- Series: FSG Classics
- Paperback: 182 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (March 16, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374529523
- ISBN-13: 978-0374529529
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 628 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #392,271 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Novel (FSG Classics) Paperback – March 9, 2005
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“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich yields, more than anything else, a beautiful sense of its author as a Chekhovian figure: simple, free of literary affectation, wholly serious.” ―The New Republic
About the Author
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in 1918. In February 1945, while he was captain of a reconnaissance battery of the Soviet Army, he was arrested and sentenced to an eight-year term in a labor camp and permanent internal exile, which was cut short by Khrushchev's reforms, allowing him to return from Kazakhstan to Central Russia in 1956. Although permitted to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962―which remained his only full-length work to have appeared in his homeland until 1990―Solzhenitsyn was by 1969 expelled from the Writers' Union. The publication in the West of his other novels and, in particular, of The Gulag Archipelago, brought retaliation from the authorities. In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and forcibly flown to Frankfurt. Solzhenitsyn and his wife and children moved to the United States in 1976. In September 1991, the Soviet government dismissed treason charges against him; Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994. He died in Moscow in 2008.
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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?
This 741-page novel covers four days (Dec. 24-27, 1949) in a sharashka in Moscow known as Marfino -- 300 prisoners and 50 guards. The novel begins with a Soviet diplomat making an anonymous phone call to the American embassy to alert it of Soviet espionage focused on the atomic bomb. The embassy's phones are bugged and the phone call is recorded, but the Soviet security service doesn't know who the caller was. So inmate engineers and scientists at the Marfino sharashka are assigned the task of identifying the traitor, as quickly as possible.
In the novel, Solzhenitsyn adds considerable depth and detail to the portrayal of the life of zeks (Gulag inmates) furnished in "Ivan Denisovich". He also uses the book to deliver a scathing critique of the Soviet system -- its ideological absurdities, its bureaucratic infighting and inefficiencies, its dishonesty and hypocrisy, and its cruelty. To top it off, the novel contains a devastatingly mocking and chilling portrait of Josef Stalin (see Chapters 19-23). Solzhenitsyn realized that as originally written, the novel was far too critical of the Soviet Union for it to see the light of day (this was in the mid-60's), so he "self-censored" it, excising nine chapters altogether and revising, or softening, those details sure to be most offensive to Soviet sensibilities. That self-censored version was published in 1968 under the English title "The First Circle", but even as expurgated it was not deemed fit for publication within the Soviet Union (and, indeed, that expurgated version contributed to the decision to expel Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Union in 1974).
This is the original, unexpurgated novel, in a form that Solzhenitsyn continued to tweak and revise. It has been brilliantly translated by Harry T. Willetts, who worked closely with Solzhenitsyn. Distinguishing it from the truncated version is the initial word "in" in the title. IN THE FIRST CIRCLE is the best Russian novel from the twentieth century that I have so far encountered in my ongoing survey of Russian literature in translation. It is a masterpiece.
Though nominally covering only four days in late 1949, the novel contains the back stories of dozens of characters, stretching back to the days of the Bolshevik Revolution. It is superbly plotted. Its characterizations of about two dozen zeks (and their wives) are sensitive and endearing. In addition to the penetrating critique of the Soviet system and the detailed portrayal of the Gulag, the novel also contains many perceptive observations about human beings in general. It is rich in historical detail. And, in the best tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, it is rich in its exploration of moral and philosophical matters.
For the title to this review, I have appropriated lines relating to the diplomat who made the anonymous phone call to the American embassy that triggered the four days of the novel. Heretofore, he had conducted himself according to the law that "we are given only one life", and thus he married well, accumulated the nicest material objects available on his side of the Iron Curtain, and even travelled abroad. He is soon to be posted to New York as part of the Soviet Union's delegation to the United Nations. But he has a spiritual and moral crisis of sorts, as a result of which he becomes aware of another law -- "that we are given only one conscience, too." "A life laid down cannot be reclaimed, nor can a ruined conscience." That's just one of the moral/philosophical conundrums Solzhenitsyn explores in this great novel.
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