‘The First Circle’ was completed in 1964 and so angered Soviet officials that at one point, the KGB seized the manuscript.
NEW YORK — An uncut edition of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle,” a highly praised and controversial novel published 40 years ago and heavily edited because of its story of a Soviet prison camp, is finally coming out in English.
“‘The First Circle’ is one of the most important novels of the 20th century and we are thrilled to be making this masterpiece available in its full glory,” Carrie Kania, senior vice president and publisher of Harper Perennial, said in a recent statement.
Harper Perennial, a paperback imprint of HarperCollins, will release “The First Circle” in 2009. The 89-year-old Solzhenitsyn, winner in 1970 of the Nobel Prize for literature, returned to his homeland in the 1990s after two decades in exile and now lives in Moscow.
The novel, completed in 1964 and banned by Soviet officials even after Solzhenitsyn cut nine chapters, is set in a gulag where scientists and scholars have been sent for alleged subversion against the Stalinist regime. A shortened, 580-page version of “The First Circle” came out in English in 1968 — the text had mysteriously been leaked out of the Soviet Union — despite objections by the author, who believed his work was being exploited for profit, and by scholars who feared that the book’s release could jeopardize his safety.
Solzhenitsyn’s struggles — at one point, the manuscript of his novel was seized by the KGB — set off an extended Cold War debate and assured “The First Circle” a welcome reception in the United States. The Book-of-the-Month Club made it a featured selection and the announced first printing was 200,000.
New York Times reviewer Thomas Lask called the book “at once classic and contemporary. Reading it, we know that it has been with us for years, just as we know future generations will read it with wonder and with awe.”
The full edition has long been available in Russian; mortality, not censorship, helped delay its U.S. release.
According to Harper Perennial editor Peter Hubbard, Solzhenitsyn approved a new English text a few years ago and commissioned his favorite translator, Harry T. Willetts, who had worked on Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago.” But Willetts died in 2005, not long after completing the translation, and the publisher “went through some edits with Solzhenitsyn. It took a little time for the book to make its way to us,” Hubbard told The Associated Press.
Imprisoned in his 20s for alleged anti-Soviet crimes, Solzhenitsyn became famous worldwide in 1962 with “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” a short novel set in a Siberian labor camp and at the time a shockingly blunt attack against the Soviet system. Then-Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev personally approved the book’s release, but he was ousted in 1964, censorship tightened, and Solzhenitsyn’s work was suppressed for years.