In The First Circle Bookclub!

(Our kickoff post is here, and our discussion posts are here and here.)

The story of how Solzhenitsyn edited The First Circle from the 96-chapter version (the black version) to the 87-chapter version (the red version) reads like distopian fiction as well. He wrote the book but had to do it in private, secretly. Despite writing it secretly, he had to petition to have it published and saw the writing on the wall and pared down the book in the hopes that the shorter, “ersatz” version might be published.

The KGB breaks into Solzhenitsyn’s friend’s apartment *ANYWAY* and “confiscates” (one of) his manuscripts which then gets passed around various officials. A smuggled manuscript of the shorter version makes it to the West where it’s published and hailed as a work of literary greatness while, at the same time, it’s not published in Russia. It’s still contraband.

So I’m stuck remembering the scene where the scientists take articles that have been published in Western magazines and sold at Western newstands to anybody with the pocket change to grab it… and the scientists have to carefully clip out the articles and keep them in locked safes as state secrets.

Anyway, after the cut, we’ll have our list of chapters for the uncensored version (and the chapter names from the censored version, if different, in parenthesis after. Chapter 44 Out in the Open and Chapter 47 Top Secret Conversation were not included in the original version).

You, yes you! What did you think? What scenes, phrases, thoughts stuck out for you?

33.Penalty Marks (Chapter 30, in the Red Version)
34.Voiceprints (Voice Prints)
35.Kissing is Forbidden
37.The Silent Alarm (The Silent Bell)
38.Be Unfaithful to Me! (Be Unfaithful!)
39.Fine Words, Those, “To the Taiga!” (That’s Fine to Say: “Off to the Taiga!”)
40.A Rendezvous (The Visit)
41.And Another One (Another Visit)
42.And Among the Kids (Among the Young People)
43.A Woman Was Washing the Staircase (The Charwoman)
44.Out in the Open (this chapter was not included in the expurgated version)
45.The Running Dogs of Imperialism (The Bloodhounds of Imperialism)
46.The Castle of the Holy Grail
47.Top-Secret Conversation (this chapter was not included in the expurgated version)
48.The Double Agent (Chapter 43, in the Red Version)

The moment in Penalty Marks when Sologdin hears that people were given the day off on Sunday and immediately gets all paranoid? I’ve felt that. “Why is management being nice to us?” The fact that the law, in the first place, says that Sunday is a day off is no comfort at all. “Why is management suddenly following the law?”

Yeah, I’ve come to the conclusion that his writing of women characters comes from an entirely different culture with entirely different gender assumptions and expectations.

The moment in Voiceprints where the Zeks quickly conspire to make sure they pass the test. I mean, they knew they’d be able to pass any test because they were that dang good, of course… but they had to conspire to pass the test anyway. The show that they went on to make (the magnifying glass, for example) was brilliant.

In the chapter in which the prisoners find out that “kissing is forbidden”, the scene that stuck with me was: He had been given permission to receive a visit at the very last moment. It seemed somehow irregular and might easily be withdrawn. Some such tought generally prevents people from blurting out the truth or demanding justice.

The Phonoscopy chapter reminded me, strangely, of parts of Doctor Strangelove. You find yourself rooting for people who are going to go on to do great damage because there is a strange part of you that wants to see your friends succeed at something important to them. And so watching Rubin be very, very good at his job, you find this weird sensation of wanting to root for him… for wanting him to be able to help the wicked people above him.

“There’s probably only one way to make yourself invulnerable,” he replied. “That’s to kill all your affections and suppress all your desires.” For some reason, this sentence makes me wonder what the local governments must have been like when Siddhartha Gautama was wandering around.

The realization of how many lives were “wrecked”, that’s the word he used, “wrecked” in this chapter is just staggering. The children stolen from Nerzhin, for example, is something that I realize I cannot comprehend, even as he explains to me that I cannot comprehend it. In the name of what?

The scene where the prisoner (every prisoner) was telling his wife (every wife) that, hey, I’ve got decades ahead of me. Go on. Find someone else! was heartbreaking. I don’t wonder that so many wives must have done so. I wonder that so many wives didn’t. How many pathologies between people who loved each other did this system create? “I dare say the best thing for us to do is to be unfaithful to our husbands while they’re in jail; then they’ll appreciate us when they come out. Otherwise, they’ll think nobody wanted us, nobody would have us while they were away.”

The wives of the Decembrists were celebrated while they were in prison. The wives of those arrested by Article 58 were hissed at for marrying the enemy.

The guard whose job it was to tell prisoners that they could not touch hands. I alternate between wanting to beat him to death with a crowbar and pitying him as having the worst job in the world, and doing it, because he’s scared to lose it. Watching prisoners who have done nothing wrong telling their spouses that they love very much that they should get a divorce in order to have something approaching a normal life. “Pascal, Newton, Einstein…” “Weren’t you told not to mention names?”, the guard bawled. The crowbar is too good for him.

