Why did the calf butt the oak? No doubt, for a few very special calves, it is in their nature, and thank goodness for the rest of us in the herd that it should be so. Solzhenitsyn is not only a very great writer, but a man whose stand against the regime is unique in the history of great writers anywhere, particularly in Russia. Solzhenitsyn has always been very attached to Russian proverbs, and in The Oak and the Calf gives us a good many of them, such as ‘If trouble comes make use of it too’. That he has certainly done. And kept an account of the trouble in the minutest detail. As a record it is of the highest importance, but for the common reader the perusal is often fatiguing. The reason is partly the provenance of the book, which was written from day to day, under the table, in the years before Solzhenitsyn’s exile from Russia, with the KGB breathing down his neck and with no safe place for papers.
Victor Nekipelov’s Institute of Fools is as much as The Oak and the Calf a scrupulous record, a witness to the truth in Soviet Russia – something that takes both books out of the ordinary class of literature. Since both writers are born novelists however, literature comes in again through the back door. The Oak and the Calf is, essentially, a character study of a man and his work – Tvardovsky and the magazine Novy Mir, and it becomes a kind of elegy for both. Nekipelov’s book’ is about the Serbsky Institute, the asylum in Moscow to which dissidents and criminals are sent to be certified, and it is a treasure-house of contemporary Soviet characters, of all kinds and drawn from every walk of life. Both books remind one of Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, not so much because the title of Dostoevsky’s book about his Siberian prison, but because the characters he depicts have an extraordinary family resemblance to those encountered in Solzhenitsyn’s books, and in Nekipelov’s.
In The First Circle the student Muza observes:
Have you ever noticed what makes Russian literary heroes different from the heroes of Western novels? The heroes of western literature are always after careers, money, fame. The Russians can get along without food and drink. It’s justice and good they’re after. Right?
Right. Russian moral superiority is connected – rather exasperatingly at times – with the very fact that their institutions have always been so deplorable. The reasonable element of justice and good that we take for granted in society remains for them in a world of passionate idea and aspiration. But it is undoubtedly true that the human beings described by Solzhenitsyn and Nekipelov are more interesting, strange and various than their counterparts would be in a western novel today. Almost automatically, as it seems western fiction adopts a reductive line with its denizens, taking them at a zoological and biological level. Obligatory, for instance, to enter their sex lives and consciousnesses, and to construct these in words that seem both to gloat and to patronise. The Russian ‘convention’, equally with nonconformists and with party-line writers, is to ignore all that, assuming that the communion of language and speculation that books are all about has something better to do. Certainly the characters in these two books seem much more real than those in most western writing today, because they are seen as social beings and not at the infantile and solipsistic level which for us has come to seem the ‘real’ one.
Not that the basic humour, low cunning, and wish to deceive of human beings are in any way left out of this Russian literary perception. Nekipelov’s gallery of rogues and charlatans shows that. They quote poetry, play chess, and speculate about the human soul, while endeavouring to persuade the doctors and psychiatrists of the institute that they are not just murderers, thieves and conmen, but insane, and therefore entitled to the vastly preferential treatment which an asylum affords. In contrast to the Nazi regime, Soviet treatment of the criminally insane has a laborious air of old-fashioned humanitarianism which is surprising: but, as the author is at pains to point out, an essential part of this apparent humanity is that dissidents and independents are in the very nature of things to be judged and counted among the criminally insane.
Krasnov’s study of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn has a special interest in relation to these aspects of Russian life and writing. He maintains that Solzhenitsyn writes his novels in the ‘polyphonic’ tradition of Dostoevsky rather than, as has usually been taken for granted, being a novelist in the tradition of Tolstoyan realism. The polyphonic novel is a phrase used by Mikhail Bakhtin, the great critic to whom the book is dedicated, and who in ‘Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art’ argued the thesis that Dostoevsky never ‘makes up his mind’, that all his arguments are open-ended and his characters independent centres of discourse and persuasion. In what Bakhtin considered his essentially Christian world view pluralism and coexistence were taken for granted, positions guaranteed as it were, by the fundamental and non-utilitarian identity of the individual. One significance of Bakhtin’s book is that it was written in 1929, at a time when Soviet literary theory was becoming increasingly subordinate to the Communist world-view.
Any attempt to render this world as completed (he wrote) in the usual monological sense of this word, as subdued to one idea and one voice, is inevitably doomed to defeat. That was enough to doom Bakhtin: he was lucky to survive. As it was both his book and Dostoevsky’s writings in general were banned, and only rehabilitated at the time of de-Stalinization.
