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Old December 4th, 2010, 02:01 AM   #1

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Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1962.

Text available from HERE and HERE!




Open for discussion on Sunday, 05 December, 2010.
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Old December 5th, 2010, 01:52 AM   #2

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


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Russian literature in the first half of the twentieth century can most easily be surveyed in terms of a succession of doctrines: Symbolism, Futurism, Acmeism, socialist realism. The second half of this same century tends to be characterised by metaphoric changes in temperature. Ilya Ehrenburg provided the impetus for this ‘seasonal’ metaphor with his post-Stalinist novella, The Thaw (1954). The employment of this imagery is political for a ‘thaw’ claims that culture has been neither completely dead nor discontinued from its past but merely smothered under the ice and snow, ready to be defrosted and revitalized, reinvigorated and refreshed. The idea that the work under present consideration is a significant contribution to the Khrushchovskaya Ottepel set as it is in an ice-cold prison is a tidy thought.

This first ‘thaw’ was delimited by two sensations: the Second Congress of Soviet Writers in 1954 (the first for twenty-years), and the Twentieth Party Congress of 1956, where (rather famously) Khrushchev first officially (and secretly) criticized aspects of Stalinism. We should be clear from the outset that neither Congress entertained the possibility that communism was a bad thing for writers. However, the implications of both events on Soviet literature was an emboldening of liberal critics of the regime where Ehrenburg was able to attack conservative literary critics at the former whilst Khrushchev opened the way to a wider criticism of Stalinism through his attack on the ‘cult of personality’. This initial two-year ‘thaw’ had limited – but significant effects that can be categorised into four areas: the rehabilitation of numerous repressed writers; renewed contacts with the wider world; the acceptability of less ‘socially realist’ characters and plots; and a limited criticism of ‘socialist realism’ itself.

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The caption below Bill Maudlin’s famous 1959 cartoon has Pasternak asking: "I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?"

When Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958 for his Doctor Zhivago, he was maligned and denigrated in the Soviet press and at many official meetings across the Soviet Union. He was at once described as ‘traitor’, ‘philistine’, ‘decadent formalist’. Given that the book had only been published abroad and thus very few Russians had even seen a copy much less actually read it, here is a typical case of ‘I have not read, but I can say ...’ and clearly an event that had wider ramifications throughout Russian culture. Doctor Zhivago describes the ‘sacred’ Bolshevik Revolution as a political coup rather than a mass uprising whilst one of the characters, Strelnikov, razes peasant villages via military necessity. Denis Kozlov reminds us that the unsanctioned publication of the work in the west only served to strengthen the Soviet regime’s resolve to chastise the author. This was not the sort of ‘realism’ that Soviet ideology could accept in the late 1950s. More serious, however, would be the novel’s very texture; it impenitently allies poetry and healing with eroticism and thus Russian national distress plays merely a secondary role – the context, if you will - to a number of personal narratives. Thus, Pasternak was compelled to relinquish his Nobel Prize and had he travelled to receive it, he would surely not have been allowed to return to the Soviet Union. And whilst other international prizes have almost always been tolerated (and even coveted) the Soviet government had major issues with the Nobel Prize since the ťmigrť Bunin had ‘stolen’ the award from Soviet favourite Maxim Gorky in 1933. All awards were political.

But even then, there were bigger prizes than the Nobel Prize for Literature at stake. The whole situation into which we can fit Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev et al. was essentially a post-‘Stalin’ turmoil and power struggle. As sure as the Twentieth Party Congress (and Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’) had had significant repercussions across both political and cultural stages, the 1961 Twenty-Second Party Congress had similar results within the realms of the arts. The picture emerging from the liberal writers’ portrayal of Soviet life showed that fundamental changes in Soviet institutions were necessary if conditions were to improve. Those institutions were essentially Stalinist and whilst Stalin was dead and buried his successors were simply little versions of him doing daily what he had expected them to do. They were often complicit in his crimes (more of which were being made public as time went by) and none of them had been punished or brought to account. This was the central difficulty that the ruling elite had with de-Stalinization and artistic liberalism: they were ‘Stalin’.

