Solzhenitsyn’s novel, In the First Circle, was first published in English in 1968, a fuller version in 2009. The novel is based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences in a sharashka, or special prison camp, where he was held from 1947 to 1950.
In Dante’s Hell the First Circle is reserved for the wise men of antiquity. In Solzhenitsyn’s novel the Circle’s inhabitants are political prisoners, and because they have special skills —electronic engineers, mathematicians, linguists, even a painter, skills that can be utilized by the Soviet state, conditions at the sharashka are about the best there are throughout the Gulag.
The time of the action, really long conversations between the prisoners often about a special time in their lives, is New Year’s Day, 1950. At one point in the novel, in the chapter entitled, To the Resurrection of the Dead! Solzhenitsyn writes:
Давно замечено, что наша жизнь входит в нашу биографию не равномерно по годам. У каждого человека есть своя особая пора жизни, в которую он себяполнее всего проявил, глубже всего чувствовал и сказался весь себе и другим. И что бы потом ни случалось с человеком даже внешне значительного, все это чаще — только спад или инерция того толчка: мы вспоминаем, упиваемся, на много ладов переигрываем то, что единожды прозвучало в нас. Такой порой у иных бывает даже детство — и тогда люди на всю жизнь остаются детьми. У других — первая любовь, и именно эти люди распространили миф, что любовь
дается только раз. Кому пришлась такой порой пора их наибольшего богатства, почета, власти — и они до беззубых десен шамкают нам о своем отошедшем величии. У Нержина такой порой стала тюрьма. У Щагова — фронт.
In Harry T. Willett’s 2009 translation,
“No man’s life proceeds at an even tenor through the years. There will always be a time when he realizes himself most fully, feels most deeply, makes the greatest impression on others–and on himself. All that happens afterward, however significant on the face of it, is most likely to be an abatement, the ebbing of that high tide. We never forget that time; we endlessly ring the changes on it. For some people it may even be their childhood, and they remain children all their lives. For others it is the time of first love, and it is they who have spread the myth that we love only once. There are those for whom the great time was when they were richest, most esteemed, most powerful; and they will still be mumbling without a tooth in their gums about their departed greatness. For Nerzhin the decisive period was prison. For Shchagov, life at the front.”
And here in Thomas P Whitney’s earlier, 1968 translation:
“It has long be,en known that our life stories do not follow an even course over the years. In every human being’s life there is one period when he manifests himself most fully, feels most profoundly himself, and acts with the deepest effect on himself and on others. And whatever happens to that person from that time on, no matter how outwardly significant, it is all a letdown. We remember, get drunk on, play over and over in many different keys, sing over and over to ourselves that snatch of a song that sounded just once within us. For some, that period comes in childhood, and they stay children all their lives. For others it comes with first love, and these are the people who spread the myth that love comes only once. Those for whom it was the period of their greatest wealth, honor, or power will still in old age be mumbling with toothless gums of their lost grandeur. For Nerzhin, prison was such a time. For Shchagov, it was the war.”
For Solzhenitsyn, like Nerzhin, prison definitely was such a time. For my father it was the time when he became materially well off, affluent, the time following the depression and the war, both of which he had lived through and during which he had known deprivation. When he had money he seemed to most enjoy giving it away, and especially to those who weren’t expecting it, and of course to his own children.
What was that time for me? It wasn’t coming into money. I’ve always had enough money thanks to my parents, and perhaps because of that money never did become a major factor in my life. For me perhaps the transformative moment, one that is still with me, was my first real encounter in my reading with ideas.
And schools had not been, what they were supposed to be, the means of that happening, so in my case schools never meant much to me and when I hear other graduates speak about how much their school experience had given them, changed them (for the better usually), I don’t say anything at all. It didn’t have to be that way, of course. It could have been different. In my case it wasn’t.
When my college experience was over and I was in graduate school, actually medical school, and I began to read almost for the first time on my own, nothing relating to my medical studies of course, but a number of French writers, in particular Albert Camus and Andre Gide. (Why them? I don’t remember.) And to pursue my growing and real interests in ideas, to begin to fashion for myself a life of the intellect, I returned to school, perhaps for the very first time as a student, this time in the humanities.
Up until that moment I had attended school, along with everyone else, because that’s what you do, whereas I now was at school because I actually wanted something from what the school was offering. All the difference in the world, this. If somehow kids in school could be helped to understand that difference a bit earlier in their lives, somehow that would really make all the difference in the lives of all of us.
So this was a time if not the time when I began to feel myself most deeply and fully, the time that made the greatest impression on me. Would there be other such times. Or is Solzhenitsyn right and is everything that has happened since then in my life, however significant on the face, an abatement or a lessening of that moment, at best but an ebbing of that high tide of that particular moment in my life?
For as Solzhenitsyn says, in the Whitney translation, “We remember, get drunk on, play over and over in many different keys, sing over and over to ourselves that snatch of a song that sounded just once within us.”
I do have a problem with his idea, with my getting drunk, as it were, for the first time on my discovery of my love of ideas, and that this being like a song a snatch of which I would then play over and over again during the 55 years or so since that moment. For me there’s been no ebbing of that high tide, that moment in my life, and my excitement at my discovery of Solzhenitsen and his ideas in the seventies, as well as myriad moments of discovery since then, all these are no less momentous than my discovery of Camus and Gide in the fifties. The tide of ideas is still high.
So one might say in response to Solzhenitsen, that yes there is a time when one realizes oneself most fully. And although this moment is a discovery, it’s not meant to be the only such discovery, just the first of many. My discovery of ideas, the song I first heard in my twenties, is still very much alive, and when I have a good day it’s because that song or melody has returned, just as strong as it was those nearly 60 years ago.
Now Solzhenitsen wrote In the First Circle in the fifties. At that time he was in his forties, which made him the same age as the Soviet Union itself. He had experienced the war and the Gulag and it was probably hard for him to see beyond that. Certainly the Soviet Union didn’t see beyond itself, and for them all was downhill from that first moment, the 7th. of November of 1917 when in St Petersburg the Bolsheviks came to power.
It was probably for Solzhenitsen, much as it was for Nerzhin and Shchagov together, that the decisive period in his life was also first war and then prison. And it probably didn’t take much for him while in the Gulag to imagine himself, as perhaps the Soviet Union itself, at a later point in time “mumbling without a tooth in his gums about departed greatness.”
Of course for him, anyway, things were to turn out differently. Greatness was still to come.