Solzhenitsyn’s literary bait & switch

Besides the political and historical importance of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it’s also a wonderful bit of literary legerdemain. From the opening passage of the book, Solzhenitsyn invests the story with such gloom and malice that the reader’s overwhelming sense is that today is going to be a very nasty day, indeed. The protagonist awakens at darkthirty “by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail.” He’s lying on a sawdust mattress, with frost two inches thick on the windowpanes, and barrack orderlies are moving a barrel of excrement through nightmarish yellow light. Not to mention the fact that Denisovich is simply not feeling well. He’s feverish with pains all over his body. Plus, he’s starving and cannot escape the sting of freezing cold weather, with its bitter snowdrifts and white cobwebs of frost. Like all the other prisoners, Denisovich spends his day jockeying for morsels of food, cadging cigarette butts, and avoiding unexpected searches and seizures. And whenever an opportune moment presents itself, he exploits its survival value like a desperate animal gnawing on a withered bone: he sews a half a loaf of bread into his mattress, he smuggles a bit of hacksaw blade in his gloves. And just when the reader can’t take another moment of this dismal, bleak and horrifyingly depressing day, Denisovich returns to his squad’s barrack, clambers up his bunk, and plops wearily down on his sawdust mattress with a filthy blanket — and falls asleep fully content! “A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.” Extraordinary. By ending the story on such an upbeat note, Solzhenitsyn throws into sharp relief the utter insanity and brutality of the Soviet Gulag system.

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9 Responses to Solzhenitsyn’s literary bait & switch

  1. Fiona says:

    I am reading e.e cumming’s “The Enormous Room” at the moment. It is about his confinement in France during WW1; he was an ambulance driver and was arrested on suspicion of anti-war ideas. He didn’t have it as bad as poor old Solzhenitsyn, only four months inside a French prison, but it still sounds horrid and rather inhumane. Both books provide interesting insights into the human spirit and the way the smallest pleasures can bring, happiness, hope or relief.

  2. Smallest pleasures, for sure. One of the aspects of the reading experience that I found troubling and interesting – all in one fell swoop – is that the reader’s order of rank of values is A LOT different than that of the protagonist’s. I mean, the reader desires a clean, well-lighted place with an Americano and maybe a little Bach playing in the background. The pages almost turn themselves. But Denisovich desires things that have nothing to do with aesthetic awareness – a morsel of food, clean water, a little warmth. That contrast is jarring, unsettling.

  3. Dwight says:

    And that is the other extraordinary thing about One Day…its focus on what we consider the ordinary and how it is proves to be anything but that. I’ve been meaning to revisit this book (read many administrations ago) since reading the re-release of In the First Circle to see not just the obvious contrasts but the subtle ones as well.

  4. Matt Rowan says:

    I love stuff that’s touched with the semi-autobiographical. I think it lends itself to a tactility of writing that’s hard to achieve otherwise (Orwell and Vonnegut come to mind). I’ve been sitting on my copy of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” for a long while yet. The only Russian writer I keep reading with consistency is Nabokov, but as he was an emigre I feel his “man without a country” status makes him a wholly different animal (he basically says as much in his various autobiographical writings) than those of the Russians who lived their entire lives in toil under Czarist and Soviet regimes. That might also be why Nabokov disliked Dostoevsky so much — though, really, how you could not like “Crime and Punishment” (among other things) I do not know.

    Soon as I finish “Notes From Underground” I’m a gonna read “Ivan Denisovich,” for sure.

  5. Hi Matt, good to see you. Your posts on Nabbie constantly make me feel like I should be re-reading him, again and again. I eagerly await your riff on Notes from Underground.

  6. Trevor says:

    I’ve never read One Day in the Life . . .. I’ve picked it up several times but have always put it back because I don’t know what translation to read. Any suggestions?

  7. Hi Trevor, I’m afraid I don’t have an opinion on translations. But the book is so slim that you could probably read two or three of them in a week.

  8. You make me want to read this again … and it is, as you say, slim enough to do … because I was a much younger person when I last read it. I liked it a lot then, but I expect I will appreciate it again and differently a second time around. (Sorry I’m late to comment – was in HK and barely keeping up with emails when you posted this)

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