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Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Apricot Jam and Other Stories


[I]t’s pure physics: Human nature has not enough time to follow everything going on around it. An artist has to be placed at some distance from his object. If he just sets down his momentary expressions it will be more like an essay, a piece of reporting, than a work of art. Few authors are able to capture pieces of reality instantly. … The majority must have time for their impressions to settle down. And also at a certain age one begins to write not about the historical past, but about one’s personal past, about the earlier years of one’s own life. Why are there so many memories? So many people write about their youth. When? In their old age. In old age it often happens that old remembrances become more vivid. There’s some psychological law about it. – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from the documentary The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, ‘The Knot Part II’

The first novel I bought after leaving school, the first adult novel that I bought with my own money, was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I bought it in a small newsagent across from Burns Square in Ayr. I was sixteen at the time and the book cost me 35p. I still own it and I have reread it roughly every ten years since then. Over the next few years I read more books by him: Matryona’s House and Other Stories, The First Circle and Cancer Ward. And, yes, I still have my copies of these books. So, when I learned that Canongate Books were to publish Apricot Jam and Other Stories, a collection of stories written late in life, I jumped at the opportunity to see if his late prose could affect me in the same way as his early prose did. Just over thirty years separate the publication of that novel with the writing of these stories, about the same length of time that has lapsed between my first reading of Ivan Denisovich and now.

Expectation is a terrible thing. It leads inevitably to disappointment. Not that Apricot Jam was a complete disappointment, because it wasn’t, but it wasn’t what I’d hoped for; a final flourish. This doesn’t mean that Solzhenitsyn goes out with a whimper rather than a bang, but when he was writing Ivan Denisovich that was his life—the day he got the idea to start that book was the coldest day he ever had to work outside, -35º—whereas these stories were written in the comfort (luxury by comparison) of his offices in Russia following his repatriation in 1994. None are contemporary tales—they all delve into Russia’s dark recent past—but they have all been written with the benefit of hindsight and, in some cases, we do get to see what happened in later years. Not that he has forgotten how bad things were back then—in preparation for writing this article I watched the documentary The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn which were recorded in 1998 and it is clear that he remembers all too well how he and others were treated—but now it is history, no matter how vivid his memories still are, and, in many respects, a lot of what you get to read in Apricot Jam reads more like history and less like works of fiction, despite what he says above; these were the parts of the book I struggled with the most. Thankfully not all were like that and there were a couple of gems. For me. Others with more interest in the broad sweep of historical events might enjoy the ones I did not. It’s all a matter of taste.

That doesn’t mean there is nothing new here because there is: a style of writing I had not encountered before. Solzhenitsyn referred to them as binary tales, dvuchastnyi rasskaz in Russian, stories in two parts, not two chapters but, if I can compare them to something visual, more like a diptych. In the story ‘Zhelyabuga Village’, for example, what we get presented with is a before and after scenario: the first part of the story describes a day during the war where an artillery battalion is engaged in an assault during the one of the battles at Kursk Bridge in 1943 focusing on the members of a sound-ranging battery and there are clearly biographical elements here because during the war Solzhenitsyn served as the commander of one; the second part, set fifty-two years later (during the Yeltsin era), sees the narrator return to the city of Oryol to celebrate its liberation. While there, he and a colleague from that time (Vitya) visit the site of the battle which he narrated in the first part along with some officials, only to be accosted by some old women—they block the road and refuse to let their jeep by imagining them to be in some position of authority—and, if there is a single question hanging over the story it likely is: Was this what we were fighting for?

A woman in a grey checked kerchief spoke up, with a lot of emotion: “Us folk in the village have come to the end of our rope. There’s no living for us here, there’s nothing to eat.”

The small woman in the green kerchief said: “There’s no proper road here, we know that…”

The village soviet fellow had to justify himself before the regional man and quickly said: “I always keep an eye on things, you know. Nikolai, I say, are you bringing in the bread? I am, he says.”

The woman in blue spoke up now, sharply: “So you keep an eye on us, do you? When did you ever pay us a visit? You, the chairman of the village soviet, haven’t been here even a single time … None of you people have been here since Adam was a boy.”

Others now added their complaints:

“Things have gone to rack and ruin…”

“Everybody’s forgotten we’re still here…”

sliding doorsIn ‘Nastenka’ what we have is a Sliding Doors or a What if…? scenario The first:

Nastenka’s parents died young, and her grandfather, Father Filaret, who by then had also lost his wife, raised her from the age of five. The girl lived in his house in the village of Milostayki until she was twelve, through the years of the German War and the revolution.

The second:

Nastenka had spent her childhood in Moscow—the old Moscow, on a little street near the Pure Ponds. The German War had not yet begun when she had already learned to read, and then Papa gave her permission to borrow any books she wished from his shelves.

Are these the same woman or two different women? It really doesn’t matter but it does provide a striking comparison between two possible lives.

‘Apricot Jam’ is similar in that the first component of the story presents us with Fedya, a worker at the Kharkov Locomotive Works, who is writing a letter looking for assistance:

[W]ho else can I write to? I have no family, no support from anyone, and I’ve got no way to set myself right on my own. I’m a prisoner here, near hand to dying and trapped in a life that brings one hurt after the other. Would it cost too much for you to send me a food parcel? Please take pity on me…

In the second section we are presented with a glimpse into the life of Vasily Kiprianovich, a professor of cinema studies, who has been invited by a famous Writer—Solzhenitsyn capitalises the word—to advise him “on types of screenplays and techniques used in writing them.” They meet in the Writer’s dacha, a Russian country cottage used especially in the summer, hidden from view by a tall wooden fence. While showing the professor round his home he has no problem boasting “about a remarkable new appliance—an electric refrigerator he had bought from Paris.” Of course we realise at the end who it is that Fedya has written to and there is no likelihood of a response. I had never really considered Solzhenitsyn a satirist—despite being influenced by Chekhov—but that’s what we have here, plain and simple.

Fridges crop up also in ‘Fracture Points’ where we see the progression of the life and career of Mitya Yemtsov, a seventeen-year-old in 1944, and what we get over seventeen pages is something of a potted history of Russia. He moves into manufacturing eventually and one of the tasks his department is assigned is to produce Russian refrigerators:

They had a refrigerator from England right there, and their only job was to make a copy of it. Lord knows, they made an exact replica, but there must have been some secrets that they still hadn’t grasped: a tube in the condenser coil would clog, or it would produce so much cold that everything would freeze. Buyers would return the refrigerators with complaints and curses: “The damned thing won’t stay cold!” The stores would submit claims for replacement.

It is an interesting take. So often when I’ve read about Russia I’ve been presented with the broader picture but here we have one man and how his life is affected by the changing political landscape. Like Ivan Denisovich’s day, Mitya’s life is, on the whole, an uneventful one. He works hard, toes the party line and mostly succeeds even when, in later years with the influx of cheap goods from China, he needs to reorganise his workforce, he tightens his belt and makes the best of things.

In some respects this story serves to balance out a story like ‘Time of Crisis’ which takes the life of another man born into a peasant family—there is definitely a thread here that runs throughout the book—who rises in the military ranks. Albeit the fact that Yorka Zhukov is nineteen in 1915 when the German war broke out, much of the same ground is covered. Peasantry seems like a rather old-fashioned word to me. When was the last time we had a peasantry here in the UK? And yet throughout its history the peasants come across as the backbone of Russia, if only in the propaganda. Solzhenitsyn’s father was a man like these I’ve mentioned in the last two stories who rose from humble beginnings eventually acquiring a large estate in the Kuban region in the northern foothills of the Caucasus.

