ALEXSANDR SOLZHENITSYN'S reputation rests on several distinct yet interrelated literary genres: fiction, historical chronicle (e.g., the monumental Gulag Archipelago ) and what the Russians call publitsistika, that is, political writing -- in his case (as in that of many 19th-century Russian authors), writing designed to uplift and instruct. With the publication of The Oak and the Calf, Solzhenitsyn lays claim to yet another realm -- that of autobiography. In the hands of a superior craftsman, a memoir -- whether cast in the form of an apologia pro vita sua or of a straightforward narrative -- can easily be-person who -- to paraphrase Karl Marx -- wishes not only to understand the world but to change it, an autobiography is apt to present us not only with revealing glimpses into the genesis of his views, his intimate feelings and personal traits, but with the ultimate test of his intellectual moral stature.
Since Solzhenitsyn clearly possesses both literary credentials and a sense of mission, it is not surprising to find his book absorbing and significant. An updated version of the Russian orginal written in the late 1960s and published in 1975, The Oak and the Calf starts in 1960, four years after Solzhenitsyn regained his freedom, and ends with the author's expulsion from the Soviet Union in March 1974. In 1961 Solzhenitsyn finally decided to emerge from his "literary underground" and (not without trepidation) to submit the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to Aleksandr Tvardovsky, editor of the monthly journal Novi Mir (New World). It was a step fraught with dire consequences, even under the relatively "liberal" regin of Nikita Khrushchev; yet if there was one magazine that could conceivably publish this haunting, restrained yet devastating expose of Stalinist "labor camps," it was indeed Novi Mir, which by the mid-1950s had established a solid reputation for decency, moral and political courage and for generally impeccable artistic standards.
Tvardovsky was himself an excellent poet, a superbly discerning critic and an archetypal representative of what might be called the "loyal opposition" in the U.S.S.R. Of peasant origin, he saw his own parents killed during the frightful collectivizations of the early 1930s, and had clearly no illusions either about the nature of the Stalin "cult" or about those who viewed its destruction as a dangerous assault on the moorings of the Soviet system and on their own entrenched positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy. Nevertheless, Tvardovsky retained his faith in the essentially "noble" principles of Marxism-Leninism, hoping against hope that the Soviet system would succeed in "purifying" itself -- a task in which his beloved journal, as he saw it, would play a crucial role. When Solzhenitsyn's manuscript reached him, he sat up all night reading and rereading it, realizing with the force of revelation that he had discovered a magnificent literary talent. His mind was made up: The story must be published, and its author must join the ranks of Novi Mir's contributors.
Yet such are the vagaries of Soviet literary politics that even so prestigious figure as Tvardovsky, writer, editor, member of the Party's Central Committee and of the country's highest "legislative" body, the Supreme Soviet, a man accustomed to traveling in Moscow in a chauffeured limousine and spending a good part of his life on official missions to Western European countries, had to wait two years for his decision to be put into effect. Indeed, it was only Khrushchev's personal imprimatur -- and that of the entire Politburo -- that made it possible for the story to see the light of day.
The bizarre events leading to the publication of Ivan Denisovich are described by Solzhenitsyn in minute and fascinating detail. Even more fascinating are the many pages devoted to Tvardovsky. What emerges from them is a portrait of a tragic figure, a victim as much of his own faith as of a system which saw loyalty as merely the adherence to the current political line. In the two years that followed the publication of Ivan Denisovich, Tvardovsky (whose love-hatred relationship with Solzhenitsyn survived his humiliating dismissal from Novi Mir in 1970 and continued until his death a year later) mangaged to publish three of Solzhenitsyn's stories. But already by 1963 the clouds began to gather over Solzhenitsyn's head. The Stalinist hacks who still dominated the official literary establishment found Solzhenitsyn's determination to illuminate the horrors of Stalinism intolerable. The campagin they launched against him, muted at first, gathered momentum after Khrushchev's downfall in October 1964. Malicious innuendoes gave way to outright calumnies and finally to strident charges of "treason." Solzhenitsyn fought back: In 1967 he demanded a formal end to censorship and the right to have his novels (by that time he had written The First Circle and Cancer Ward ) published in the Soviet Union. When his demands were rejected, he arranged to have his works published abroad. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, and prevented from accepting it in Stockholm and (with the shabby cooperation of the Swedish government) in Moscow as well. Soon thereafter came the publication of the first volume of Gulag in the West. With that the die was cast. Since by that time Solzhenitsyn was protected by his immense international reputation, expulsion became -- for the authorities -- the only viable alternative.
