In the First Circle

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

fiction Literary
dark tense medium-paced

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The First Circle of Dante's Hell - where the souls of the pre-Christian philosophers are doomed to exist throughout eternity - stands in this novel as a metaphor for certain penal institutions of Stalin's Russia.

Set in Moscow during a three-day period in December 1949, In the First Circle is the story of the prisoner Gleb Nerzhin, a brilliant mathematician. At the age of thirty-one, Nerzhin has, like the author, survived the war years on the German front and the post-war years in a succession of Russian prisons and labor camps. His story is interwoven with the stories of a dozen fellow prisoners - each an unforgettable human being - from the prison janitor to the tormented Marxist intellectual who designed the Dnieper dam; of the reigning elite and their conflicted subordinates; and of the women, wretched or privileged, bound to these men. As we follow Nerzhin's fortunes, we become familiar with the inner paths of an entire society - one vast Inferno - and the diverse ways in which different men and women managed, or failed, to live within it.

While Solzhenitsyn portrays the exercise of moral and political authority at all levels of the hierarchy (even devoting a few chapters to a portrait of a failing Stalin), the novel's principal setting is a special prison where inmates conduct scientific research. Through his treatment of the prisoners, the secret police, and the non-prisoner Muscovites trying to lead honest lives during this difficult period, Solzhenitsyn explores the problems of complicity and conscience, ends and means.

Included are many reflections on Soviet history of the sort Solzhenitsyn expanded in The Gulag Archipelago. In 1962 the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich brought Solzhenitsyn international fame. Two years later, In the First Circle was accepted for publication in a Soviet journal. Its publication was blocked, however, by Soviet authorities; ultimately the manuscript was smuggled abroad and published (with many essential scenes - including nine full chapters - cut or altered) in translation in 1968.

Now with the help of the author's most trusted translator, Harry T. Willetts, here for the first time is the complete, definitive English edition of Solzhenitsyn's powerful and magnificent classic.

A landmark of Soviet literature, In the First Circle is as powerful today as when it was first published.

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