THE OAK AND THE CALF by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


Sketches Of Literary Life In The Soviet Union: A Memoir
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Written in installments respectively dated 1967, 1971, 1973, and 1974, these memoirs begin with the critical and official "acceptance" of One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich and end with Solzheintsyn on a plane headed for West Germany, expelled. All of it is set "an octave high," to the key of never-believe-them-for-even-a-minute; and it is absolutely abrim with specifics: dates, circumstances, documents, and dialogue--qualities not surprising in an ex-zek (campprisoner) whose earliest works had to be committed to memory in full. In a Western context, the watchfulness Solzhenitsyn exhibits could even be thought of as selfish, obstinate, calculating. Khrushchev, his champion, is toppled: Solzhenitsyn admits to a certain relief--gratitude can lead to self-censorship. After the arrest of Sinyavsky and Daniel in 1965 and the theft of the manuscript of The First Circle from the magazine Now Mir's safe, Solzhenitsyn consciously goes on the offensive; the ensuing protests, statements, the decision not to go to Stockholm for the Nobel lest the government lock the door behind him--it all seems like something out of Von Clausewitz. And his readiness to score trimmers like Shostakovich, to condemn outright dissidents like the Medvedev brothers, even Sakharov, as intellectually dishonest--there is a certain tone of episcopal hauteur and dictator-ishness in this that's hard to ignore. Yet the "literary life" Solzhenitsyn lived was one he realized from the beginning had to be strategic, given the history of modern Russian letters; and nowhere in the book is this knowledge more forcefully brought home than in its most oddly "human" pages: a portrait of Alexsandr Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir, alcoholic, frightened yet almost hypnotizedly brave, testing, retreating, keeping faith in his "discovery": Solzhenitsyn. Reading the manuscript of Cancer Ward ("You are a terrible man. If I ever came to power, I'd put you away"), Tvardovsky gets blind drunk, asks Solzhenitsyn to rehearse with him his (Tvardovsky's) interview with the KGB that's sure to come if he publishes this. He's a massive, ambiguous, tragic character--and all of Solzhenitsyn's Russian-novelist skills go effortlessly into his depiction. Tvardovsky's pathetic end--removed as editor of Novy Mir, the magazine shut down, a stroke, death--fully justifies the tetchy temple of facts Solzhenitsyn has erected here perhaps as a kind of memorial to him. Unsettling, but compelling.
Pub Date: May 7th, 1980
ISBN: 0002721589
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Harper & Row
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1980


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