Solzhenitsyn's History Lesson
First, the cycle is hard to track. The abundance of characters with their separate lives seems random. Their only connection is Russia circa 1914 or 1916. But instead of being intertwined in one artistic knot, as Tolstoy would have managed, they appear as unlinked, parallel layers. Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev's is the main line in the novel, meant to combine the world of war and the world of peace, the capitals Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Vorotyntsev's disillusionment in the army, his complicated love life, his connections with Guchkov, the prerevolutionary Duma president, and other politicians, do portray a picture of Russia in its variety, but they fail to cement the story. There are also ideas in the novel that to many seem out of touch with historical reality. For instance, the importance Solzhenitsyn attributes to the zemstvo--the nineteenth/early-twentieth-century institution that tied peasant communities to local and regional authorities--in Russia's fate appears implausible. Although we have Russian examples in which the most nonsensical characters (as in Gogol) or unconventional ideas (as with Nabokov) are still brilliantly convincing, this is because of a great artistic style, lacking in Solzhenitsyn.
This is the area in which Solzhenitsyn fails completely, in fact. His desire to conserve the untouched, "authentic" Russian language strongly affects his writing and leaves it clotted with dense passages. It should come as little surprise, then, that the English edition of November 1916 is far smoother stylistically than its Russian original. In the spirit of another of the author's ambitious projects, the Russian Dictionary of the Expansion of Language, in which the least-used words are to be reflected rather than the most common ones, all Knots of The Red Wheel are written in an almost contemptuously unreadable style. Indeed, in the introduction to November 1916 the author warns us, "I was reluctant to burden my book and the reader with the verbosity, indeed the empty verbiage, the redundancies, the irrelevancies, and the wishy-washiness so often characteristic of these utterances."
Although the concern Solzhenitsyn expresses refers to specific parts of narrative set in smaller type, which present either historical background or stenographic records of speeches and meetings, one can't help fearing that forcing his way through "verbosities and irrelevancies" has become this writer's purpose, his destiny. The reader's gravest suspicion is confirmed when, after conquering the introduction, he/she reaches the book's actual contents. To have every narrative development of the story stated in a chapter description is familiar to us as a nineteenth-century form abandoned in modern fiction. But Solzhenitsyn, the Solzhenitsyn who shocked the world with the verisimilitude of Ivan Denisovich and the reality of The Gulag Archipelago, is in The Red Wheel above space and out of time.
Reading those chapter headings, I hoped they would reveal some great import behind them. If the description of Chapter 19 takes a page and a half, there should be some profound meaning underpinning it all. According to the author there is: The chapter was supposed to contain a never-written August 1915 Knot. But the subject was obviously too big for a book chapter, and has only resulted in a very long, very boring narration in small print. Solzhenitsyn himself admits in the introduction that "only selfless readers" would "follow us so far into the past." I was trying to be one of those selfless readers but discovered that it takes more than mere selflessness to read this; it takes martyrdom. Consider the following:
Sanya took a big jump and hung from the edge of the trench, dirtying himself against its clay walls, then hauled himself out onto the grass, and strode boldly off to get to his warm bunker, dry out, and eat something hot as soon as possible. It was a relief not to be humiliatingly churning up mud in a hole but walking as befits a human being.
The worst sort of Socialist Realist was capable of such passages. Here, poetic components are present: alliteration of j's, g's and h's show the uncomfortability of Sanya's position. "Himself," "humiliatingly," "human," indicate the innocence of the young man subordinated to the conditions of war. But the effect of such balanced construction is lost because it doesn't connect the word with the feeling it is supposed to evoke.