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Alexander Solzhenitsyn
A Century in His Life
By D.M. Thomas
St. Martin's. 583 pp. $29.95

Reviewed by Josephine Woll
Sunday, March 1, 1998; Page X04

  Book Reviews
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D.M. Thomas, prominent poet and novelist, has a longstanding interest in Russia. His early, controversial novel The White Hotel grew out of Anatoly Kuznetsov's impassioned fictional account of the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar near Kiev. He has translated Russian poetry, and he loops together five of his novels under the title "Russian Nights Quintet."

All the less reason, then, for him to undertake this biography. He knew the pitfalls. Solzhenitsyn's work is so patently autobiographical that a biographer has only two justifications for his own work. One is to dig up information unknown to his reader; the other is to delve deep psychologically, offering insights of which Solzhenitsyn himself and earlier biographers are incapable. Thomas does very little of the first, and absolutely none of the second.

The KGB files on Solzhenitsyn, accessible only in the last few years, do provide a few tidbits. From 1961 until his exile in 1974, Solzhenitsyn dominated Soviet intellectual life more than any other writer. His early fiction, especially One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, overwhelmed Russian readers, and although the authorities denied him the Lenin Prize he so patently deserved, they acknowledged his importance with the dubious compliment of virtually nonstop attention.

The files contain nothing that significantly alters our understanding of Solzhenitsyn's treatment by the regime, but KGB memoranda exert their own awful fascination. Most are predictable, with their rote insults and ruthless strategies; a few demonstrate surprisingly astute perceptions, salutary reminders that the upper echelons of the Soviet hierarchy were not as monolithic as we once thought.

These archives were collected and published two years ago as The Solzhenitsyn Files (edited by Michael Scammell). They are not Thomas's find, but he makes good use of them. The same cannot be said of his other sources. Three are central: Solzhenitsyn's body of published work (he ignored two requests for interviews); the memoirs and memories of his first wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya; and Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, the "monumental" work (Thomas's adjective) that Scammell published 14 years ago.

Thomas was bound to mine these authoritative quarries, and duplication was unavoidable, though I prefer Solzhenitsyn's firsthand recounting of his experiences to Thomas's barely altered secondhand versions. The book's errors, however, were not inevitable. For instance, Thomas includes Khrushchev among those who, in Bertram Wolfe's classic though uncredited line, "died that most unnatural of deaths for an Old Bolshevik, a natural death." "Old Bolsheviks" designates those who were already members when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917; Khrushchev didn't get his party card until 1918. Elsewhere, Thomas takes Anna Akhmatova's bitter comment that Soviet readers lived in a "pre-Gutenberg" age as referring to the Stalin period, when in fact she was speaking of the resurrection of genuine Russian literature thanks to samizdat in the 1960s.

Most of Thomas's mistakes are not serious, but they exemplify his slapdash approach. What matters more, and what makes his book worse than a mere recycling of familiar facts, is his consistent simplification of complexity, his vulgarization of situations and feelings that merit subtlety, and his nearly unfailing choice of banal thought and images.

Let me illustrate. Solzhenitsyn and Reshetovskaya had a long and painful marriage, with many separations even after his time in the gulag ended. In 1956, Reshetovskaya was living in Ryazan with her second husband and two stepsons, and Solzhenitsyn was sharing a wooden house with the landlady he immortalized in the story "Matryona's House." Driven by desire, loneliness and an imperious egotism, Solzhenitsyn wrote to her encouraging a visit and, eventually, a renewal of their relationship. Thomas draws on Reshetovskaya's recollections of the visit:

"He caught his breath on seeing her step out of the train: she looked young again! Slimmer! Her whole face was aglow, as in their youth! . . . They felt, according to Natasha's account, inseparably close. Perhaps on this day they made love for the first time in twelve years; in any event they would celebrate this date as marking their reunion . . . She would make the last years of his life beautiful, ease his sufferings – or even give him the will to go on living." The cliches may be Reshetovskaya's, but Thomas borrows them wholesale, throwing in a few of his own exclamation points for soap-operatic emphasis.

Thomas relies on Scammell as much as he does on Solzhenitsyn and Reshetovskaya. Here the loss is not of detail – in a book hundreds of pages shorter than Scammell's, something had to go – but nuance. When dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Iulii Daniel were tried for antistate activity in February 1965, 63 writers signed a protest. Solzhenitsyn did not. He disapproved of Sinyavsky and Daniel's decision to send their fiction abroad; he also believed such protests pointless and a distraction from his own mission. Thomas hypothesizes that Solzhenitsyn felt alien to "this tribe of Moscow intellectuals . . . he saw himself as an outsider: in him ran the peasant blood of Semyon Solzhenitsyn and Zakhar Shcherbak [his grandfathers] – individualists who had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps." How superficial his comment compared with Scammell's:

"Behind this puritanical attitude [toward publication abroad] there seems to have stood a more purely emotional and less rational impulse . . . namely, his drive to act completely alone and his instinctive recoil from groups or factions of any description . . . At the same time, this battle was saved from sterile egoism because it was not simply for his own personal satisfaction but also on behalf of all those who had suffered unjustly and, as he saw it, of the entire Russian people . . . Signing letters on behalf of others . . . paled into insignificance in comparison with the overriding purpose of his life."

My point is not to praise Scammell at Thomas's expense but rather to wonder why D.M. Thomas, a writer of experience and skill, would produce a book that has no originality, no analysis, and no felicity of language to commend it. He tells us, in his prologue, that he thought "hard and long" about whether to accept the publisher's invitation to undertake this biography. Not, manifestly, hard and long enough.

Josephine Woll teaches Russian literature at Howard University and is currently completing a book on Soviet cinema 1954-1967.

   
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