Thursday, July 14, 2016

Book Review: The First Circle

Happy Bastille Day! Today's book review needs to be either French or about prison...what do I have ready to post? I have a book about a prison...

Title: The First Circle

Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Date: 1968

Publisher: Harper & Row

ISBN: none

Length: 580 pages

Quote: “We have mathematicians, physicists, chemists, radio engineers…”

In Dante’s Inferno, the “first circle” is the level of relatively mild punishment. Solzhenitsyn uses this as a metaphoric name for a place where highly educated people with valuable talents work under close supervision by the old Soviet government. They’re not free; their contact with friends and family is limited to short supervised visits, and they can always be sent to more unpleasant places—but, apart from that, in many ways their prison resembles the offices where they used to work. They pursue their professional interests, form alliances with one another or the opposite, help each other or stab each other in the back in a strictly professional sense, just like co-workers in a corporation.

The First Circle is thus an almost sex-free, almost violence-free, strictly humanistic study of the relationships among a lot of men who might be described as yuppie-types, or even geeks, rather than convicts in the ordinary sense. They may or may not have shown any real disloyalty to the Soviet State. None is violent; none wants any further trouble. Mostly they seem in agreement to avoid agitating themselves by thinking or talking, more than they can help, about the women they will seldom if ever be allowed to see (no emotion!) or the men whose treachery or carelessness has put them where they are.

Their story does have some trace of a plot, in the sense that some will be released and some busted down to a lower level in the prison system, and research will be carried out and used in a way none of the prisoners would approve, but mostly it’s a character study, like Cancer Ward only broader. The blurb on the jacket designates Gleb Nerzhin, age 31, as “the hero,” possibly in a tragic sense; his story ends without triumph, unless we count his "triumph" in rejecting the favors of a female prison employee and pledging loyalty to his faithful wife. The third person omniscient viewpoint gives us glimpses of all the prisoners’ consciousness, and of a fictional Stalin’s, in turns. The purpose of The First Circle seems to be primarily to tell people that this kind of “prison” exists, and show readers what being inside one is like. Solzhenitsyn knew; the rest of us can only take his word.

To readers in search of light entertainment it’s probably true that all realistic stories about prison are too long. Imprisonment is the loss of the imprisoned people’s time. To the extent that a writer communicates their experience, the reader is aware of a loss of time. Many readers of fiction feel that their time is being lost, at least in the sense of having been sold to an employer on a less than thrilling job, and may not mind if the way they pass this time involves reading about characters whose time is being lost in even more unpleasant ways.

Solzhenitsyn’s talent, even in translation, is to give readers an illusion that they’ve spent that lost time getting to know interesting people. Quite a lot of them. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “unforgettable,” because in between the day I finished the novel and the day I picked it up again to write this review I’d forgotten all of their names. (Even Innokenty, whose name does indeed mean “innocent,” whom the others are unknowingly helping to prosecute for the crime of warning a colleague that sharing a medical advance with French contacts may become dangerous. Somehow I feel that I really ought to have remembered Innokenty.) But, as in Cancer Ward, each one was interesting enough to keep me reading this long book. 

Since Solzhenitsyn no longer needs $1 from the $5 per book + $5 per package this web site has to charge, you might as well know that Harry Willets has co-authored a new edition called In the First Circle, which purports to be "the first uncensored edition" of this story in English. If you want to compare the two, or to own the first English edition, send payment to either address at the very bottom of the screen. (The seller who uploaded that photo to Amazon is currently listing the book as "unavailable," so although copies aren't even expensive on Amazon, we may be buying them from someone other than our photographer. I think the photographer still gets a commission, as do I, if you use the photo link to buy directly from Amazon. I could be wrong.)