Before and After

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Sitting on the edge of the English language, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s new collection Apricot Jam and Other Stories pushes us into twentieth century Russia.

There is a challenge inherent in reading foreign literature. You wonder if the author’s voice survived the shift between languages and cultures, or if you will have to parse it from the echoes of the translator. Not so in Apricot Jam and Other Stories – a sprawling, distinctly Russian collection from Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Several of its pieces resemble novellas more than true short fiction, and narratives move forth without regard for Western plot conventions. Meanwhile, a joint effort by Solzhenitsyn’s son, Stephan, and translator Kenneth Lantz preserves the rhythm, sentence structure, and word choice of the original work. The result is a level of authenticity that may overwhelm readers, who should prepare for the sensation of reading somehow outside the borders of the English language.

At its core, the collection explores a deeply universal theme – the impact of politics upon the individual. Yet the Russian style and setting add an immersive quality to the experience. Apricot Jam demands an intrepid traveler as much as it demands a reader.

In an interview on the Leonard Lopate Show, Ignat Solzhenitsyn states that his father viewed The Red Wheel as his magnum opus. The stories in Apricot Jam were penned after The Red Wheel’s completion, and thus represented a sense of liberation for the author. Perhaps because they are an afterword to a long literary career, Solzhenitsyn’s craft within these stories borders on experimental.

Using what he called the “binary” structure in the majority of these pieces, Solzhenitsyn unites two distinct plots under a single title. Each section is narrated separately, and casts of characters don’t always overlap. A connection may emerge towards the end, but it is usually implicit rather than literal. In one story, two young women begin their lives in pre-revolutionary Russia, experience the birth pangs of the USSR, and are left to adapt to new realities. They share the name of “Nastenka,” but never meet. In the title story, a detailed letter from the victim of post-revolutionary purges attempts to gain the advocacy of a prominent writer. Following the transcript of the letter, the writer is shown milling about his lush country home, and mentioning the letter in passing.

There is a lot of history in Apricot Jam, which necessitates a lot of accompanying military detail. Solzhenitsyn’s focus on the first half of the twentieth century naturally highlights the Russian revolution and World War II as pivotal events. An ambitious, lengthy narrative covers the life of Soviet General Zhukov; a group of soldiers return to the site of a critical battle in post-Soviet times. This sweeping subject matter is usually relegated to novels and documentary films, but Solzhenitsyn succeeds in delivering a consistent message to his readers. Set apart from dialogue on military strategy and transcribed propagandist speeches, the interiority of Solzhenitsyn’s characters delves into the simple, private thoughts of a given individual scraping to get by. Each story is crafted with such deliberate detail that historic trends become entwined with character development, and can garner empathy even in the absence of contextual knowledge.

A key theme of Apricot Jam is the eventual complicity of the victim. Nastenka, raped at an early age, becomes “something of a charmer” and hops from bed to bed; a mild-mannered professor makes an ethically abhorrent decision to save his family. Yet in showing the circumstantial corruption of the innocent, Solzhenitsyn is philosophical rather than accusatory. His stories show breaking points in history, and the shattered lives before and after each event. One wonders if he chose the binary structure with the precise intent of having readers endure a stark transition from one state of being to the next, thus symbolizing the before and after experiences of his characters.

Whether interested in history for its own sake, or in the lessons that Russia’s Soviet experiment may hold for the modern day, readers will emerge from Apricot Jam nostalgic for one of the twentieth century’s great literary voices.

Ana Grouverman is a writer living and working in New York City. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, and you can see her writing here. More from this author →