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The Shining Sonata

October 13, 2012

Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle

The novel’s title refers to an island of respite in the gulag of Stalinist Russia. It’s a sharashka, a special kind of prison where you work at a desk and there is bread on the table; it’s a camp for intellectuals, for minds somehow categorized “useful to the state.”  There’s even butter here, “for professors … one and a half ounces and for engineers three-quarters of an ounce.” The sharashka‘s not only a respite from the inhumanity of the camp system; it’s also something of respite from tyranny itself. The prisoners–despite their enforced asceticism (sometimes itself a blessing) and the always imminent likelihood of their return to brutal camps they’ve only temporarily escaped–are at times freer than the guards and administrators that keep them, freer too than the thousand civil servants who wait by midnight telephones, tapping pens on blank pads of paper, staring out dark windows with the lidless eyes of mute aquarium-fishes–sleepless because Stalin is sleepless and, when he is awake, it’s not that his janissaries may not, but (like men in a fairy-tale spell)  they physically cannot sleep.

Nevertheless, the sharashka, island of respite though it is, is still (according to its inmates) hell–it is “a concept [says Rubin, an honest-to-God-and-man, evangelizing Communist who loves his Hemingway and Goethe] … thought up by Dante. … It was a Christian’s duty to toss those pagans into hell. But the Renaissance conscience couldn’t reconcile itself to the idea of enlightened men being packed in with all sorts of sinners and condemned to physical torture. So Dante thought up a special place for them in hell. If you’ll allow me . . . It’s the fourth Canto and goes about like this

At last we reached the base of a great Citadel …

Look around at the old arches here!

… Circled by seven towering battlements
And by a sweet brook flowing all around them all …

You came here in the Black Maria, so you didn’t see the gates–

… I saw four mighty presences come toward us
With neither joy nor sorrow in their bearing.
… ‘What souls are those whose merit lights their way
Even in Hell? What joy sets them apart?’ ”

At work even in the loveless, inefficient machine of Stalin’s state is a grace (actual but not saving) that nations at war extend to men of talent, setting them apart. And while merit does thus in some sense receive the honor due to it, it is also objectively insulted to subserve the opaque–and ultimately destructive–ends of invisible and invincible masters, is inwardly embarrassed to embrace a reprieve denied to others. When all is said and done, then, these men “whose merits light their way, even in hell” are sufferers-with, even sufferers-for the rest of their peoples in a unique and uniquely human manner. In fact, the “joy that sets them apart”  intensifies their experience of their peoples’ predicament–even while that joy, in itself, is genuine and free, a pure and shining signal from beyond the reign of futility to which they and their peoples are subjected.

The novel’s fourth chapter shows its quiet, strong virtues:



The Acoustics Laboratory was a wide, high-ceilinged room with several windows. It was disorderly and crowded with electronic instruments on plank shelves, shiny aluminum counters, assembly benches, new plywood cabinets from a Moscow factory, snug writing desks that had been war booty.

Large overhead bulbs in frosted globes cast a pleasant dispersed white light.

In a far corner of the room stood a sound-insulated acoustical booth. It looked only partially completed. On the outside, plain sacking had been tacked over straw. Its two-foot-thick solid door was open at the moment, and the woolen curtain over it had been thrown back to air the booth. Next to the booth, rows of brass plugs gleamed on the black bakelite face of the main switchboard.

At a desk by the booth, her back to it, her narrow shoulders barely covered by a shawl, sat a tiny, frail girl with a stern face.

All the other people in the room, ten or so, were all dressed in the same dark-blue coveralls. Lit by the overhead lights and by additional spots of light from flexible desk lamps, they tinkered, walked about, hammered, soldered, and sat at the assembly benches and writing desks.

From different places in the room three radio receivers, cabinetless and put together on whatever aluminum chassis had come to hand, broadcast the conflicting rhythms of jazz, a piano concert, and folk songs of the East.

Rubin walked slowly through the laboratory to his desk, still holding his Mongolian-Finnish dictionary and his Hemingway. There were white pastry crumbs on his curly black beard.

