One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s and describes a single day of an ordinary prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Its publication was an extraordinary event in Soviet literary history-never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed.
For the Writer:
Does an author require complex sentences, flashy verbs, originally modified nouns, and an adept poetic style to excel at writing fiction? The short answer, no—the long answer: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Excerpt from Chapter One, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich translated by H.T. Willets:
He suddenly spotted the chance of scrounging a butt: one of the gang, Tsezar, was smoking a cigarette instead of his usual pipe. Shukhov didn’t ask straight out, though. Just took his stand near Tsezar, half facing him and looking past him.
He was gazing at something in the distance, trying to look uninterested, but seeing the cigarette grow shorter and the red tip creep closer to the holder every time Tsezar took an absentminded drag.
That scavenger Fetyukov was there too, leeching onto Tsezar, standing right in front of him and staring hot-eyed at his mouth.
Shukhov had not a shred of tobacco left, and couldn’t see himself getting hold of any before evening. He was on tenterhooks. Right then he seemed to yearn for that butt more than freedom itself, but he wouldn’t lower himself like Fetyukov, wouldn’t look at Tsezar’s mouth.
Tsezar was a mixture of all nationalities. No knowing whether he was Greek, Jew, or gypsy. He was still young. Used to make films, but they’d put him inside before he finished his first picture. He had a heavy black walrus moustache. They’d have shaved it off, only he was wearing it when they photographed him for the record.
Fetyukov couldn’t stand it any longer. “Tsezar Markovich,” he trolled. “Save me just one little drag.”
His face was twitching with greed.
. . . Tsezar raised his half-closed eyes and turned his dark eye on Fetyuokv. He’d taken to smoking a pipe to avoid this sort of thing—people barging in, begging for the last drag. He didn’t grudge them the tobacco, but he didn’t like being interrupted when he was thinking. He smoked to set his mind racing in pursuit of some idea. But the moment he lit a cigarette he saw “Leave a puff for me!” in several pairs of eyes.
. . .He turned to Shukhov and said, “Here you are, Ivan Denisovich.”
His thumb eased the glowing butt out of the short amber holder.
That was all Shukhov had been waiting for. He sprang into action and gratefully caught hold of the butt, keeping the other hand underneath for safety. He wasn’t offended that Tsezar was too fussy to let him finish the cigarette in the holder. Some mouths are clean, others are dirty, and anyways his horny fingers could hold the glowing tip without getting burned. The great thing was that he’d cut the scavenger Fetyukov out and was now inhaling smoke, with the hot ash beginning to burn his lips. Ah, lovely. The smoke seemed to reach every part of his hungry body, he felt it in his feet as well as in his head.
But no sooner has this blissful feeling pervaded his body than Ivan Denisovich heard a rumble of protest: “They’re taking our undershirts off us.” [Ch. 1 p.31,32. Translated by H.T. Willets]
The language in the passage above is simple, if not commonplace, and peppered with stock expressions (see underlined phrases). His face was twitching with greed? This is not the artful writing of an author casting his poetic charms. Yes, it’s third person narrative, but steeped in the protagonist Ivan Denisovich’s (Shukhov) point of view. The simplicity of expression, my reader may suggest, arises from the character. True enough. It’s an unvarnished, workaday account. But that doesn’t entirely explain Solzhenitsyn’s choice of sentence structure.
The sentences are compact, and economic—like breaths. Breathe in, breathe out—through scene after excruciating scene, such as the one above. By the end of such interactions the reader realizes that he is breathing in sync, breathing along with Shukhov, inhaling and exhaling his thoughts, his gestures, his eye movements—all purposely conceived in plain, almost terse language. (In case my reader is wondering if it is perhaps the translation which has produced the simpler vocabulary and sentence structure, as compared to the original Russian, this translation by Willets was the only work endorsed by Solzhenitsyn himself.) No. There is more to it. It is as if by one quiet and plain step after another the author walks his readers hand in hand into an inconceivable, personal and corporate suffering. Solzhenitsyn achieved that which detailed essayists or authors like Anthony Doer or Dickens, both masters of description, could not better. It is truly one day, measured by the hypnotic swinging pendulum in an old clock of woe, in this hapless man’s life.
When the cumulative effect of this simple and syntactic breathing in and out, scene after scene, in ever increasingly severe and pitiless conditions (the reader will remember forever the brutal cold); when Shukhov’s thoughts and observations have permeated another witness like the quietly inhaled smoke of Shukhov’s cigarette, a reader or writer will fully understand the scope of its literary effect. In addition to his own plight, Shukov’s observations embrace other souls imprisoned under the arbitrary, cold-blooded monomania of Stalin—Baptists were sentenced to twenty-five years for their faith alone; women and children were not spared; others were sentenced to hard labour for being merely someone’s son, or, like Shukhov, sentenced for purportedly being a German spy after being captured and escaping one tyranny only to sign a forced confession under the oppression of another. But these are heartless facts with little power to arrest a reader’s heart. However, when discovered in the breathing in and breathing out context of Shukhov’s simply matter-of-fact day, a reader’s heart is rent, and declares “Never again. Not on my watch!”
Such a journey could only be endured one breath at a time, a cadence likely fixed within Solzhenitsyn while serving an eight-year term in a prison labour camp. I have provided an excerpt from Wikipedia of a glimpse of Solzhenitsyn’s life after his imprisonment. There is another short story included in the Anthology Christmas with Hot Apple Cider edited by N.J. Lindquist, titled Christmas Behind Barbed Fences by Tina Michael Weidelich, which, told in the voice of a WWII vet, has that same cadence, recording the personal effects of a horrific war, involuntarily wading into the overwhelming swamp of suffering. JpT.
In March 1953, after his sentence ended, Solzhenitsyn was sent to internal exile for life at Birlik, a village in Baidibek district of South Kazakhstan region of Kazakhstan (Kok-terek rural district). His undiagnosed cancer spread until, by the end of the year, he was close to death. In 1954, he was permitted to be treated in a hospital in Tashkent, where his tumor went into remission. His experiences there became the basis of his novel Cancer Ward and also found an echo in the short story “The Right Hand.” It was during this decade of imprisonment and exile that Solzhenitsyn abandoned Marxism and developed the philosophical and religious positions of his later life, gradually becoming a philosophically-minded Eastern Orthodox Christian as a result of his experience in prison and the camps. He repented for some of his actions as a Red Army captain, and in prison compared himself to the perpetrators of the Gulag: “I remember myself in my captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: ‘So were we any better?'” His transformation is described at some length in the fourth part of The Gulag Archipelago (“The Soul and Barbed Wire”). [Excerpt from Wikipedia.org: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich]