Thursday, October 15, 1998

D.M. Thomas: Alexander Solzhenitsyn


First appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

 Each day he went to bed exhausted at seven P.M., to wake up after one A.M. quite refreshed, and at once resume work. At nine A.M. he would stop, then move into a whole new day's work, finishing at six when he prepared a meal. When he became ill and was running a fever, he still chopped wood, stoked the stove, and did part of his writing standing up, with his back pressed against the hot tiles of the stove "in lieu of mustard plasters." His single goal, even should it cost him his life, was to finish the history of Russia's enslavement.
     D.M. Thomas, "Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in his Life"

HB: Why did you write a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn?

DMT: Well, I was invited to.

HB: But not by the Solzhenitsyn estate.

DMT: No, no, no, absolutely not. They anathematize it; they curse the book. No, I was asked by an editor at St. Martins Press who wrote me out of the blue saying the time has come to redo Solzhenitsyn, and I'd be an interesting person to do it. I felt a mixture of horror and intrigue. The temptation was that through Solzhenitsyn, you could cover twentieth century Russian literature as well. So I had two things in mind, Solzhenitsyn and my love affair with Russia, and it gave me a chance to go over there.

I said I could give two or three years of my life to it, certainly no more. And he said, that's enough. So with great trepidation, I plunged in. I thought in some ways I was acting against the grain of my writing, in that, you know, I like to use my imagination a lot -- the open road. But on the other hand, I thought his life was a tremendous story, and I'm a storyteller, so maybe I can use some of novelistic experience to shape it.

I like taking historical figures like Freud, in "Eating Pavlova," John F. Kennedy in "Flying in to Love", Freud again in "The White Hotel." I like seeing what I can do fictionally with a living character, so I thought, well, that's not so far from taking a living character and sticking to the facts but using my novelistic experience to shape the story.

HB: Why did Solzhenitsyn open the doors to a previous biographer, Michael Scammell, ["Solzhenitsyn: a Biography", 1984] but not to you?

DMT: He thought Scammell was sympathetic. Still, it wasn't an authorized biography, though he did agree to cooperate to some extent. However, when Solzhenitsyn knew Scammell was interviewing Natasha, his first wife, he withdrew cooperation. He was very suspicious of any one who approached Natasha.

HB: Isn't that a rather Stalinist conception of biography, the biographer only accesses sources approved in advance?

DMT: Well, indeed, after I thought the book was over I found I had to spend many months finding out who owned permission for various things. For two books, "The Gulag Archipelago," and "The Oak and the Calf", I had to get Solzhenitsyn's permission. So I wrote, asking for permission and months after I had written, got a letter from his Parisian agent, who said Mr. Solzhenitsyn declines to give permission for you to quote from these works. He feels that since you have taken your own decisions as to who to interview, he has every right not to cooperate in any way with this book. *I* decide who you'll interview. It's ridiculous.

HB: You didn't get to meet him and write, somewhat self-effacingly: "He has better things to do with his time than to cooperate with a biographer; nor do I feel that in a few hours -- the most time I could have expected to have been granted -- I could have formed a substantially different impression of him or of his work."

DMT: He something of a control freak. You wouldn't get through to the man at all in a few hours conversation.

And I think if I met him he might have used that, saying, see, I cooperated, now I want to see your text, I want to approve it. I could have said no, but there would have been some pressure on me to compromise. I felt by his not cooperating, I could at least be independent.

HB: How did your image of him change in the course of writing the book?

DMT: I think I should not like him as an individual. I still admire him as a writer, and feel that many of his ideas have been unduly attacked, but believe that as an individual he could be a pretty egotistical and arrogant customer who had quarreled with a lot of very nice people.

HB: He's a very different writer than you are.

DMT: But there were some temperamental and biographical connections. He is a provincial; he grew up in a very remote part of Russia, Rostov on Don, and that has made him different from the intellectuals of Moscow. I grew up in Cornwall and have never lived in London, so I was outside the English establishment. Also, I'm a Celt, which makes me not quite English, so there was that feeling that I don't belong in the literary and intellectual circles in London, just as he doesn't quite belong to the literary circles of Russia.

And I have had the experience of being virtually unknown until I was in my forties, when I had a sudden experience of relative fame with "The White Hotel" -- nothing like "Ivan Denisovitch," but quite considerable, and so I could understand the shock, the excitement of it, and also some slight alienation. You're not quite the same as you were before. You haven't changed your writing to suit the public but you're aware you're not just an isolated writer alone with the page; there are people out there and they read it.

HB: Are you not about to be more famous now that "The White Hotel" is being made into a movie?

DMT: Directed by Emir Kusturica who's won two Palme d'Or awards. Dennis Potter was the screenwriter, and his screenplay was kind of bizarre. Instead of my heroine being an opera star she becomes a circus act, because at that point David Lynch was going to direct, and Lynch felt he was not capable of dealing with European high art; he'd be much happier with a circus. But I think the director and the producers want to make changes to Potter's script that will be the basis, and bring it, I hope, a little nearer to my book.

