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Reading groups: Time to think, where no clocks ticked

28 February 2012

John Arnold on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn



PUBLISHED in 1962 as the first truthful account of life in the Gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was both a political sensation and a literary landmark. Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) achieved a perfect unity of form and content.

The story is neither pure fiction nor the fictionalised autobiography of Cancer Ward. We scarcely notice the narrator or the author, as every­thing is experienced and expressed by one “little man”, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.

The tale is told in his own words, but in the third person singular, not the first: “he” rather than “I”. This pro­vides the necessary distance for coming to terms with painful, hu­mili­ating, and embittering experi­ence. As Shukhov says of one of the other characters, “he continued his story without self-pity, as if he were talking about somebody else.”

Solzhenitsyn had exhumed an old literary form — the skaz, or tale, in which everything is seen through one pair of eyes and spoken by one pair of lips in the language of its setting.

Shukhov is a semi-literate car­penter, an average man, not capable of discussing or even of under­standing the moral and political implications of his situation. Like a sheep before its shearers, he is dumb — patiently suffering, but surviving and vindicated — in his own style, which is a marvellous mixture of Russian colloquialisms, prisoners’ slang, Soviet jargon, and old soldiers’ idioms and obscenities — crude, racy, and alive — in contrast to the dull repetitiousness of official litera­ture.

It is the very absence of intellec­tual­isation, indignation, and ex­plana­tion which gives Ivan Denisovich something of the dead­pan, take-it-or-leave-it plast­icity of the Passion narrative in the Gospels, which are also written in a common, non-literary language.

Solzhenitsyn is not the first author to take “one day” as the subject of a book. Tolstoy had done so in Twenty-four Hours; and James Joyce, in Ulysses, unfolded his celebrated “Bloomsday”. But Sol­zhenitsyn in­vests it with unique significance. The day is important because it is a measurable fraction of prison sentences, which are de­scribed in terms of the passage of time — ten years, 25 years — and also because time is precious.

Shukhov apprehends it as a gift, indistinguishable from the gift of life itself. For him, a day is no mere chronological unit. It is time charged with eternity. This day, in a week in which “the authorities have taken away Sunday again,” is a holy day.

But who hallows it? Not the authorities: nothing indicates their cosmic impiety more than their pre­ten­sion to control time. “No clocks ticked here” (one of those mar­vellous details that become symbols through the transformation of the obvious into the significant). “The prisoners were not permitted to carry watches; the authorities told the time for them.”

Nor is the sanctification of time a task for the hero. Shukhov, the average man, has a conventional Russian Orthodox background. He believes a bit, but not much, and there are elements of superstition in his folk religion. We may smile at his belief that God breaks up the moon monthly to replace fallen stars, but you need to be more credulous than that, Solzhenitsyn implies, to believe that Stalin invented radar and penicillin, or that Bukharin was an enemy of the people. Shukhov stands between the impious Soviet atheists on the one hand, and the pious Baptist, Alyosha, on the other.

With Alyosha (who is named after Dostoevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov), Solzhenitsyn broke a taboo. This is the first sympathetic account of a believer in Soviet literature, and it is drawn from life. Aloysha takes upon himself the sacerdotal task of seeing that time is hallowed, and that the day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is structured.

He reads his hidden Bible aloud, morning and evening. With Shuk­hov, we overhear and participate — at a certain distance, and with the slightly irritated sense of gratitude felt by villagers who hear church bells calling them to morning and evening prayer.

In the morning, Shukhov hears: “If you suffer, it must not be for murder, theft, or sorcery, nor for infringing the rights of others. But if anyone suffers as a Christian, he should feel it no disgrace, but confess that name to the honour of God” (1 Peter 4.15-16). Solzhenitsyn is too great an artist to comment, although he knows that, in the camps, the guards routinely un­leash the “criminals” on the “poli­ticals”.

There is no place here for the far-ranging metaphysical explorations into faith and doubt at which Dos­toevsky excels, just a little barrack-room banter. In the evening, Shukhov teases Aloysha about prayer; it hadn’t got him a lighter sentence. “‘You mustn’t pray for that,’ said Alyosha. . . ‘Why d’you want freedom? You should rejoice that you are in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul. As the Apostle Paul wrote: “I am ready not merely to be bound, but even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.”’”

Here we have the strength, as well as the weakness, of pietistic religion, which Shukhov and Solzhenitsyn do not share; but they do not despise it, either. Its weakness is that it takes too literally the injunction “resist not evil”; its strength is that it produces characters such as Alyosha.

The echo of St Paul’s “I am ready to die” was heard in an open letter from Solzhenitsyn to the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1967. His dorm­ant Russian Orthodox faith was reviv­ified in the camps by his en­counter with Protestantism — with Baptists, such as the model for Alyosha, and with Baltic Lutherans, of whom he always writes with the utmost respect for their probity and piety.

Shukhov and Aloysha are inter­rupted by a shout: “Second count!” Another roll-call in the freezing cold; and so to bed, and to a mira­culously understated final para­graph, where the fruit of the Spirit is contained within limited vocabulary and restricted sensibility. This is treasure in earthen vessels, and a triumph of disciplined creativity.

The Ven. John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhen­itsyn is published by Penguin Modern Classics at £7.99 (CT Book­shop £7.20); 978-0-141-18474-6).


What is the significance of the one day chosen as the basis for this book?

How might one of the other characters have told the story of the same day? How would a guard’s tale differ from a prisoner’s?

How does Shukhov manage to retain his humanity and dignity in the camp? How effective is he?

How is religion depicted in the book?

What words would you use to describe Shukhov?

What do you see as Solzenhitsyn’s underlying message? Does he get this across well?

How do Alyosha and Shukhov’s versions of liberation diverge?

Do you have a favourite character in the book?

What was the purpose of the incarceration of the prisoners by the state? To what extent do you think it was fulfilled?

Official Socialist Realism aspired to depict the dignity of labour and the rhythms of manual work. In what ways does Solzhenitsyn do this?

What is missing from life in the camp?

Are the last eight words a cheap rhetorical trick, or a stroke of genius?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 April, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is published in various editions, including one from by Penguin Classics at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-14-043446-0).

Book notes

Two Scottish brothers take different sides in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, so that they can retain the family estate, regardless of the outcome. The elder brother, James, joins the uprising, leaving the younger, Henry, at home. News reaches Scotland that James has been killed; so Henry becomes heir to the estate, and marries his brother’s fiancée. Later, it emerges that James is not dead. He returns home via piracy, America, and the Bastille, before leaving again for India. Henry becomes deeply unpopular when he bankrupts the estate in order to support his brother secretly, but James remains ungrateful. Eventually both end up in New York, still at loggerheads.

Author notes

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850. His father was a respected lighthouse engineer, Thomas Stevenson. Although he trained first as an engineer, and then as a lawyer, he decided in his early 20s to pursue a career as a writer. A long-term respiratory illness meant that he spent much time away from the cold, damp climate of Scotland, and died in Samoa in 1894, where he had settled, with his wife, Fanny. His well known works include Treasure Island (1883), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Kidnapped (both 1886).

Books for the next two months:

May: Shaping the Heart: Reflections on spiritual formation and fruitfulness by Pamela Evans

June: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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