pressed to name an organizing theme to Apricot Jam, I think that would be it - survival in a world that can either nurture or murder on whims of fate.
When I was about halfway through this collection, the thought occurred to me that these nine stories might have been the working notes for one last gigantic novel by Solzhenitsyn. Certain characters re-appeared in cameos decades after their first introduction, and there was an undoubted linkage to the Civil War following the 1917 Revolution, through to the central narrative of World War Two, ending with the denouement of the USSR transitioning into Russia. By the time I had come to the end, reading the closing words of ‘No Matter What’ - All will proceed according to plan - I had changed my mind. These were not notes. This is the entire symphony. This is a people’s history of the USSR.
There is always the temptation to open the cracked leather briefcase of well-worn phrases and lift out the line of, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ That would be grand if it were true. Instead, the parts are equal to the whole. You will never forget these people; whether the simple village girl Nastenka in the story of the same name, who gives her body at first reluctantly then willingly to men, then manages to become a teacher faced with an ever-shifting list of what books or poems could be or could not be taught; or the historical figure of Marshal Georgy Zhukov in ‘Times of Crisis’, a true hero of World War, alternately praised, damned, elevated or exiled by Stalin and his successors.
Truth be told, I had never been a great fan of Solzhenitsyn. I had read most of the major works, beginning with August 1914, through Ivan Denisovitch, and The Gulag Archipelago, without ever truly enjoying one of them. He himself was a controversial enough figure in life. When he was exiled to the West in 1974, the assumption by many was that he would become ‘the Russian we could all love.’ Instead, the uncomfortable truth arose that he was as critical of the West as he was of the communist state he had left. He was an ardent supporter of the Vietnam War, for instance, which was not what people in correct literary circles wanted to hear. Most annoyingly to some, he retained an intense Russian patriotism, which is extremely clear in Apricot Jam. No matter what peasants, soldiers, technocrats or police officers go through they still love their country.
I’m highly pleased to say that my opinion of Solzhenitsyn’s writing has changed. Perhaps the translation by his son Stephan Solzhenitsyn with Kenneth Lantz is superior to those earlier works; perhaps I have matured and can now appreciate the author’s work. Regardless of the reason, I can unreservedly endorse Apricot Jam.