Though the coveralls issued to prisoners were all identically made, they were worn in different ways. On Rubin’s, one button had been ripped off, the belt was loosened, and folds of cloth hung at his stomach. On the other hand, a young fellow with flowing chestnut hair, who was at the moment blocking Rubin’s way, wore the very same dark-blue coveralls like a dandy. His cloth belt was clinched tight around his thin waist, and he wore a blue silk shirt which, though faded from frequent washing, was closed with a bright necktie. This young man entirely blocked the side passage Rubin was trying to get through. In his right hand he brandished a hot soldering iron, and he had placed his left foot on a chair. Leaning on his knee, he concentrated on a radio diagram in a copy of the magazine Wireless Engineer, and sang at the same time:

“Boogie-woogie, boogie-woogie.
Samba! Samba!
Boogie-woogie, boogie-woogie.
Samba! Samba!”

Rubin could not get past him, and he stood there for a moment with a mock expression of meekness. The young man did not appear to notice him.

“Valentulya,” Rubin said, “couldn’t you move your hind foot a bit?”

Valentine, not looking up, answered in a strong clipped voice, “Lev Grigorich! You’re interrupting. You’re wasting time. Why come here at nights? What is there for you to do here?” He now looked at Rubin with bright young eyes full of surprise. “What the hell do we need philologists for! Ha, ha, ha!” he said ironically. “After all, you’re no engineer! For shame!”

Pursing his fleshy lips in a childlike pout and opening his eyes unbelievably wide, Rubin said, “My boy! There are all kinds of engineers. Some of them have built successful careers selling soda water.”

“Not me! I’m a first-class engineer! Take that into consideration, little man!” Valentine retorted sharply, placing the soldering iron in a wire stand and standing erect.

He had the clean look of youth. Life had not stained his face. His movements were boyish. It was hard to believe that he had graduated from an institute before the war, survived German POW camps, been in Europe, and was now serving his fifth year of imprisonment in his own country.

Rubin sighed. “Without duly attested references from Belgium the administration cannot–”

“What references are you talking about?” Pyranchikov’s brows flew up. “Ha, ha, ha! Just forget it! Consider–I love women madly!”

The stern young woman near them could not control her smile.

Another inmate, at a window near the passageway Rubin was trying to get through, put down his work and listened to Valentine with approval.

“Only theoretically, it would appear,” answered Rubin with a bored, meditative expression.

“And I love spending money!”

“But you don’t have any.”

“Well, then how can I be a bad engineer? Just think: in order to love women–and different ones–all the time, I need a lot of money! And in order to have a lot of money I have to earn it! And to do that as an engineer I have to be brilliant in my field. And how can I do that if I’m not genuinely fascinated by it? Ha, ha! You look pale!”

Wholehearted conviction shone in Valentine’s face, raised challengingly to Rubin.

“Ah-ha!” cried the zek next to the window, whose writing desk faced the young woman’s. “Lev, come and hear how well I’ve caught Valentulya’s voice! It has a bell-like quality! That’s what I’m going to write in my report. Bell-like. You can recognize a voice like that on any phone. No matter how much interference there is.”

And he opened a big sheet ruled off in squares, on which there were columns of names followed by tree-shaped voice classifications.

“What kind of nonsense is that?” Valentine said, brushing the remark aside. He took up his soldering iron, and rosin began to smoke.

The passage opened up, and Rubin, on his way to his chair, paused to bend over the sheet of voice classifications.

He and his friend Gleb Nerzhin looked at it together in silence.

“We’ve made some real progress, Gleb,” he said. “Used together with voice prints, it will make a good tool. Soon will be able to understand what a telephone voice depends on.” He gave a start. “What’s that on the radio?”

The jazz was louder in the room, but a lilting, bubbling piano piece came through his own homemade receiver on the window sill, with a single melodic line which kept gleaming and disappearing.

Nerzhin replied, “It’s a miracle. That’s Beethoven’s Seventeenth Sonata in D Minor. For some reason it’s never–listen, listen.”

They both bent close to the receiver, but the jazz interfered badly.

“Valentine,” said Gleb. “Please, let us listen! Show a little consideration!”

“I’ve already shown a little consideration,” Valentine said. “I knocked your receiver together. Now I’m going to unsolder your coil and you’ll never find it.”

The young woman raised her severe brows and said, “Valentine Martynich! Really, it’s impossible to listen to three radios at once. Turn yours off as you’ve been asked.”

Valentine’s radio at this point was playing a slow fox trot, and the young woman secretly liked it very much.

