Jews Praying In The Synagogue on the Day of Atonement by Maurycy Gottlieb (Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
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Friday, May 18, 2018
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Reprint Edition by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Author), Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Introduction), Eric Bogosian (Afterword) (Berkley)
"August 1914" kicks off the epic "Red Wheel" as Solzhenitsyn tries to capture the coming of the Russian Revolution in a series of novels. Another man's book is on Solzhenitsyn's mind; how can a Russian novelist write an epic on war and not confront Tolstoy and "War and Peace"? Tolstoy even makes a brief appearance at the start of the book. Solzhenitsyn guides the reader through the disastrous Russian invasion of East Prussia in August 1914 and unveils a number of characters-some real and some imaginary. There are haunting portraits of General Samsanov and Tsar Nicholas II. There are also descriptions of the battle and Solzhenitsyn's background from World War Two help him a great deal; these are some of the greatest battle scenes I have ever read. He guides the reader through the staff headquarters and to the front lines. He also offers unforgettable characters drawn from all of Russian society: a well off family at home, young officers connecting with the men, radical students, gentle peasants serving as troops. While his narrative is excellent, Solzhenitsyn is not as strong when he attempts to mimic the "camera eye" used by John Dos Passos in the USA trilogy. Nor does he quite succeed when he lists a number of headlines from the newspapers or offers detailed history in small print. But these are minor flaws that do not take away from the grand epic.
If you are reading the work in English, make sure you use the version translated by H.T. Willetts that was released in 1989 and FSG published the paperback in 2000. This is the translation included in the Kindle. This version, unlike the original, contains a scathing look at Lenin as well as a detailed description of the rise and death of Stolypin, the one Russian statesman who may have been able to lead Tsarist Russia through the chaos it would succumb to during the Great War.
Be warned. This is an epic undertaking. The book is almost a 1,000 pages and I advise you keep notes on characters, events and places. This is not a book for everyone. But it is a great epic and, if not up to the level of "War and Peace", "August 1914" is still in the same ballpark. How many other recent novels can we make that claim about?