The Birthday Hero

On May 28, 2010, in Culture, Fiction, History, by marc

A few weeks ago, I was able to sit in at work on an interview with Edward Ericson, a Calvin College professor of English (emeritus), and a longtime friend and collaborator with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (and editor of the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago).  In anticipation of the event, I purchased a copy of Ericson’s The Solzhenitsyn Reader (which is well worth the price and contains samples of a wide range of Solzhenitsyn’s work), and also a copy of the book that occasioned the interview, the first uncensored edition of Solzhenitzyn’s In The First Circle.  The novel was first released in the West in the late 1960′s in truncated form; Ericson explains in his foreword to the new edition:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The drama of [Solzhenitsyn's] life story took a quantum leap forward when in 1962, as a total unknown, he made his sensational entry onto the world’s stage with the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a story about life in the Soviet prison camps…

…Hoping to parlay one success into another, Solzhenitsyn decided to try to squeeze In the First Circle through the censor’s sieve.  Yet, anticipating that its themes transgressed strict Soviet limits, he tempered his hopes with realism and in 1964 put the manuscript through a process of “lightening.”  The pruned and politically toned-down result of this act of self-censorship was what he later called an “ersatz, truncated” version; the number of chapters dropped from ninety-six to eighty-seven.  In an augury that Solzhenitsyn’s  sacrificial pragmatism was doomed to fail, the KGB in 1965 broke into the apartment of a friend of his and made off with a copy of the novel, which then circulated among selected officials.  Although Novy Mir had agreed to publish the novel in its eighty-seven-chapter form, higher authorities kept withholding their approval…

…In 1968, with official harassment relentlessly constriction his options, he took the desperate step of authorizing the publication in the West of the “lightened version” of In the First Circle, a copy of which he had been able to send out.  The secretiveness required for this transmission from east to west meant that he lost control over the book and could not see it through press.

I had intended to set the book aside to be read at some later date after I had finished a number of other works I’m in the middle of at the moment, but it sat there and stared at me as I worked my way through the Reader and I couldn’t help myself.  I dove in.

It took some work, but I finally reached the point where In the First Circle hooked me.  It happened when I reached chapter 19 – The Birthday Hero – and it gradually dawned on me that the main character introduced in this chapter was none other than Stalin himself.  Solzhenitsyn writes as if copying down a ticker-tape readout of Stalin’s mind, and in so doing creates a fascinating – but dreadfully depressing – picture.  Here we find the tyrant, awake late at night when most of his work gets done, suffering from an upset stomach:

Stalin in 1941

Joseph Stalin in 1941

It was not nausea, but a sort of heavy upward pressure from the stomach.  He took a feijoa from a bowl of peeled fruit.

Three days ago salvos had hailed his glorious seventieth birthday.

To the Caucasian way of thinking, a septuagenarian is still in his prime, able to tackle a mountain, a horse, or a woman.  And Stalin was still perfectly fit.  He simply had to live to ninety.  He had set his heart on it.  There was so much to be done.  True, one doctor had warned him about . . . never mind what, the man had apparently been shot later.  No, there was nothing seriously wrong with him.  He refused injections and therapy of any sort.  He knew enough about medicines to prescribe for himself.  ”Eat more fruit!” they told him.  As if a Caucasian needed to be told about fruit!

He sucked the pulp of the feijoa, screwing up his eyes.  It left a faint taste of iodine on his tongue.

Yes, he was perfectly fit, but he noticed certain changes as the years went by.  He had lost his hearty appetite.  There was nothing he savored; eating had begun to bore him.  He no longer delighted in selecting wine for each dish.  Tipsiness simply gave him a headache.  If stalin sometimes sat over a meal half the night with his minileaders, it was just to kill the long, empty hours, not because he enjoyed the food.  Women, too, were something he needed rarely and never for long, although he had indulged himself freely after Nadya’s death.  They did not thrill him but left him feeling . . . dulled.  Nor did sleep bring relief as it had when he was younger: He woke up feeling weak and muddleheaded and reluctant to rise.

Though he had decided to live to ninety, Stalin thought miserably, he personally could expect no pleasure from the years ahead: He must simply accept another twenty years of suffering for the sake of mankind at large.

World-weary Stalin, trudging on one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-style in his tyranny for the sake of humanity – the most fascinating character in the book so far.