If de-Stalinization involved the most serious criticisms of Stalin for his failure as a war-leader, for the purges of the Party, the military, and the government, for the imprisonment and death of (most likely) millions in the camps, then this could not be kept out of literature. And because in a country where there was no major public forum for the discussion of political issues, debate flowed into what channels were available at the time and that happened to be literature more than any other possible channel. So long as the Party bosses were locked in a furious battle to the death for control of the Party (and the Union) and were attempted to use liberal writers to their own ends then it stands to reason that those writers were about to extract something in return. It was anti-Stalinism that allowed Khrushchev to successively defeat the remnants of the ‘old guard’. Similarly, it was this same struggle that gave the liberal writers the tools with which to defeat the literary ‘old guard’ – men like Anatoly Sofronov, Nikolai Gribachev, Georgy Markov still held too rigidly to the literary doctrines of old and were pushed out as assuredly as were Malenkov, Molotov and Kaganovich.

With the passing of the fear of liquidation and severe repression lessened and literary liberals and intellectuals became brave enough to help Khrushchev in his de-Stalinization. In their renewed hunger for truth and sincerity these writers could not write candidly about what they saw around them and not come into conflict with the aims of the Party and government. They began asking questions that suited Khrushchev et al. ... and, naturally, questions that did not. For instance, How did a monster like Stalin ever achieve power? How did he manage to retain it? How could ‘Stalinism’ be allayed with ‘Socialism’? Why hadn’t the Party bosses unseated him given his many distortions and errors? ... And so on with one question leading inexorably to another. And these were by no means abstract questions for they had immediate political repercussions. The most immediate consequence concerned itself with the fate of those who had carried out Stalin’s orders. This was given artistic expression in a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (see next post). A corollary to this charge was the claim by the liberal writers that, given that the younger generation were not complicit in the crimes of the old generation, they had the right to question and criticise.

Those who had been Stalin’s accomplices were put into the position of having to defend Stalin and ‘Stalin’ as a means of defending themselves. Once Khrushchev opened the way for an examination of the past, the Soviet elite had to realise that they themselves were part of that past. The Stalinists and neo-Stalinists in the Party hierarchy resisted this and demanded a return to discipline and orthodoxy. It might also be stressed that Khrushchev never completely threw off the shackles of his Stalinist self. He had to play the liberal writers off against his political opponents and vice versa. Just as de-Stalinization was never a straight road, neither was the cultural ‘thaw’ that accompanied it. The world into which Novy Mir introduced Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a confusing and, at times, hazardous one.

So much has been written about One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that it is difficult to decide on a starting point for a discussion. One Day is, in some measure, Solzhenitsyn relating his own experiences when, as a captain in the Soviet army, he was arrested in 1945 for making derogatory remarks about Stalin and spent the next eight years in both 'general' and 'special' camps. In the short novel we find an almost minute-by-minute time-table of a camp inmate's long day. We are supplied with detailed descriptions of what is worn and eaten, the tricks used against the cold, against hunger and against the seemingly senseless cruelty of the other prisoners and, more explicitly, the guards. We are invited to become familiar with the camp, its organisation, the lay-out of the compound and of the building-site; he describes for the reader the manner in which the prisoners are guarded both inside the camp and out. Then, the work itself is described ... in detail. Within the little more than one-hundred pages, the reader is educated as to how a prisoner lives, what he does, what punishments he may receive and why he may receive them.

Now, given the context of the piece, what can we say about One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? What did you think of this work?



Suggestions for further reading:

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, trans. Ralph Parker, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, (London, 1962).
Josephine Woll, ‘The Politics of Culture, 1945–2000’, in The Cambridge History of Russia, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny (Cambridge, 2006), vol. 3, pp. 605–35.
David Burg and George Feifer, Solzhenitsyn, (New York, 1972).
Solomon Volkov, trans. Antonina W Bouis, The Magical Chorus – A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, (New York, 2008).
Denis Kozlov, ‘“I Have Not Read, but I Will Say”. Soviet Literary Audiences and Changing Ideas of Social Membership, 1958–66’, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 7, 3 (Summer 2006): 557–97.
William Taubman, Khrushchev – The Man, His Era, (London, 2003).

