Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Solzhenitsyn’s Worst Book

Having recently said something about one of Solzhenitsyn’s best works, Gulag Archipelago, I should also mention one of his works, August 1914. This book, the first in a trilogy, is a real disappointment. It’s tragic really. The goal was noble: Solzhenitsyn has fought in the Second World War and probably wanted to invest some of the insights he received from that war into a history of the First World War. He also wanted to get at the origin myth surrounding the Bolshevik Party. Having proven its disastrous effect on the course of Russian history, he set out to attack it in its cradle. In fact, he attacked communism in the womb by delving into the war that made revolution possible.

Big Book literary prize awarded in Moscow

Sadly, the work lacks a great deal. Its characters are wooden, completely uninteresting except insofar as they allow readers into specific battles. But even judged by the criteria of a war novel it fails. This is no War and Peace. We get no overriding philosophy of history or warfare, or at least we get nothing that could possibly transcend this particular zone of conflict in this particular era.

I think that Solzhenitsyn had too much to say to be effective as a novelist. He’s learned the strategies, studies the generals, and poured over maps. He knows why the Germans defeated the Russians, but can’t help readers to understand what this says about war, or human nature, or bravery, or anything human. The book is reasonable as a historical guide to the Eastern front, but not as art. Solzhenitsyn doesn’t synthesize anything, or provide the reader with suspense of any kind, but he does cover all of the factors that led to Russian defeat, especially failures in military intelligence, planning, and communication.

Now at this point in my post you may be saying, is this really Solzhenitsyn’s worst book? Can’t we count any of his outrageous xenophobic, nationalist exile monographs condemning the West? I’d say that calls for another post…

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