In The First Circle Bookclub!
From each according to his ability, to each according to what is available.
At the beginning of the essay in In The First Circle: A Novel (The Restored Text: The First Uncensored Edition) (henceforth “the black version”), there’s a short discussion about the change between the original censored version (henceforth “the red version”) and how it was titled “The First Circle” and how Solzhenitsyn’s original title was “In The First Circle”. The difference is the difference between the place and the people. The first time that I had read the book, I did indeed read it as being a story about The System… but, this time, I’m trying to read it as a story about the folks stuck in it.
After the cut, we’ll have a listing of the chapter titles (and the differences between the red and black versions, if any) and a handful of scenes, phrases, thoughts that stick out for me.
You, yes you! What did you think? What scenes, phrases, thoughts stuck out for you? (What did you think of Chapter Two, those of you who read the black version?)
(I’ll list the black chapters first, and the red chapter titles in parenthesis after, if there’s any change.)
- Torpedo (And Who Are You?)
- A Miscue (this chapter was not included in the expurgated version)
- Sharashka (Dante’s Idea)
- A Protestant Christmas
- A Peaceful Existence
- A Woman’s Heart
- “Oh, Moment, Stay!”
- The Fifth Year in Harness
- The Rosicrucians
- The Enchanted Castle
- Number Seven
- He Should Have Lied
- The Blue Light
- A Girl! A Girl! (Every Man Needs a Girl!)
- A Troika of Liars (The Troika of Liars)
Little moments that stuck with me. In chapter one, we see where it gets its new title from when State Counselor Grade Two Innokenty Volodin changes how he imagines himself… no longer as a canoe to be sucked under the battleship that is the Great Lubyanka but a torpedo deliberately propelling towards it.
Chapter Two, if you’re reading the red version, is the chapter in which we watch the two poor schmoes in charge of listening to every single phone call that goes into the American Embassy. After a description of the doorways upon which “Authorized People Only” is emblazoned and the dull, lifeless hallways that are much less interesting than the sign promises, we see the schlubs in charge of listening to conversations about groceries intercept, and kinda mess up intercepting, Volodin’s phone call. The thing that grabbed me was that eavesdropper number one knew that eavesdropper number two had been told to keep an eye on him. How? Because he had been told to keep an eye on eavesdropper number two.
Chapter Three, Sharashka (Dante’s Idea), has the oldtimers meeting the fresh fish as they enter the camp the first time. Everybody wants to know what camps the new guys might have been transferred from and the exchange that made me chuckle was after a listing of names (Ozerlag, Luglag, Steplag, Kamyshlag), someone jokes about a frustrated poet in State Security who can’t write whole poems so just comes up with poetic names for new camps. This chapter is also the source of the (quite brilliant) line that opens this post.
Chapter Four, A Protestant Christmas, introduces us to Lev Rubin (a Jew and a Communist) who worked psyops against Germany and who found himself with a strange (indeed, illegal) affection for the people who he was once charged with converting to Communism… to the point where he spent Christmas Eve with them. My favorite understatement from this chapter is “Yet he could not convince them that in our complicated age socialist truth sometimes forces its way forward by a tortuous path. All he could do was select for them, as he did for History (and, without realizing it, for himself), only those current events that confirmed that the high road had been adequately predicted, ignoring those that seemed likely to divert it into a quagmire.”
Chapter Five, Boogie-Woogie, showed a lovely scene where people could feel free, even in prison… and could even complain about not being allowed to feel free, even in prison.
Chapter Six, A Peaceful Existence, introduces us to Gleb Nerzhin, yet another someone who was honest enough to end up in prison.
Chapter Seven, A Woman’s Heart, gives us Serafima Vitalievna, “free personnel”. Free people have the right to work eight hours a day… this is because their work adds no value. It is the prisoners, who have the right to work twelve, that actually ended up doing stuff. (I also loved the piece of information that said that professors who handed out low marks got upbraided for doing so… which resulted in students who didn’t have to study to graduate.) There’s a lovely bit of play between the idea that Serafima is seeing through the indoctrination that these prisoners are the worst of the dregs of society and how this is attributed to her just wanting a husband.
Chapter Eight, “Oh, Moment, Stay!”, has its title taken from the punchline of Faust. A book, it’s pointed out, everyone says is a work of genius but no one has ever read. “But I am in love—and I am happy! What do you say to that?” “What did you say?” “What can anybody say?”
Chapter Nine, The Fifth Year in Harness, is a brilliant exploration of the idea that, yep, you can be happy anywhere. “A prisoner five years between the shafts never hurries. He knows that what comes next can only be worse.”
Chapter Ten, The Rosicrucians, in this one, I was struck by the scene where two people who used to know each other happened to meet… but one was a prisoner. There was this strange dynamic where not only did they feel they had to pretend to have never met before, but they had this strange shrugging sensation between them as if they knew that it was perfectly capricious that one was a resident and one was just visiting.
Chapter Eleven, The Enchanted Castle, we meet one of the people that demonstrates how capricious the ordering actually is… a prisoner who got thrown in jail because Stalin (The Boss) was irritated by static when he was using the phone. The authorities found themselves wondering if they should have a trial for the person who was in charge of communications when Stalin yelled “who’s in charge of communications? Get rid of him!”
Chapter Twelve, Number Seven, there was a great little discussion about how nobody really knew, really, about much of anything when it came to what they were doing, so everybody agreed with each other and this consensus became what everyone knew. (As an aside, this chapter provides a *MAGNIFICENT* example of how to BS your way through an engineering talk.)
Chapter Thirteen, He Should Have Lied, we see one of the millions of little tragedies of this system. You can’t tell the truth to anybody. You can’t be friends with anybody. You can do stuff with them, but you have to lie about it first. (There’s also a bit of “The Past Is Another Country” going on with regards to the gender relations.)
Chapter Fourteen, The Blue Light, this is one of those lovely little chapters composed of little more than snippets of conversation, when it doesn’t matter who says what, where people bicker and discuss and philosophize and it reminds you that roommates are roommates. I was reminded of similar conversations in college.
Chapter Fifteen, A Girl! A Girl! (Every Man Needs a Girl!), has one of the great monologues in the book, given by Ruska (page 77, for the readers of the black; page 67, for readers of the red) the monologue on history… to be rebutted by Gleb with a simple affirmation of Truth. I think that Gleb’s little speech there comes straight from What Solzhenitsyn Really Thinks. Oh, and it ends with an absolute car wreck of a revelation. You spend the chapter feeling good and then encounter the conversation about who Ruska’s girl is. (Record scratching zurrrrrrurp) WHAT???
Chapter Sixteen, A Troika of Liars (The Troika of Liars), gives us insight into the crap that even the leaders have to put up with. The Zeks have it bad, but it’s a particular kind of bad. Management has a different kind of bad… but, hidden in the lies that everyone is throwing at each other, I recognized the good, old schedule slipping argument with the “why didn’t you give me a more accurate Level Of Effort estimate?” recrimination.
(For next week, we’re going to read Chapter 17, Hot Water (Chapter 16, No Hot Water for Tea) through Chapter 32, On the Path to a Million (Chapter 29, Soaring to the Ceiling). Chapter 23, Language as an Instrument for Production and Chapter 27, A Bit of Methodology are the two chapters that appear in the black version that don’t appear in the red.)
Anyway, what did you think? What did you like? What surprised you? What made you chuckle despite yourself?