Posted by: zhiv | January 8, 2012

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Not much that I can think to say about this book. It’s a solid and easily digestible work, a nice 20th century addition and adjunct to the 19th century classics. I read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy back in the day, before reading Chekhov and Turgenev more recently. And I read some sort of Solzhenitsyn before, some of Gulag Archipelago and something else that I don’t remember. It’s different now that I’m fairly well-versed and very interested in Chekhov (not that I know anything), and there’s a good blueprint for this book buried in Chekhov’s work somewhere, combined with Chekhov’s trip to the East and Sakhalin. It’s also a key postwar text, I would think. My son just read this book in tandem with Crime and Punishment. I would like to see him add Fathers and Sons to the list, along with a few Chekhov stories, and I’m curious about which stories would make a good foundation. I’m also really interested in what Wikipedia might have to tell me about Solzhenitsyn and the writing and backgrounds for Denisovich, part of which seems already half-known because of his celebrity.

The story is extremely well-crafted and has a number of layers to it, but the main thrust is an immediacy and intimacy, the way in which the direct narrative is meant to share the experience and consciousness of its subject. The lack of decoration and reflection makes its own point when contrasted with the small details of necessity and survival, as tiny objects like a crust of bread or the hiding place of a trowel assume great importance. Realism makes its own strong statement about a society that would place some of its citizens in such a setting and circumstance. It seems like a story and a world that would only be possible in the postwar era, as if such a bureaucratic nightmare and inhuman regimen was only imaginable after Nazi atrocities, the revelation of their Soviet counterpart, but this might be a matter of form and narrative style and subject–the desperate lives of the indigent and lowliest workers in industrialized 19th century cities and mines, etc., perhaps weren’t so different. But Shukov’s plight and the work camp are a direct product of a state, of the place where a society wants to entomb its internal enemies and malcontents.

The story somehow has a rhythm to it which matches the experience of the day, a deft touch. In the beginning it reads slowly and sluggishly, as Shukov feels sick and troubled with the pain and degradation of his life, and he doesn’t feel he will have the strength to fight the cold. The same effort is required to engage the story. And the dull comings and goings of men, massing at the gates and heading out to work, have the air of reluctance that Shukov feels, his hesitancy and resignation. The extraordinary part of the story is the section when Shukov is able to work and lead the squad in building the wall; it’s an extraordinary bit of heroism, dignity, and spiritual resilience, and the narrative races along suddenly, a surprising instance in which to find excitement. The way all of this works in interesting and worthy of study–it’s probably the essential point that Solzhenitsyn intends to make, transcending the glaring political statement of the story.

It’s also notable that the “day in the life” format is so simple and effective and well-used in this particular context, and it is also done with great skill and knowledge and insight. As I said, there are all sorts of levels, and not the least of them is the poignancy of the experience of a single day, the universality of that construct, and the heartbreaking narrative attachment that we feel, reading in our comfortable literary leisure, with Shukov’s harsh and seemingly unbearable life.


Interesting to do a quick scan of Solzhenitsyn and get a view of the backgrounds of One Day and its relationship to his own experience. It appears that Solzhenitsyn and Krushchev were something of a pair, that Krushchev’s “Secret Speech,” a piece of basic Soviet and and 60’s history that any world history student might know, had its literary expression in this celebrated text. It’s all very solid stuff, a great book in a great context by a great author with an amazing story, one that is crucial to understanding of the entire century. And it’s eminently teachable, a really good book for high school students. I’m really glad that I got this tip and had a chance to look at this material from my current perspective. Solzhenitsyn’s life and publication history feels like something that I lived but mostly missed–I was obviously too young to feel the impact from the publication of this particular text, but AS’s story echoed through the late 60’s all the way up to the 90’s. It feels a little like my general but limited awareness of apartheid during roughly the same period, something that was strange to remember when I read through J.M. Coetzee’s books.

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