Bakhtin implied that Dostoevsky’s was the ‘freest’ voice in great Russian writing – freer than Tolstoy or Turgenev – and that this fluid, polyphonic way of expounding an imaginative situation was the proof of it. I think myself, from what is perhaps too European a point of view, that Bakhtin and the other formalists discount too much the unconscious elements in a great work of fiction; in Russian fiction too, no matter how naturally didactic and combative that fiction has been. Dostoevsky – most brilliantly intelligent of all the great Russian writers – was consciously polyphonic: he was far too brilliant to be ‘monological’. But as Shestov, the Russian Jewish religious philosopher, has so acutely demonstrated, Tolstoy himself is far from being a monolithic, one meaning writer, in terms of the way his art works. Even in War and Peace his ‘meanings’ are far more equivocal than he seems to intend them to be. Equivocation – nothing being exactly what it seems – is Gogol’s hallmark, and what Pushkin, not without a certain slyness, termed ‘a free novel’ was far more the rule than the exception in the spacious days of 19th century Russia. The most striking case would be Goncharov’s Oblomov, where the national inertia is supposed to be sternly taken to task, but is in fact lyricised and celebrated.
None the less Bakhtin was right in taking Dostoevsky as the supreme example of the writer who could not be pinned down in his novels, even though Dostoevsky the commentator was all for such things as the drive to Constantinople and what Herzen ironically called ‘Russland Russland über alles.‘ The Soviet establishment could found their official realistic line on what could possibly be used to bring Dostoevsky to heel. And Krasnov is probably right in suggesting that Solzhenitsyn owes much to the polyphonic method, which he has deliberately adapted and expanded. His analysis of the structure of The First Circle and Cancer Ward is masterful and persuasive; and he brings out the full subtlety with which Solzhenitsyn deploys his symbolic patterns, animating them with an immense richness of naturalistic detail. There is a certain appropriateness in the fact that Dostoevsky, the most modern and most conscious of Russian novelists, should be the model here, for the days when the novel could say one thing and show another have probably gone by.
As it happens, The Oak and the Calf helps to prove Krasnov’s thesis, for the account in it of Tvardovsky, the martyred editor of Novy Mir, is full of Dostoevskian drama and sympathy. If Solzhenitsyn was Antigone, totally uncomprising, his editor was an lsmene figure, hoping to get by somehow, devoted to good literature and to the search for it, but also clinging to the good life which the regime had conferred on him. ‘I owe everything to it’ he said touchingly to Solzhenitsyn, who brings out with the utmost perception and sympathy the tragic division – the nadryv in Dostoevskian terms – which tormented his friend and editor.
A final and highly interesting chapter in Krasnov’s book – ‘August 1914 as an anti-Tolstoyan poem’ – puts forward the thesis that this novel has all the Dostoevskian hidden and polyphonic messages, though its appearance is that of a novel which takes its cue, in terms of research and diagnosis, from War and Peace. Tolstoy is frequently mentioned in August 1914 and even appears in person, taking a dim view of a young person’s desire to write poetry. Once again Krasnov proves his case, I think, but the novel is perhaps more ‘open’ than he allows. There is something wonderfully old fashioned about the way in which Solzhenitsyn can use the whole sweep of Russian culture and consciousness, referring to names, persons and points of view easily and freely in the course of his leisurely narration. To that extent August 1914 has much in common with Dr Zhivago, for both Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak depend, in the last resort, on joining their individual genius with that of the whole of pre-revolutionary Russian culture; thus they show, in the widest possible terms and quite apart from anything they say, where they belong and where the heart is. Krasnov ends with a short chapter on this theme – ‘Solzhenitsyn as synthesiser’. Merezhkovsky, the first Russian critic to contrast Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, did not consider them incompatible, and looked forward to ‘the new religious idea’ which, born of their union, should lead and revive Russia. Krasnov, in an apt phrase, calls this the ‘spiritual realism’ of Solzhenitsyn, and sees him (as he undoubtedly sees himself) as a religious leader and reviver of old values.
Chekhov seems removed from all this: he would have been quizzical about the inspissated literary intrigue and gossip recorded in The Oak and the Calf but fundamentally uninterested in it. It is an odd experience to turn from these contemporary sufferings and preoccupations to his story The Steppe, the first in Volume IV of the new Oxford Chekhov and surely his absolute masterpiece. I know of nothing more magical in the whole of Russian literature than the opening pages of this wonderful story. But the English reader might be excused for not having grasped this earlier, because, spirited and serviceable as her attempts always were, Constance Garnett was quite unable in her version to render the peculiar blend of humour and poetry in the story, more deliberately exploited here by Chekhov than elsewhere in his tales, for he felt that in writing The Steppe he was at last showing what he could do as a ‘serious’ writer. If Ronald Hingley deserved our gratitude for nothing else, he would earn it for ever for a really remarkable translation of an incomparable tale. He has got the quality one would think untranslatable, which might be called Chekhov’s ‘invisible humour’. The whole opening is suffused with it, as the small boy sets out across the steppe, with his three grown-up companions, towards what is for him an incomprehensible future. There is no space for a quote that would give the full quality of the rendering, but an admirer of Philip Larkin’s prose (particularly A Girl in Winter) will know what I mean by this invisible humour (Larkin writes of a dentist dropping into the patient’s rinsing glass a pink pill ‘which sank furiously to the bottom’ ). Hingley’s rendering conveys something of the same quality in Chekhov’s style – something that humorously accompanies and transforms the tedium of existence – and that is high praise indeed.