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Old December 5th, 2010, 03:17 AM   #3

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


The Heirs of Stalin

Mute was the marble. Mutely glimmered the glass.
Mute stood the sentries, bronzed by the breeze.
Thin wisps of smoke curled over the coffin.
And breath seeped through the chinks
as they bore him out the mausoleum doors.
Slowly the coffin floated, grazing the fized bayonets.
He also was mute- his embalmed fists,
just pretending to be dead, he watched from inside.
He wished to fix each pallbearer in his memory:
young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk,
so that later he might collect enough strength for a sortie,
rise from the grave, and reach these unreflecting youths.
He was scheming. Had merely dozed off.
And I, appealing to our government, petition them
to double, and treble, the sentries guarding this slab,
and stop Stalin from ever rising again
and, with Stalin, the past.
I refer not to the past, so holy and glorious,
of Turksib, and Magnitka, and the flag raised over Berlin.
By the past, in this case, I mean the neglect
of the peopleís good, false charges, the jailing of innocent men.
We sowed our crops honestly.
Honestly we smelted metal,
and honestly we marched, joining the ranks.
But he feared us. Believing in the great goal,
he judged all means justified to that great end.
He was far-sighted. Adept in the art of political warfare,
he left many heirs behind on this globe.
I fancy thereís a telephone in that coffin:
Stalin instructs Enver Hoxha.
From that coffin where else does the cable go!
No, Stalin has not given up. He thinks he can cheat death.
We carried him from the mausoleum.
But how remove Stalinís heirs from Stalin!
Some of his heirs tend roses in retirement,
thinking in secret their enforced leisure will not last.
Others, from platforms, even heap abuse on Stalin
but, at night, yearn for the good old days.
No wonder Stalinís heirs seem to suffer
these days from heart trouble. They, the former henchmen,
hate this era of emptied prison camps
and auditoriums full of people listening to poets.
The Party discourages me from being smug.
'Why care? ' some say, but I canít remain inactive.
While Stalinís heirs walk this earth,
Stalin, I fancy, still lurks in the mausoleum.


Translated by George Reavey

Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Source: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-heirs-of-stalin/
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Old December 9th, 2010, 10:04 AM   #4
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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


That's a sterling introduction, one that should be archived! And thanks for filling me in on the historical background of the story!

"Now, given the context of the piece, what can we say about One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? What did you think of this work?"

As I began reading a string of adjectives sprang to my mind, such as: stark, gritty, unsparing, sharp and biting -- as the cold itself, evocative, soulful, thought provoking, hard-hitting.

I guess the word that describes it the best is masterly, though that does not convey much, and to think of it this is only a translation. I know the story has a deep historical significance to it, but it becomes only one of the many themes dealt within the story. And then too it just fades into the background, which is simultaneously dominated by the expert use of language, the very memorable characters, and the million philosophical ideas thrown around casually. I'm amazed at the sheer number of themes the story contains and at the ease with which the author has traversed them. This man certainly had his marbles together!

I've often wondered if there's a better way to treat "criminals" than to haul them into prisons. So degrading and so dehumanising, that's one hell of a disturbingly poignant picture the author has painted. I also find slight undertones of 'Life is beautiful' to it. And yes, in my mind's eye it was all black and white, like watching an old flick whose print has slightly faded.

This has been an excellent read, whoever recommended it!

P.S. I have found many similarities between the Russian and French writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though the Russians were decidedly less romantic. Is there really any connection? I find them both to be very stark and in a similar sort of way. Maybe the way they were translated was similar.
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Old December 9th, 2010, 01:55 PM   #5

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


@Avon

Excellent post,most informative thank you.

"A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich" is one of only two Russian novels I've read. I read it when it was first published here.I read it because it was alleged to be brilliant and because it was short. It was both.

