One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

August 23, 2011 at 19:29 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, War and Politics) (, , , )


This book starts off fairly drearily (though not extremely dull), and for much of the first half feels unpleasantly like a lecture about “how people lived in the olden days”. Long on intricate detail, long on grubby minutiae, very short on appealing characters or anything in the way of a crisis-driven plot. Inertiatic and dour, and as grindingly static for the reader as for the poor prisoners. Of course this sort of thing has its benefits (and the historian reader will find it very informative) but it is as cold and aloof as a diorama in a musty museum.

This improves to a degree towards the early afternoon of Ivan’s day, when the Captain (and later Caesar) is provided as an interesting and vivid character: a bright spot made all the more effervescent by the staid landscape. Perhaps one way to describe this book is to compare it to a dark and brooding oil painting still-life that hangs as forbiddingly as a photograph in the corner of a gallery–with subtle additions and subversions dabbed in with a careful brush in the background, that brings the whole thing to life for the man patient enough to spend a minute or two in looking.

“Spitting the bones out on the floor was thought bad manners.”

-One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisivich

Solzhenitsyn is a careful student of the human condition, and if this book is a portrait of terrifying realism, then it is also an intricate study of the best and worst of man: and more importantly, of several shades in between: the capriciousness of Caesar that gives way suddenly to helpless weakness and panic, for instance. Or the fragile structures of power and impotence that fluctuates and changes depending on the precise arrangements of inmates in any given situation. For such a short book, this amount of depth is surprising, especially as Solzhenitsyn actually succeeds in painting a very informative (if stagnant) picture of the Gulag in the process. At this sort of length, no reader who dips into these pages will be wasting his time.



  1. maisiep said,

    I’ve always felt that Solzhenitsyn is one of those authors I should read, but don’t really want to. I made a start on Gulag Archipelago some years ago and it sits 1/4 read on my bookshelf now. Perhaps I’ll try One Day In the Life…instead, if it’s shorter I may at least finish it!

  2. J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

    I certainly know what you mean! My own dust magnet is Josephus. I swear I’ll finish him one day. With Ivan Denisovich, I was expecting Anne Frank’s Diary, and found something much more vivid and considerably less gloomy. It’s not thrilling, but it is well worth a few hours.

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