Monday, 27 December 2010

Alexander Solzhenitsyn - A Century in His Life by DM Thomas

DM Thomas is best-known as a novelist and quite often he can't help adding novelistic flourishes to this large, densely-written biography.
But that works well in telling the story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn whose life often reads like an epic Russian novel.
He was an intelligent child who growing up in the USSR was an idealistic Marxist and fought courageously against the Nazis in the Second World War.
However, letters to a friend criticising Stalin were intercepted and he was taken from the German front and tried for treason, earning a ten-year prison sentence. Most of it served in Siberia.
He nearly died a number of times as he worked in the Arctic Circle where the temperature often fell to below minus-50.
On his release he was exiled to the Caucuses where he worked as a teacher but was diagnosed with cancer. He recovered but for several years thought he was living on borrowed time.
He remarried his wife, who had divorced him during his imprisonment, and began writing, producing within a relatively short period of time One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and Cancer Ward – all of them based on his own experiences and often featuring characters who were drawn from real-life people.
The Gulag Archipelago was a journalistic expose of the millions of people who were condemned to serve time and, more often than not, perish in the Gulags.
Stalin's death brought about a thaw in censorship (and mass executions of political dissidents) and One in Day in the Life... was published to huge critical, public and state acclaim, but Solzhenitsyn's honeymoon with the Soviet Union was short-lived and when Brezhnev came to power he was ostracised and eventually forced in to exile, first in Western Europe and then to the US.
During his years in the US he worked on a history of Russia but his creative juices seemed to have dried up by this time.
Thomas is clear in his assertion that Solzhenitsyn was at his most creative when he was being hounded by the state, moving between various addresses and had a messy personal life.
He was unfaithful to his wife, felt hemmed in by her and spent as much time as he could away from her, eventually leaving her for a younger woman.
This portrait of Solzhenitsyn is full of admiration for his courage and the writing that he produced but acknowledges that he was often dismissive, to the point of cruelty, to those who he was closest to and who supported him most – often putting their liberty and lives in danger.
In the US Solzhenitsyn, lived as recluse in New England, sheltered by his new wife, who had three sons to him.
He was wealthy and devoted himself to writing his history, but Thomas, who is clearly an admirer, laments that loss of his creative spark.
Solzhenitsyn alienated many of his admirers in the West with his devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church and seeming right-wing, authoritarian world view.
Thomas can also be highly opinionated, like his subject, and while his judgments on communism and western intellectuals who supported it reflect those of Solzhenitsyn, some 'little Englander' asides do jar slightly.
Never-the-less this is an insightful biography offering a not-uncritical portrait of a genuinely intriguing character and contextualising the political and historical backdrop to his life.

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