Alexander Solzhenitsyn

By D. M. Thomas

Biography, according to English novelist D. M. Thomas, is an “impossible art.” I agree.

Of course, that has not stopped anyone from trying.

Literary biographies, overlong and unnecessary, have become the academic pulp of the book world. Given the polluted environment, Thomas deserves some praise for this latest tome. His arrangement of material is skilful, his observations are generally astute, and his decision to focus on Solzhenitsyn’s world rather than his work is a wise one. (How many people actually finished The Gulag Archipelago? Be honest.)

Unfortunately, all of the sins of the modern biography are here as well, beginning with the hefty weight. Anyone who ever met Solzhenitsyn gets an honorable mention. And the trivia! Is it really true that Solzhenitsyn’s aunt was a neighbour of Yuri Andropov’s mother? Now I know.

The novelist’s style, usually sharp, can’t always handle this critical mass. Ellipsis dots, especially at the end of a paragraph, are used far too often – hinting at a rush job or lack of proof-reading. And what are we to make of filler like this: “If Sanya’s sense of truth was like a laser beam, Natasha’s was like moonlight on a stormy night.” If Thomas had been this uninspired while writing The White Hotel he might have won the Booker Prize.

Finally, there is the matter of Solzhenitsyn himself. Despite all of the persecution he has endured, “Sanya” is not a very sympathetic figure. Thomas’s portrait, though admiring, also describes him as being arrogant, self-centered, and (reaching for Freud) “anal.” The most severe criticism, however, is saved for the great man’s appalling treatment of his first wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya. It is hard not to see her as the real hero of the book.

Like most unauthorized biographies, A Century In His Life is both compromised and controversial. The first blow came when Solzhenitsyn refused to be interviewed. Later, he attempted to have the book suppressed, apparently because Thomas had interviewed his first wife and planned to use pictures she had given him. This, in turn, led Thomas and his editors to charge the Voice of Freedom with censorship.

Whatever is behind all of this, the loss of Solzhenitsyn’s input is real. There are two sides to every story and, as Thomas admits, we do not have Sanya’s version of what happened. What we have is Natalya’s story, “and she was not above putting a favourable gloss on her own behaviour.”

Thomas believes that when history has done with the political debate over Solzhenitsyn, he will continue to be remembered for his art. If the ’90s are any indication, he still has a long way to go. Upon his return from exile, “Russia’s conscience” quickly became the Old Bore – his politics irrelevant and out of touch, and his television talk show cancelled when it was discovered that people were more interested in pop videos, soap operas, and porn than harangues from a cranky Old Believer.

But what draws Thomas to his subject is the fact that, for a time, Solzhenitsyn wrote within a culture that still saw writing as important. He was a private man with a truly public voice. “In terms of the effect he has had on history,” one observer remarks, “Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of this century.” His writing put the lie to Auden’s famous line: It made things happen.

Even though Solzhenitsyn is still alive, the tone of elegy that fills the final chapter is entirely correct. Writing is not that important today, and never will be again.

Review first published March 21, 1998. The White Hotel, by the way, is a good book.


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