“Serafima Vitalyevna! That’s monstrous!” He seized the back of a chair and gesticulated as if he were speaking from a platform. “How can a normal, healthy person of your age not enjoy energetic, invigorating jazz? You’re all being corrupted by all kinds of old trash! Have you really never danced the ‘Blue Tango?’ Have you never seen the skits of Arkady Raikin? You just don’t know the best that man has created! Worse than that–you’ve never been to Europe. Where could you possibly have learned to live? I advise you very, very seriously : you must fall in love with someone.” He delivered this oratory from behind the chair, not noticing the bitter set of the young woman’s lips. “Anyone–Ça depend de vous! Lights twinkling in the night. The rustle of stylish clothes.”

“He’s gone out of phase again!” Rubin said with concern. “So we have to use force.”

And behind Valentine’s back he turned off the jazz himself.

Valentine turned around, stung. “Lev Grigorich, who gave you the right to do that?”

He frowned and tried to look menacing. The free-flowing strains of the Seventeenth Sonata rose in all their purity, competing now only with the crude song from the third radio around the corner.

Rubin’s face slackened, showing yielding black eyes and a beard dotted with cake crumbs.

“Engineer Pryanchikov! Are you still worrying about the Atlantic Charter? Have you written your will? Whom will you refuse to leave your bedroom slippers to?”

Pryanchikov’s face suddenly grew serious. He looked brightly into Rubin’s eyes and said quietly,

“Listen, what the hell! You’re driving me crazy. A person at least ought to have some freedom in prison.”

He was called away by one of the assembly workers, and he left in a state of gloom.

Rubin settled silently into his armchair, back to back with Gleb, and prepared to listen to the music. But the soothing, plunging melody broke off unexpectedly, like speech cut off in the middle of a word. And that was the unceremonious end of the Seventeenth Sonata.

Rubin delivered himself of a string of oaths, comprehensible to Gleb alone.

“Spell it out. I can’t hear you,” Gleb said, his back still turned.

“That’s my luck, I tell you,” said Rubin hoarsely, not turning around either. “There you are–I missed the sonata and I’ve never heard it.”

“Because you’re disorganized. How many times have I pounded it into you?” his friend declared. Just a minute before, when he was recording Pryanchikov’s voice, he had been full of enthusiasm, and now he was listless and sad again. “And the sonata was very, very good. Why doesn’t it have a name like the others? ‘The Shining Sonata,’ wouldn’t that be right? Everything in it flashes, shines–good and bad, sad and merry, the way it does in life. And there’s no ending . . . just like life. That’s what it should be called the Ut in Vita Sonata. And where have you been?”

“With the Germans. We were seeing Christmas in,” Rubin said, grinning ironically.

They talked without seeing each other, the backs of their heads almost touching.

“Good man,” Gleb thought, then aloud: “I like your attitude toward them. You spend hours teaching Max Russian. Yet you have every reason to hate them.”

“Hate? No, but my former love for them, of course, has been a bit tarnished. Even nonpolitical Max–doesn’t he too, share some responsibility with the executioners? After all, he didn’t do anything to stop them.”

“Just as we, right now, are not doing anything to stop Abakumov or Shishkin-Myshkin.”

“Listen, Gleb, once and for all, I am no more a Jew than I am a Russian. And I am no more a Russian than I am a citizen of the world!”

“Well said! Citizens of the world! It sounds pure and bloodless.”

“In other words, cosmopolites. They were right to put us in prison.”

“Of course they were right. Even though you are always trying to prove the contrary to the Supreme Soviet.”

The radio on the window sill promised the “Daily List of Production Competitions” in thirty seconds.

In the course of those thirty seconds, Gleb Nerzhin reached for the radio knob with calm determination and cut off the announcer’s hoarse croak. His tired face was grayish.

Valentine Pryanchikov was at this moment absorbed in a new problem. Calculating what series of amplifications to use, he sang to himself in a loud, carefree voice:

“Boogie-woogie, boogie-woogie.
Samba! Samba!”

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 3, 2013 10:07 pm

    Recently posted at the Laudator Temporis Acti blog

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), The Gulag Archipelago (tr. Thomas P. Whitney):

    At the Samarka Camp in 1946 a group of intellectuals had reached the very brink of death: They were worn down by hunger, cold, and work beyond their powers. And they were even deprived of sleep. They had nowhere to lie down. Dugout barracks had not yet been built. Did they go and steal? Or squeal? Or whimper about their ruined lives? No! Foreseeing the approach of death in days rather than weeks, this is how they spent their last sleepless leisure, sitting up against the wall: Timofeyev-Ressovsky gathered them into a “seminar,” and they hastened to share with one another what one of them knew and the others did not — they delivered their last lectures to each other.

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