So much for the bare outline of the story -- which, needless to say, hardly does justice to the caustic personal portraits and vivid depictions in which the book abounds, the colorful episodes and the pulsating pace of the narrative -- all admirably translated by Harry Willetts. But what -- to come back to the questions posed at the beginning of this review -- of the author himself? What manner of man is he? There is no gainsaying his phenomenal courage, of course, his fortitude sustained by a remarkable faith in himself and his cause (perhaps "mission" would be more accurate). Yet this very quality also has its obverse side: conceit, arrogance, a lack of generosity in appraising those who could not or would not share his maximalist views. It is as hard not to admire the author of The Oak and the Calf as it is not to be appalled by qualities so at variance with his calls for moral "repentance." Even his generally compassionate sketch of his benefactor, Tvardovsky, often reeks of acid. Valery Chalidze, a distinguished dissident and associate of Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel prize-winner and physicist, is described as a schemer addicted to "prevarications." Sakharov himself, for whom Solzhenitsyn retains a certain grudging admiration, is scorned for his "hopelessness" and lack of sagacity. The geneticist Zhores Medvedev, once a friend of Solzhenitsyn and author of a fair-minded if slightly anemic book 10 Years After Ivan Denisovich, is described as the author of a "book useful for its author but of no use to its readers." A British friend of this reviewer, Gerald Brooke, who as a young man spent five years in a Soviet labor camp as a victim of a KGB frame-up, is contemptuously dismissed as "faint-hearted," and in the glossary compiled by one of Solzhenitsyn's ardent admirers, Alexis Klimoff, described (maliciously and misleadingly) as having "cooperated with the prosecution." And why, one wonders, does Solzhenitsyn accept so readily the rumor (never confirmed) that the KGB provocateur Victor Louis is Jewish, his real name presumably Vitaly Levin? How is that different from the attempt by Solzhenitsyn's detractors to refer to him as "Solzhenitser" or "Solzhenitsker," thus reviving, in his own words, "the racial . . . or more precisely the Jewish line?"
Even more dismaying than Solzhenitsyn's personal characteristics are his political convictions and opinions, more worthy of a crude pamphleteer than of a responsible thinker. Those who have wondered whether Solzhenitsyn's increasngly strident and simple-minded views on the nature of Russia, communism and the West -- most recently expressed in the pages of Foreign Affairs (and excerpted in the pages of this newspaper) -- represent perhaps some kind of an aberration, need wonder no longer: They are all expressed, in one form or another, in this memoir -- the West is impotent, deprived of both "will and reason," and "practically on its knees" before the Soviet juggernaut; Western intellectuals (no distinctions drawn) are gripped by a "progressive" ideology which blinds them to the evils of communism; "atheism is the core of the Communist system"; communists -- whether in Italy or in the Soviet Union -- are all cut from the same cloth, and "liberals" and "social democrats" (many of whom, as the book so plainly demonstrates, came to his support in his most dire moments) are not much better.
The clue to the apparent contradiction between the "early" and "present" Solzhenitsyn is provided by the author himself. In a remarkable passage, Solzhenitsyn admits that in his "first works I was concealing my features from the police censorship -- but by the same token, from the public at large. With each subsequent step I inevitably revealed more and more about myself." He knew that he would "inevitably lose [his] contemporaries," yet by so doing he was equally confident of "winning posterity." Many of Solzhenitsyn's splendid works -- including pages of The Oak and the Calf -- have no doubt already won him a place in the eyes of posterity. Yet it is sad to contemplate that if he indeed goes on to reveal "more and more" about himself, he stands not only to lose an increasing number of his contemporaries, but to win a more paltry verdict from posterity as well. CAPTION: Picture, no caption; Illustration, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, By David Levine, reprinted with permission from "The New York Review." Copyright (c) 1972, NYREV, Inc.