Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn employed modernist means to achieve anti-modernist ends…
Ezra Pound surprisingly believed that “all good art is realism of one kind or another”. No doubt the author of Ivan Denisovich would have agreed. In his literary and aesthetic tastes he was a bit of a Victorian, seemingly alien to the joys, provocations, and conceits of the arts of the modern. He rejects “the quasi-eschatological mythologeme of the End that became well established in Western culture starting in the late nineteenth century, as in the death of God (Nietzsche), the inevitable and imminent decline of Europe (Spengler), or the disappearance of the novel (Mandelshtam)”. Generally appalled by the stridently iconoclastic character of Russian and European modernism he particularly disliked the claims of its practitioners, or at least the more forward-looking among them, to have superseded and surpassed 2000 years of cultural tradition. In one acerbic comment he wrote: “It was suggested that literature should start anew ‘on a blank sheet of paper’. (Indeed, some never went much beyond this stage.)” He makes the same sarcastic point fictively. The Red Wheel features a symbolist groupie, languid, mannered Likonya, a “citizeness of the universe” given to batting her eyes and declaiming Nikolai Gumilev’s death-affirming verses. A fan of the constructivist stage director Vyacheslav Meyerhold and the decadent chansonnier Aleksandr Vertinsky (her catholic taste = bad taste), she is wont to say things like: “The cultural life of the nineteenth century was very humdrum.” As a literary lampoon, Likonya belongs in the same category of comic characters as Aviette in Cancer Ward, the buxom SocRealist poetess who likes her tetrameters ideologically “progressive”, but also just a little bit sexy.
Actually, among Solzhenitsyn’s artistic negations, socialist realism looms much larger than symbolism or even modernism as a whole. His fictional texts are dynamic confutations of the SocRealist “mode of literary production”, to use Terry Eagleton’s term; as well as case-specific confutations of the subgenres of SocRealist prose, e. g., the revolutionary novel, factory novel, kolkhoz novel, spy novel, science novel. Or even SocRealist erotica, if there ever was such a thing. The writer’s entire fictional and dramatic output is oriented against SocRealist practices; in the same way that Tolstoy’s fictions before 1881 are consistently anti-Romantic in their aesthetics, ethics, and formal values (although after his terrible existential crisis of that year he began writing works that were, in a sense, anti-Tolstoyan). “The whole point about realism – real realism – is that it needs no identifying prefix. Solzhenitsyn’s work demonstrates this for all time.”
In contrast, it would be difficult to cite many extratextually polemical anti-modernist representations or themes in Solzhenitsyn’s prose. Here the pouting Likonya is something of an exception. Of course, most of his works are far removed from the modernist aesthetic, indeed implicitly hostile to it, and none more so than the two cycles of Miniatures (1958-1963; 1996-1999). These elegiac, meditative, at times mournful pieces anthropomorphize plants and animals, rue the industrial or totalitarian uglification of the countryside, but seldom feature individual characters or relationships. The Miniatures represent Solzhenitsyn’s divagation into the genre of the prose poem, artistic territory originally staked out by Ivan Turgenev and Mikhail Prishvin and since then explored by a succession of nature-loving authors. This kind of writing has always evoked a sympathetic response among Russian readers, although an English-speaking, non-nature-loving receptor might find the Miniatures a mite too maudlin, the artistic sensibility suffusing them redolent of, say, William Cowper. For here Solzhenitsyn’s archaizing tendencies are on full display. Forests, fields, rivers and lakes, historic churches and bell towers, villages nestling in the folds of a gently undulating landscape, the freshness of a spring morning, larches wanly shedding their needles in autumn, a puppy playing in the snow, a duckling squeaking for its mother. But when things Soviet, things industrial intrude into these bucolic, sacred spaces, the mood changes. The poetic/prose I shudders at the sight of an automobile, a rubber-pawed, smoke-spewing monster that is a ghastly replacement for a horse or a camel, “that two-humped swan”. Death is a frequent subject: in “The Elm Log” a piece of firewood about to be sawed into pieces is likened to a man with his head on the execution block. One of the few Miniatures with an urban theme is “The City on the Neva”, an ekphrastic description of the Leningrad/St. Petersburg skyline that treats it as an instance of pure architectural form: beautiful but heartless.