Someone asked me whether I thought Alexander Solzhenitsyn was any good as a writer. I replied as follows:
In my opinion, definitely second-rate: sentimental, addled with cliches, unimaginative, sarcastic, etc. I have sat around talking about him with literate Russians (than whom no one on Earth is more literate). They agree.
They also agree with me that he was a great spirit who did a great thing. Just not a great writer.
The “base” Solzhenitsyn, with the faults most muted, is in The First Circle. Most over-the-top: The Oak and the Calf. I haven’t read his Jews book though.
Literarily, any one of Varlam Shalamov’s short stories is worth everything S. ever wrote.
That was off-the-cuff, but I’ll stand by the assertion that while Solzhenitsyn was of great historical importance, he was negligible as a writer. Like a Chinese dissident I wrote about on NRO back in 2002, Solzhenitsyn was a case of “the single talent well employed.” That’s not nothing. It is in fact a very great deal — far more than most of us can hope to have said about us when we’ve gone.