It is not always auspicious when writers such as the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of such vast works as The Gulag Archipelago and such dense novels as Cancer Ward, try their hand at the short story: The result can resemble an elephant attempting origami.
Tolstoy, of course, manages the feat: The Death of Ivan Ilyich is as rewarding a work as War and Peace. Yet while none of the stories in Apricot Jam possesses the power or artistry of Ivan Ilyich, they do make compelling reading.
As attested by the cover blurbs for this volume of newly translated stories – written following Solzhenitsyn’s return to Russia after a lengthy exile in the United States and the collapse of the Soviet Union – Solzhenitsyn is remembered as a literary giant, a magisterial witness to and activist against the crimes of the Soviet regime.
His moral-warrior ethos persisted after his return to his native land: One of the most memorable stories in this volume, Fracture Points, chronicles the fraught careers of two would-be “straight arrows” pre- and post-Gorbachev: a true-believer pragmatist, who survives and even prospers despite the collapse of the system on which his life’s meaning and value have been based, and a brilliant, dissident science student turned entrepreneurial banker.
In the “New Russia,” with its slavish adherence to globalization, its unchecked criminality and febrile, endemic corruption, any attempts at honest, decent living seem doomed. Only the remnants of the “God-loving” peasantry – elderly survivors of the Second World War, struggling despite state neglect, outrageous poverty and abject loneliness – provide faint points of light.
Among the treachery, hypocrisy and cynicism of day-to-day life in war and peace, peasant proverbs ring out with a poignant acuity: “A needle will serve when it’s got an eye, a person will serve when he’s got a soul,” or, “The grass lives on beneath the scythe.” And yet a story like No Matter What, depicting the continuing ecological ruin that compromises the lives of those living off the land, tarnishes any consolation offered by the beauty and fecundity of the natural world.
Many of the stories in this volume make use of what Solzhenitsyn called a “binary” technique, in which two very different characters or interpretations of character respond to a common crisis or challenge: For instance, in Nastenka (the sole text dealing with female experience), prostitution is presented, first in its physiological and then its intellectual manifestation, though its corrosive effects upon the soul is Solzhenitsyn’s unifying concern.
Whether or not this technique is dazzlingly experimental, as the book’s jacket copy claims, it cannot keep the majority of the stories from reading more like programmatic case histories than fully living fiction. In the opening story, Apricot Jam, a corrupt Soviet-era writer insists that literary language should possess the “very amber transparency … [the]surprising colour and light” of a jar of apricot jam in which “every single apricot lay like a condensed fragment of sunlight.” Yet though there are occasional apricots in this volume, there is nothing like the “marvellous clear jelly” in which that master of the short story, Alice Munro, suspends the mess and dazzle of human desire.
Was Solzhenitsyn, like his caricatured “Writer,” too concerned with “creating an art of world significance” to bother crafting fictive worlds ruled by the imaginative and mysterious, and not the explanatory and already-known? If so, why not pass over Apricot Jam’s renderings of the lives of Soviet citizens in war and peace for the incomparably finer versions offered us by, for example, Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, or Anatoly Platonov’s Soul?
Given the times we live in, surely we need to be reminded, as variously as possible, of what we stand to lose – aromatic meadows in the midst of which quails are “singing their hearts out” – lest the grass dies beneath the scythe. And we need, urgently, to contest human suffering, lest we become like needles without eyes:
“So many of our poets and writers had told us the same thing: How beautiful the world is, and how people debase and poison it with their endless antagonisms. Will this strife never end? Will people ever be able to create a life freed from such afflictions, a splendid, sensible life of abundance?”
These kinds of Chekhovian questions are still the writer’s and the reader’s meat and drink, and Apricot Jam, for all its flaws, belongs on the literary table for us all to taste.
Janice Kulyk Keefer’s most recent work is the collection of poetry Foreign Relations, a companion piece to Natalka Husar’s volume of paintings Burden of Innocence.