The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn: reviewed

This novel, described as a masterpiece by some critics, was penned by a famous Nobel Prize winner. However, it seems closer in its form to the sprawling ‘Cancer Ward’ than the unforgettable ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’- the larger canvas not necessarily suiting the talent of the great writer. Nevertheless, the remarkable ambition of the book, its huge cast of characters, and its forays into political philosophy, make the reading experience a compelling one.

Interestingly, the name Hemingway crops up in the text. Mentioned approvingly by Solzhenitsyn, the two authors share some virtues and some vices. Both manage to use prose in amazing ways to reach readers of different tastes. Both contrive to show the fortunate the lives of the desperate. However, both fail to write about women as if they were equal thinking beings to men.

Nevertheless, it is critical to try to appreciate historical context. The apparent sexism of Solzhenitsyn is understandable in part because prisoners of the different genders were segregated. Furthermore, the Second World War had not made genuine egalitarianism between men and women easy. There was a post-war backlash against the de facto sharing of work which made the writing of Simone de Beauvoir so necessary and so bold. It was not until later that further waves of feminism made some of the characters of Solzhenitsyn seem so unsatisfactory. When an author is attempting to portray the complex horror of Stalinism, it may seem churlish to focus on feminism. But it was one strength of Trotsky that he realised back in 1923:

“And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics. As long as woman is chained to her housework, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of participation in social and political life are cut down in the extreme.”

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