Collection of innovative short stories reveals that the Russian writer was still experimenting in his final years.
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Alexander Solzhenitsyn began to write the collection of short stories in the early 1990s at the time of his return to Russia.
A collection of nine short stories by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, described by scholars as ranking alongside his best work, is to be published in English for the first time. In one of the publishing events of the autumn, the collection will appear under the title Apricot Jam and Other Stories, fulfilling a long-held desire of the author that the work be available to the English-speaking world.
The collection reveals that Solzhenitsyn was still experimenting with literary form towards the end of his life. Eight of the stories have two parts, which are conceived as pairs. Daniel J. Mahoney, a Solzhenitsyn scholar, said: "This was a new form that Solzhenitsyn, always a pioneer of new genres… called binary tales. They're two-part stories that are connected by a theme, even though there's a sharp contrast. They [each] range from 20 to 50 typed pages. Many of them highlight the moral dilemmas and choices of people under a totalitarian regime. A few deal with the dilemmas of post-communist Russia."
Solzhenitsyn's widow, Natalia, told the Observer that her husband, who died three years ago, "always wished" the stories would be accessible in English. "He would undoubtedly have been pleased to see this new publication, had he lived to this day. He began to write these stories in the first half of the 1990s, which coincided with our return home to Russia. Each of these stories was published in Russian immediately upon writing."
The author's son, Ignat, said: "I am sure my father would be pleased to see these stories appear in English. I think he felt their special binary form to be somewhat of a serendipitous discovery of his old age – one that stimulated him unexpectedly to produce several beautiful stories."
Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize for literature in 1970 after the publication of classics such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward. His works – which have sold 30 million copies – opened the world's eyes to the horrors of Stalin's prison camps, where the writer's own incarceration shaped his searing political observations. Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago – written in secrecy in the Soviet Union and published in Paris in 1973 – is the definitive account of Stalin's political penal system. The author spent eight years in labour camps after being denounced in 1945 for criticising Stalin. Expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 and condemned to 20 years in exile, during which he lived in the US, he became synonymous with moral courage and defiance.
Many of the stories in the new collection continue to deal with Soviet life. In one of them, The New Generation, a generous engineering professor helps a student who is struggling to pass an exam, only to find, years later, that he has been arrested and the student has become his KGB interrogator. Another, called Ego, is set at the time of the brutal suppression of tens of thousands of peasants in Tambov province in the 1920s. Amid the violence, a rebel leader is compelled to betray his comrades in the face of threats against his family.
Mahoney said of the collection: "It's some of Solzhenitsyn's very best writing." He added: "These are really impressive works of literature… They deal with matters of great historical, moral and political import."
The English translation is to be published this autumn by Canongate in the UK and Counterpoint in the US. Francis Bickmore, Canongate's senior editor, described it as a "really significant discovery" from a master of prose, who was also the most eloquent and acclaimed opponent of totalitarianism of the 20th century.
"What hit me was the power of the writing," said Bickmore. "They're stunning pieces of literature, reaffirming Solzhenitsyn's position as one of the great literary writers."
Although the stories were published in a prominent Russian literary journal, Novy Mir, and one appeared in English in a 2006 collection of his writings, the other eight were overlooked until now by English-language publishers. Jeremy Beer, representing the Solzhenitsyn estate, said: "No one knew these stories really existed because they'd only been published in Russian."
The collection takes its title from the first story, Apricot Jam, in which a seriously ill prisoner writes to a famous writer describing the horrific injustices he has suffered and appealing for help. Its second part sees the famous writer in a luxurious dacha and only impressed by the prose in the prisoner's letter, ignoring the suffering within its lines.
Mahoney said that Solzhenitsyn's own writing has "a wonderful tautness and clarity of expression".
"People think of Solzhenitsyn writing these huge books… with a thunderous voice. [With these stories], it's a different voice. It's not heavy-handed, even though these stories are full of moral import. They're not preachy. They're not didactic. They let the story convey certain historical and moral messages… We see a great literary craftsman and an historian at work."
Gulag To Glory
1918 Born in Kislovodsk, Russia, Solzhenitsyn grew up a Soviet supporter. Studied at Rostov University. Becomes army officer after 1941 Nazi invasion.
1945 Sentenced to eight years' labour in Siberian gulags, left.
1962 Publishes One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
1970 Awarded Nobel prize for literature.
1973 First volume published of The Gulag Archipelago about labour camps where millions perished. Expelled from Russia.
1989 Mikhail Gorbachev allows publication of Solzhenitsyn's works. He returns to Russia as a hero in 1994.
2007 Awarded Russia's State Prize.
2008 Dies, aged 89.