1966, 1968, Books, Fiction

Cancer Ward (1966, 1968) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I have no idea why it took me so long to finish this one. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, but something about it turned into a slog for me. (It also happened that I was listening to podcasts when I supposed to be reading, which was a problem.) Anyway, the time it took me to finish this shouldn’t be seen as a comment on the quality of the novel.

I love how Solzhenitsyn introduces us to the titular cancer ward, how we’re brought into this world through the least sympathetic major character, but who is presented as sympathetic – as the protagonist! This is a brilliant trick, and a great way of humanizing someone who many likely think shouldn’t be humanized. (This is likely part of Solzhenitsyn’s greater point about people, as well.)

And this serves as a rather thorough portrait of the Soviet Union at a particular time, particularly of the exile system, which I personally knew nothing about. As such, it’s a valuable time capsule in addition to being a compelling human drama.

And I like how he reserves his most obvious obligatory Russian philosophizing until near the end of the novel. That stuff is really boring when it’s about what kind of socialism is the good kind, so I appreciate that the big rant about how he thinks Russian socialism should go comes after the reader cares about all the characters.

The book has dated, though, particularly in its depiction of men and women and how they interact and, given that this was written for not just a Russian audience but a Soviet Russian audience, you might find it lacking in context.

Still, very well done, very compelling – even heart-wrenching – and at times quite funny. Well worth your time.


  • Author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  • Original title: Ра́ковый ко́рпус
  • Translator: Nicholas Bethell, 4th Baron Bethell, David Burg
  • First published in 1966 in Russia in samizdat, then in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, also in Russian, as Rakovy Korpus (“Cancer Ward”)
  • Language: Russian
  • Genre: Semi-autobiographical novel, political fiction
  • Published in English: The Bodley Head, UK (1968), Dial Press, US (1968)
  • Media type: Print (hardback & paperback)
  • Pages: 446
  • ISBN: 0-394-60499-7
  • OCLC: 9576626
  • Dewey Decimal: 891.73/44 19
  • LC Class: PG3488.O4 R313

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