I had spent a couple of months wading through "The Brothers Karamazov". I recognised the worth of the book,but it quite put me off trying to read more long Russian novels.My loss,I realise now. I've often thought it would be OK if I read Russian. It's my belief that translations always lose something
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Old December 11th, 2010, 07:08 AM   #6

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Quote:
Originally Posted by Rosi View Post
As I began reading a string of adjectives sprang to my mind, such as: stark, gritty, unsparing, sharp and biting -- as the cold itself, evocative, soulful, thought provoking, hard-hitting.
Two small points:

'Cold': everything in this book is cold. The cold is the prison. Ivan Denisovich is a cold character with very little obvious emotion. What emotion is there is clearly kept under wraps. Those small bonds of friendship that are detailed in the story are also, similarly, cold and almost evoid of human emotion and personal warmth. This is a book where humanity seems to have been left behind ... but at the same time screams in protest.

Detail: the sheer amount of simple detail strongly suggests that this book could only have been composed by someone who experienced it. Solzhenitsyn, IMO, weighs you down under an oppressive amount of small imagery (the boots, the bed, the inter-personal details, the spoon ...) that you become almost as imprisoned as Ivan Denisovich. I was almost relieved to get to the closing (poignant) sentences.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Rosi View Post
I guess the word that describes it the best is masterly, though that does not convey much, and to think of it this is only a translation. I know the story has a deep historical significance to it, but it becomes only one of the many themes dealt within the story. And then too it just fades into the background, which is simultaneously dominated by the expert use of language, the very memorable characters, and the million philosophical ideas thrown around casually. I'm amazed at the sheer number of themes the story contains and at the ease with which the author has traversed them. This man certainly had his marbles together!
Nicely put!
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Old December 11th, 2010, 07:11 AM   #7

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Quote:
Originally Posted by Rosi View Post
Maybe the way they were translated was similar.
Quote:
Originally Posted by bunyip View Post
I've often thought it would be OK if I read Russian. It's my belief that translations always lose something
Perhaps this is a topic for a whole new thread!

Is possible that translations might also add to the fabric of a story as well as detract? Clearly it changes it. Surely it cannot be the case that English readers cannot appreciate Solzhenitsyn or Tolstoy or Zola or Voltaire quite as much as native reader!! Can it?
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Old December 11th, 2010, 07:52 AM   #8
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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Translators are rather underrated in the field of literature since translations can make or break a story. To take a second look at the piece in question I clicked on the links you provided but on not being able to find the story in either links I searched it online myself. One translation that I came across made the story look very mediocre, I could not believe I was reading the same work.
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Old December 11th, 2010, 12:16 PM   #9

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Quote:
Originally Posted by avon View Post
Two small points:

'Cold': everything in this book is cold. The cold is the prison. Ivan Denisovich is a cold character with very little obvious emotion. What emotion is there is clearly kept under wraps. Those small bonds of friendship that are detailed in the story are also, similarly, cold and almost evoid of human emotion and personal warmth. This is a book where humanity seems to have been left behind ... but at the same time screams in protest.

Detail: the sheer amount of simple detail strongly suggests that this book could only have been composed by someone who experienced it. Solzhenitsyn, IMO, weighs you down under an oppressive amount of small imagery (the boots, the bed, the inter-personal details, the spoon ...) that you become almost as imprisoned as Ivan Denisovich. I was almost relieved to get to the closing (poignant) sentences.
I have read it over 20 years ago and still feel that same relief you just described.

As to the lack-of-emotion-cold of this story, I feel it is the very thing that allowed him to survive it.
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Old December 11th, 2010, 12:22 PM   #10

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Re: Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Quote:
Originally Posted by Rosi View Post
Translators are rather underrated in the field of literature since translations can make or break a story. To take a second look at the piece in question I clicked on the links you provided but on not being able to find the story in either links I searched it online myself. One translation that I came across made the story look very mediocre, I could not believe I was reading the same work.
Yes. People don't understand that translation is not a matter of just speaking two languages fluently. And for translation of literature one must be a writer, first, then know both languages in a way better manner than just "fluently" - that means really feel them, know the culture, understand what is applicable and what isn't, and how it should be rephrased in order to convey the initial meaning.

I grew up among writers, poets, musicians and artists; the first two were all translators from a chosen language, one of them - from two. I remember their heated debates as to the virtue of this expression and its appropriateness or advantage over another. It is an art in itself, not a trade to tamper in when life is tough.
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