The second part of this story caught my attention because we get to see who has narrated the first section; it is a contemporary of Zhukov, now an old man, and this is how he opens his story:

People believe that it is entirely appropriate and proper to begin writing your memoirs when you turn seventy. What I did, though, was begin seven years earlier. It’s so quiet here, and I’m of no use to anyone, so what else should I do with myself? One year passes after another, and all I have left is the spare time that has been forced upon me and that drags by so slowly.


There are some good reasons why I must write. Let it be for the record. Many others had already rushed to write memoirs; some have even been published. They’re in a hurry because they want to grab a bit of the glory for themselves. And of course they want to dump their mistakes on someone else.

That is dishonourable.

But what a job it is! Just sorting through your memories wears you out. Some of the blunders I made tear at my heart even now. But there is also much to be proud of.

That is something that comes out in every story. Russia may not have always have been able to hold its head high but there was much for the individual Russians to be proud of. Like in ‘Fracture Points’ when, having just come out of a war, they are thrust into a time of rebuilding:

StalinThe war was over, and yet it wasn’t over. Comrade Stalin declared that now we have to rebuild! Life went on in the same rigid military fashion as before, though without the military funerals. Rebuild! A year, two years, a third year of rebuilding meant that you had to go on working, living, and feeding yourself as if there was a war on.

This is not to suggest that other countries didn’t have to rebuild because, of course, they did. But the Russians do appear to have had a harder time than most because of the country’s leadership. All that mattered was that targets were met. As Fedya reports in his letter to the Writer:

Four thousand people or more had been collected here, and that was what they called a regiment. There was ne’er a bathhouse or laundry, and no one was given any uniform. They marched us off to work straightaway. What they told us in the support force for the Locomotive Works was: “You keep going till you drop.”

All of this so the targets set in Stalin’s Five-year Plan would be achieved in four years.

In ‘Ego’ though there is a brief cameo that reminded me of the old Zek in Ivan Denisovich, the one who raised his food to his mouth in the mess hall and maintained his dignity:

Once Ektov was speaking to an aged peasant from Semyonovsky Hamlet about the general breakdown of everything around them. Life, it seemed, was reaching the point where it could get no worse, and what would be left of it after all this?

“Never mind,” said the silver-haired old fellow, “the grass lives on beneath the scythe.”

In his book Russian Literature: 1995-2002 – On the Threshold of a New Millennium N.N. Shneidman writes:

It is well known that Solzhenitsyn, the great creative artist, has always aspired to become a major historian. It is, however, also known that the artistic quality of his short novellas such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or Matrena’s House is vastly superior to the historical value and quality of narratives such as The Red Wheel. Most of Solzhenitsyn’s attention in the last decade has nonetheless been devoted to Russian political, national, social and historical issues.

I find I have to agree. Although he’s dealing with individuals, most of the stories here dwell too much on the surrounding events than on the people with the exception of ‘Apricot Jam’ and ‘Nastenka’ which, for me, were the two best stories. When books like The Gulag Archipelago first came out they opened people’s eyes to what was, and had been, going on in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, but now there is no USSR and what more is there to say?

‘Adlig Schwenkitten’ is the story I struggled with the most. Unlike the others, this is a story in twenty-four sections covering a twenty-four hour period but it was the sheer number of characters that lost me: Toplev, Boyev, Podkliuchnikov, Lepetushin, Gubaydulin, Gusev, Ostanin, Ishchukov, Larin, Yursh, Veresovoy, Vyzhlevsky, Tarasov, Kasyanov, Boronets, Myagkov, Kandalintsev, Baluev, Nikolaev and that’s not including the first names, ranks and patronymics that just added to the confusion. Too many people. After a while they all blurred into one.

As I said at the start, expectation is a terrible thing. A part of me was disappointed by much of what I read here but not all. The problem lies with me, though. I am not the boy I was when I first read Ivan Denisovich so why should I expect the author of these stories to be the same man that wrote that book? In some respects that’s what part of the problem here is, a dwelling too much on the past, but again not entirely. Also one has to consider who Solzhenitsyn was writing for and to, not the russia-in-collapseWest, but his fellow Russians. In other writings of this time, e.g. The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century and Russia in Collapse, he did address contemporary issues but there’s not so much of that here. If anything (and these are words other reviewers have used) these are somewhat nostalgic, moralistic stories.

