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The problem with Solzhenitsyn

Not entirely in the festive spirit, I’ve been reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Invisible Allies (trans. Alexis Klimoff and Michael Nicholson; London: Harvill, 1997) with my usual set of mixed feelings. He’s not the greatest writer the world has ever seen, but he is very readable. Last time I read The Gulag Archipelago in full, I couldn’t put it down. I love The First Circle as well, and find some of his short stories very moving and surprisingly subtle. Unlike some people, I think it was right that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and not just on the grounds that plenty of other duff writers have won it as well. He was incredibly important in the sixties and seventies, with the sort of moral and political stature that very few writers achieve, and he was very widely known and read — many houses (including my own when I was growing up) where there was no interest in Russian literature or politics nevertheless had copies of Solzhenitsyn’s works on their bookshelves. Although many other people wrote about the Gulag and had books published outside the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn was the one who made the real difference, and is the one that everyone remembers.

Invisible Allies is an account of the many people who helped and supported Solzhenitsyn in his literary enterprises prior to his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974. The descriptions of these remarkable, courageous, selfless people, the dangers they faced and risks they took, are inspiring and humbling. I particularly enjoyed the portrait of Natalya Stolyarova, not least because of the happy discovery that Shalamov also has a story about her (and her famous mother), ‘The Gold Medal’. Overall, it’s a fascinating insight into what life was like for the intelligentsia at that time, and how people responded to the situation they faced, and it gives a very strong impression that adversity does bring out the best in some people. At the same time, one never ceases to be amazed by Solzhenitsyn’s drive, his extraordinary work-rate and almost superhuman commitment to completing his works.

And yet… he made himself ultimately unreadable by virtue of the sheer volume of work he produced. I enjoyed August 1914 and Lenin in Zurich, but I’ve not even contemplated reading the other ‘knots’ of The Red Wheel that he completed. There’s something maniacal about writing at that sort of length (and I say that as a Dostoevsky lover!), but that’s not really the problem. Neither, strangely, are the dubious, at times repellent, views he espoused — I tend to view such things as an occupational hazard of involvement with Russian literature (again, look at Dostoevsky) — though Solzhenitsyn’s inability to recognize that he is antisemitic, for example, is on occasion quite remarkable. On p. 167 of Invisible Allies, he rejects Lev Kopelev’s charge of antisemitism out of hand, but we have just read (on p. 164): ‘the fact that I did, nevertheless, manage to get inside [the Tauride Palace] during the spring of 1972 — I , a Russian writer entering a Russian historic building in a land ruled by allegedly Russian leaders — was entirely due to the daring and ingenuity of two Russian Jews’. Enough said.

No, the problem isn’t his views as much as his personality, which, when dealing with a writer, ought not to matter — and it doesn’t, for example, with Dostoevsky, because however unpleasant I suspect he may have been as a human being, his narrative voices are so far away from his own character that ‘Dostoevsky the man’ can be disregarded, and this is even the case in his most autobiographical work, Notes from the House of the Dead. The same is not true of Solzhenitsyn, who is overwhelmingly present in everything he writes. Sometimes that works fine — it suits the rhetorical tone of The Gulag Archipelago very well — but elsewhere it becomes very problematic, particularly in his memoirs, where even as he describes the process of writing, it becomes increasingly clear that the man is more important than the texts. His belief in his own role in historical destiny is so overpowering that even the works that will fulfil that destiny seem secondary. His views, and his actions, are paramount: no contradiction is possible, and other people (even when he is supposed to be celebrating them) can only appear in supporting roles. His lack of humility and sense of proportion are on occasion hard to take — as when he calmly reports Chukovsky’s comparison of him with Tolstoy (p. 101) — and there’s an absence of self-reflection which sits uneasily with his readiness to criticize others (although at times this is cause for amusement, as when he accuses Kopelev of verbosity, p. 169). The cause may have been a great one, and Solzhenitsyn may have done more than anyone else to advance it, but when reading his personal reflections on this time, it all begins to look like an extension of his egomania.

It may well be that Solzhenitsyn’s remarkable single-mindedness was necessary in that situation, that it needed someone with his qualities to produce the works he produced and have the impact he undeniably had. So perhaps it was inevitable that we would eventually also be exposed to the other, less productive consequences of that mindset, and that he would ultimately antagonize so many people — readers and acquaintances alike. In their 2008 book The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn, Klimoff and Ericson try to portray the author as misunderstood, the innocent party in all the disputes in which he became involved, but it just doesn’t wash. No doubt there were aspects of his personality that were simply uncongenial to ‘Western’ sensibilities, and there was also a strong element of the sort of in-fighting that seems quite common in émigré communities. However, it is quite apparent that the very qualities which made him such a thorn in the side of the Soviet regime, and brought the crimes of the Stalin era to world-wide attention, were also responsible for his ambivalent reputation in later years.

I still think his death rated more attention than it received, though. It wasn’t even mentioned on Newsnight

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