SOLZHENITSYN: A Biography by Michael Seammell
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A gargantuan biography--1088 pages, about a living subject--and justifiable in its length no more than half the time. Scammell had Solzhenitsyn's cooperation only at the outset; this provided a single visit to Vermont and some little conversation reflected in epilogue-impressions of Solzhenitsyn's new domestic life in America. Otherwise, subject non-compliance may account for the great use of already published source material: books by Solzhenitsyn and others, newspaper accounts and such. Scammell does not seem to have done much personal interviewing--except, importantly, with Solzhenitsyn's first (and scorned) wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya. So the book has a slightly removed, thrashing air. The most compelling sections are the ones to which Solzhenitsyn, an essentially autobiographical writer, has not yet given much space himself: very early life--growing up in Rostov, fatherless, under the strong religious and intellectual influence of his aunt Irina--and the post-Ivan-Denisovich career, with its strategies, its fallings-out, its almost irresistible momentum towards schism and confrontation, not only with enemies but with allies. The early to late-middle of the biography sets out essentially what Solzhenitsyn has already processed into his own writing: being a soldier during WW II; arrest and imprisonment; the Gulag--and Solzhenitsyn's very canny, somewhat shameful (and self-admitted) survival-behavior there; cancer; teaching after release; the writing of Ivan Denisovich; Novy Mir, and Tvardovsky's sponsorship; the great fame, then the cooling of ardor by the state when Solzhenitsyn wants The First Circle and Cancer Ward published; the expulsion from the Writer's Union; the Nobel; the knife-edge walk between provocation and forced exile; the Slavophile sermonizing that fell so discomfortingly upon Western ears once Solzhenitsyn had been expelled. What Scammell has to offer about Solzhenitsyn as a man--Puritan, fanatically disciplined (a combined prisoner/jailer mentality), brilliantly strategic--has its most force as regards the marriage to Reshetovskaya: a pre-war bride; urged to divorce him by Solzhenitsyn while he was a zek; remarried (with stepchildren). . .then pleaded with to return, which she did;then abandoned at 50 for the second Natalia--Svetlova--and turning very possibly KGB helper in vindictive pain. But Scammell's essentially document-oriented process can barely give this domestic drama its truly dramatic shape--and all of Solzhenitsyn's life remains largely untouched by the biographer's increasingly critical tone. The Solzhenitsyn we see here stays magisterial, distant, tight-hauled--lacking either profound historical placement as a Slavophile genius or correlative situating as a writer of preeminent witness. Serviceable, then, as a factual resource; but the integration of life-and-work still remains to be done.

Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 1984
Publisher: Norton