Has Solzhenitsyn lost his moral authority since returning to Russia? This is a question David Remnick asked the author Lev Timofeyev in his book Reporting: Writings from The New Yorker to which he received the following answer:

In the modern world, moral authorities are proof of a society’s inability to live a decent life. … To have to rely so much on someone like Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov is a sure sign that something is wrong. Nowadays, I can express myself not by quietly identifying myself with a figure like that but by writing, reading, voting, doing business, whatever it is. This is a good thing. Society needs a Solzhenitsyn in a time of emergency, far less so now.

Later on Remnick gets to ask the man himself the same question. He writes that “Solzhenitsyn looked down at the table and thought this over awhile,” and that was something I noted he did in the documentary I watched. He would pause for the longest of times—on the first occasion I thought my TV had frozen and then he blinked—but the following has to be a most considered response:

I know from the many personal letters I still get that for many people I am a source of trust and moral authority. But I cannot say if I am a moral authority or not. I do not feel that for humanity—not society but for humanity—moral authority is a necessity.

He may have felt that but that doesn’t stop people looking to the likes of him for direction. The problem is, as Nina Khrushcheva put it in an article in the New York Sun, “that Solzhenitsyn's ideas were too conservative, too tied to Russian nationalism, for him to become a symbol of democracy in a multinational Soviet Union.” She concludes:

The tragedy of Solzhenitsyn is that, although he played a mighty role in liberating Russia from totalitarianism, he had nothing to say to ordinary Russians after their liberation, except to chastise them. Yet perhaps one day we Russians will escape our false dreams, and when that day comes, the heroic Solzhenitsyn, the Solzhenitsyn who could never surrender or be corrupted, will be restored to us. But it is now that we need that Solzhenitsyn most. For to paraphrase Milton's "Paradise Lost" on the illumination of Hell, "Solzhenitsyn's is no light, but rather darkness visible."

Apparently someone has said that this collection of stories would be a good introduction to Solzhenitsyn—no doubt some publicist—and I can’t disagree, the first few stories anyway, but much better to dive straight into One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and then find a copy of the new translation of In the First Circle which I hear is good. For those familiar with his work and still interested—perhaps that’s the key here—there is more here, though, than just wallowing in the past.


Elisabeth said...

I'm all for revisiting the past, as you know, jim, but not for wallowing in it. wallowing in it implies a level of stuckness that's not appealing. I remember reading One day in the life of... when I was a school girl. The book blew me out of the water. It moved me onto the likes of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and set my mind to wondering about this extraordinary place, the soviet union. But more recently when i tried to read other russian books I came a cropped All except Gorki's Over coat. I should not put all Russian novels and stories in the same basket. It would be like someone putting all Australia writing in the same category, or all scottish and Irish writing in the same bag.

But there is something so unfamiliar about the life of Solzhenitsyn's day that it causes me to want to put it together in that way. I find the names difficult too. It seems to me some of the old books written over one hundred years ago manage to have a timeless quality, and I reckon One day in the life of Ivan D is one such book, but there are others whose stylistic qualities reduce the timeless applicability. It sounds like this book of stories by Solzhenitsyn is one of them.

Thanks for a fascinating review of a book I might not read. You may not mean to but t comes across as a somewhat tedious read by today's standards. Years ago it might have seemed different. But as you say, it's all pretty subjective.

Jim Murdoch said...

Of course it’s stupid to generalise Lis but, at the same time, it’s easy to see why people do. Russian music has a definite flavour—you would never listen to Shostakovich, Prokofiev, or Rimsky Korsakov and image swanning along the Seine—but then neither does Debussy conjure up the great Finnish landscapes in the same way as the music of Sibelius. There is a flavour to all the Russian literature I’ve read and it’s impossible to ignore in fact I was thinking about the Solzhenitsyn recently when I was reading some Hunter S. Thompson written about the same time and the cultural differences alone—let alone the radically different stylistic approach—was amazing; his work was so American and yet, ironically, both were standing on similar ground, bemoaning the loss of their country’s uniqueness.