The regulations did not specifically forbid tears. They implicitly assumed that tears could not occur.

The implications, over and over again, that common criminals (thieves, muggers, petty criminals) got slaps on the wrist while people who thought the wrong things got years and years strikes me as absolutely incomprehensible. But then you think about it… what could a thief do when it comes to slave labor? Unskilled labor, most likely. (If he had skilled, he’d be less likely to be a thief, after all.) But what if you needed skilled slave labor? Engineers? Scientists? Well, you have to arrest them to get them into the slave labor camp. What do you arrest them *FOR*? And there is the genius of Article 58.

The insight in “A Woman was Washing the Staircase” where the professors said that one should not read the original Tolstoy because it would obscure the insights to be found in Tolstoy criticism would be horrifying if it weren’t so funny. One of the jokes my circle made in college was that we didn’t read original sources anymore… just criticism… and some wag would point out that they only read criticism criticism. Everyone would laugh.

The relationship between Klara and Innokenty strikes me as silly and absurd and makes me remember being that young myself. Sigh.

I don’t understand why Chapter 44 was expurgated originally.

“I’ll tell you why I’m sick of seeing both Ostrovsky and Gorky,” she said. “It’s because I’m sick of seeing the power of capital and parental oppression exposed, sick of seeing young girls forced to marry old men. I’m sick and tired of this war against phantoms. Fifty years, a hundred years on, we’re still exorcising, still exposing things long vanished. You never see a play about things that do exist.”

They remade Footloose a couple of years ago.

“It’s only a sketch. A sketch for the most important picture in my life. I will probably never paint it.” I wish I could read that line without thinking “It’s only a model.”

I understand perfectly why Solzhenitsyn took 47 out. Discussions of Beria and Stalin? Worse, discussions of bullets to the back of the head because The State couldn’t bear to look its victims in the eyes? The discussion of how “this is a transitional period”? And, through it all, discussions of political philosophy that could only be whispered between the best of friends.

And it’s in Chapter 48 that we finally gain some meager insight into the whole “stoolie” thing. On the other hand, it had been drilled into them that informing was at once a patriotic duty, the best way to help the subject of your denunciation, and good for the health of society. The scene where Ruska informed on someone who had done nothing wrong (well, except for being very, very unpleasant) and the informant was given greater credibility than the people he was informing on was weird… I found myself vaguely pleased that this was being done to a “bad” person but wondering, again, at how these silly pathologies could have gotten half as far as they did. “Sorry, don’t believe you when you say you didn’t. Someone anonymous who has nothing to gain says you did.”

But when it’s revealed that, yes, he’s given away how everybody can figure out who the stoolies are due to the 3 little rubles taken away from processing? That’s a moment that reveals that not all of the pathologies had their claws in firmly. He became a stoolie to get information about the stoolies to give this information to everyone. “The motherland should know who its stoolies are, don’t you think, gentlemen?”

I wonder if Solzhenitsyn actually had this happen around him or if he were just entertaining a fantasy… Ah, well.

What do you think?

For next week, we’re going to be reading from Chapter 49 Life Is Not a Novel (Chapter 44 Life Is No Love Story) to Chapter 65 A Duel Not by the Rules (Chapter 60 A Duel Not According To The Rules). It looks like this section contains none of the contraband chapters.

Okay. Next week, we’re going to take a week off to let all y’all catch up. We’ll still have a rambly post asking everybody about their thoughts, though.

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9 thoughts on “In The First Circle Bookclub!

  1. I confess.

    I’m a week behind in my reading. I’m in my backyard sweating moderately in the desert spring, pleasingly under the influence of my second afternoon G&T and I just finished chapter 19. Which despite the booze and the sunshine chills me to the quick.


  2. On a related topic, Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus is The Red Wheel, a series of historical novel depicting what led to the Revolution and Bolshevik takeover. There are two volumes available in English, August 1914, and November 1916. The other two volumes, March 1917 and April 1917, have never been translated into English, are there are no current plans to do so. According to Edward Ericson, who edited the one volume edition of The Gulag Archipelago, that’s likely to remain true:

    “That would take a rich benefactor,” he says. “It’s never going to make a profit. I don’t even think the sales would pay the cost of the translation. And so this great work is lost to us.”

    Isn’t that sad? Wouldn’t you think that, if nothing else, university Russian departments could arrange a joint project to do a translation?


    • Ugh, now I’m depressed. I agree that it’d never make a profit but… a college, a private benefactor, maybe a kickstarter (yeah, I know, it’s not exactly kickstartable) should be able to bring that into English.

      Hell, something as crude as Babelfish and an editor shouldn’t cost *THAT* much… should it?


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