Sometimes whole years go by during which I forget how much I love Solzhenitsyn. I know, it seems almost unbelievable. Because, sadly, there are only 12 months in the year, he didn’t make it into my 2015 Russian reading project; now it’s time to right the wrong.
One of the astounding things about Solzhenitsyn’s writing is that he’s just so accomplished. When you think about it, setting a novel in a hospital ward is almost too obvious. It’s a perfect, depressing microcosm of society. From secure bureaucrats to ‘exiles in perpetuity,’ from ageing peasants to educated teenagers, the most unlikely people become neighbours and companions. Each has a unique perspective on Soviet life and ideology, a perspective which may be perceptive and accurate but which certainly won’t help them fight their life-threatening disease. Everything works on so many levels so the book is an allegory, a warning, but also an enthralling and completely believable work of fiction.
‘Cancer Ward’ is such a rich book, any reading is going to bring up new insights. The last time I read it, I couldn’t get over the patient/doctor relationships Solzhenitsyn explores, specifically the firmly held belief that patients should not know what is wrong with them and should learn nothing about their treatment. Their job is to unquestioningly do what they’re told. This is so opposed to NHS policy that it seemed to move the book from realist novel into Kafkaesque fable. The other really striking section was any moment that featured Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, possibly the most vile character in literature. Pavel is a vicious, cowardly hypocrite who is proud of and validated by his role in ‘personnel’- he’s a Party member and his job is to terrorise workers into appropriate ideology while informing on any who proves suspicious. Utterly repulsive and fully human; he goes a long way to answering questions about why and how Stalin’s reign of terror was so successful.
Reading ‘Cancer Ward’ as a belated addition to my Russian reading project meant that I was especially interested in seeing how it fitted into its rich literary tradition. I have come to the following conclusions:
1. The whole novel can be read as a riff on Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich,’ only here there are so many people living with the prospect of imminent death the individualism of the seminal short story is taken in radical and frightening new directions. Many of the patients follow Ilyich’s mental processes, others come to very different conclusions. Unlike the novella, this isn’t a middle-class philosophical parlour piece. Here a whole community of men are forced to confront their mortality while, through them, the power and limitations of Soviet society are exposed.
2. Following on from the above, this is a novel about death, rather than life; the characters themselves are all obsessed with the future rather than the past. Now this may seem obvious, but as the book progresses it is shown to be a blackly comic reflection on the optimism of Stalin’s vision for Russia, a vision many characters have been brought up to believe as moral truth. The whole country, especially the young, has been taught only to look to the future, the unexpected realisation that this is the mentality of the fatally ill suddenly repositions the mirror the novel holds up to its society. Solzhenitsyn isn’t just writing about an isolated ward in an obscure hospital, but about the whole ‘cancerous’ society in which he lived. It’s powerful stuff.
As the year goes on, I will be reviewing more of Solzhenitsyn’s novels. They’re always books to look forward to, but this time I’m especially excited to see how my reading changes with my increased knowledge of their literary tradition. There is a convention of separating periods of Russian literature into the pre-twentieth century Golden Age, pre-revolution Silver Age and then 20th century (pre and post-Soviet), but this can’t be right. Wherever the best writers are, that’s when you’ll find Solzhenitsyn.