Timelessness is an odd expression when you think about it because there are very few books that are completely out of time; there is usually one or two telltale remarks that help you pinpoint the general timeframe—look at my recent comments about when Waiting for Godot is set for example and that’s about as ‘timeless’ a piece of writing as one might get. But I agree, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has a quality that, like Godot, enables it to speak to people from all walks of lives, from different ethnic and social backgrounds and does not rely heavily on a knowledge of a certain era in human history. I certainly knew very little about Russia when I read it. And I didn’t learn that much about Russia from reading it—that I picked up from his other books—but I did learn about people and basic principles.

You are right, too, by today’s standard Apricot Jam is a tedious read and unfashionable but fashions change. The ponderous Romantic symphonies came and went but the truly great works—the symphonies of Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert—have never left the repertoire. I wrote a while ago about works of genius and whether everything that a so-called genius produced could automatically be regarded as a work of genius. That Solzhenitsyn is a ‘literary genius’ is not something many will dispute—the Nobel Prize kinda puts the nail in that coffin—but then one has to wonder if he had been born at the time of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky and didn’t have such rich subject matter to craft his books from would he be as well remembered? Who, today, outside Russia anyway, remembers Dmitry Grigorovich for instance?

So, no, of all the books I’ve reviewed of late this is not one I would say you should rush out and buy. Wait ten days and I will recommend one that I think you will find fascinating. If, however, someone hands you a copy for a birthday or Xmas I wouldn’t be too disappointed either; the opening stories in particular are certainly worth a read.

seymourblogger said...

I just want to say how much I love reading you.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, seymourblogger, I'm glad to hear that.

Dave King said...

I suppose it depends how much past you have. Most memoirs these days seem to be written by teenagers or ghost written. I used to dead a lot of auto biography (especially) but I find it increasingly difficult to find satisfying ones with these days. (I'm not a purist, I know there is an overlap between memoir and fiction and sometimes it is not possible to disentangle them, but I would include tales with a biographical content.I'm interested, not just in the life, but particularly in how the liver comes to understand his life.) Even so, the last generation seems to have been the last of the great auto-biographers. Maybe I'm just getting older and more grouchy than I'd realised. I do think I will add his book to my wanted list, though.

Jim Murdoch said...

I struggle with the whole memoir thing, Dave. The thing I’m working on at the moment—which I hesitate to call a sixth novel until I have a few more thousand words written—is heavily concerned with memory but I doubt it will end up being a memoir or even that queer beast the semi-autobiography. All my books contain certain biographical elements—the scene where Jonathan is remembering having meningitis as a kid is me—but they are few and far between and are only added in to flesh out the characters a bit. I know many first time writers start out pillaging their lives but even when, as in the last book, I set out to do exactly that it never works out for me so I’m not sure where this current project will end if it ever gets started.

Solzhenitsyn has always used his own past as a springboard and there’s nothing wrong with that. Had he not been treated in a hospital in Tashkent we would never have had Cancer Ward and had he not been sent to the gulag we would never have had Ivan Denisovich and had he never been to war we would never have had at least two of the stories in this new collection. Just how autobiographical they are only he would have been able to tell us but it doesn’t matter. I’m not the greatest history buff—it was the only O-Level I failed when all the rest were A’s and B’s—and so the predominantly historical stories were never going to be my favourites here. Of course all stories have their place in history but the ones I preferred best were the ones where the history is the backdrop and not the main focus of the writing. ‘Apricot Jam’ is a wonderful little story. It reminds me of the stories and prose poems in Matryona’s House. Someone like Solzhenitsyn was never going to write a bad story and there are no badly-written tales here just not quite what I was hoping for and that’s my fault not his.

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