It will be fun. Making a movie of a book is a translation, just like translating a poet. You know it's going to be difficult but at least they're attempting to put my vision on the screen.

HB: Getting back to what you said about coming from the provinces, it seems you identify liberal democratic views with the metropolis. If you're outside, you can think of another way to be.

DMT: You can think of another way to be. I don't think Solzhenitsyn is an extremist, in the way he has been painted by some. Here's a man who fought against fascism, and wanted the Soviet Empire to shrink, to let its provinces go. So he's not an imperialist, not a nationalist in that sense. But he is a very strong patriot. I understand patriotism. I'm a very patriotic Brit, which doesn't make me in any way denigrate other countries. I approve of their patriotism, too. I can even get a lump in my throat when I hear "The Star-Spangled Banner." I get a lump in my throat when I hear Rachmaninoff, and think I'm a Russian patriot. I can understand and approve of identifying with a country as somehow the tangible expression of a people.

HB: What about his religiosity? Maybe, under the kind of duress in which he lived, he needed another framework than liberal democratic values. The language of liberal politics just doesn't encompass those situations.

DMT: You're absolutely right. The Russian experience is so bizarre. They never had a Renaissance, for example. I think, also, he needed some sort of father figure and when Lenin dropped out, God took that place.

As you know, there are two strands in Russian thought. There are the Slavophiles who think the answer to Russia's problems is in Russia's soul, They can be obscurantist and dark and holy and superstitious. And there are the Westernizers -- people like Turgenev and Chekov -- who turn to the West. Solzhenitsyn is very much on the side of the Slavophiles. Russia must provide its own answers. Western answers are not necessarily Russian answers..

But these views of his are a bit of willow-the-wisp. He's going to be remembered for his great efforts in the fight against tyranny during the last two decades of Communism. The late views are not reflected in any literary works that will live. They're just opinions. He's got opinions like you've got opinions and I've got opinions. Ultimately, they carry no more weight, whereas his ideas when he wrote "The First Circle", "Cancer Ward" and "Gulag Archipelago," are strong and valid because they are embedded in works of art.

HB: What are Solzhenitsyn's strongest qualities as a writer?

DMT: His power of invective, his power of savage indictment, of sustained outrage, as in "Gulag Archipelago". Robert Conquest wrote a book, "The Great Terror," a very fine book. But because he didn't go through it personally, and he's English, it has a very rational side. But Solzhenitsyn could bring out the savage irrationality of it, through his own sustained invective and rage.

And he says, it's boring, yes, one thing after the other, over and over again. He goes out of his way to say, I know I'm repeating myself because it happened over and over again. It's an amazing work.

HB: Solzhenitsyn nearly single-handedly broke the tie between Soviet Communism and the European intelligentsia. The "Gulag Archipelago" had a shattering impact. There may be comparable examples in history, but not many. Perhaps the Zola of "J'accuse."

DMT: But in a much narrower framework. Zola had a terrific effect on France but Solzhenitsyn effected his own country and all the countries in the West.

HB: Does that also mean he won't be read? Not the way we read Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. He will be read when we want to remember what Soviet Communism was like, which most people won't want to do.

DMT: This is the question that lurked in the back of my mind as I wrote the book. I hesitated quite to say that as baldly as you've done, but I do suspect he won't be much read in fifty years time.

HB: You do come close to saying that when you write: "The twentieth century has swallowed up creeds and populations, and left behind in Russia, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Blok, Shostakovich, Mandelstam, Tsvelayeva -- and Solzhenitsyn; not, perhaps, great like the others outside of time, but great in the supreme intersection of his art and his courage with history."

DMT: The shadow sentence there is that maybe when this interest in Communism goes, he won't be read.

Twelve, thirteen years ago, I had the feeling Communism was here forever. And then, within a few years, poof. In a sense, that was what Solzhenitsyn had been hungering for, working for. Then it happened rendering some of what he was doing obsolete. All that then lived on was the literary value of his work, which is considerable in some cases -- "The First Circle", "Cancer Ward" and, particularly, "Gulag Archipelago" which I think is a ferocious work. There is an irreducible element worth reading. But it will lose some of its effect because he was so rooted in his time.

HB: When you describe Solzhenitsyn writing "The Wheel," I got the feeling there was something mad about the undertaking, as if he was trying to stuff all of reality in the book, making the book substitute for the world.

DMT: What other writer in history has said it's going to take me twenty years to do this, I've got no time, I've got to go? At most writers think, well, I'm writing a piece that might take me four or five years but not the next twenty, and unless it's written I shall have failed.

That obsessional belief in his work did damage. He showed that if he allowed space in his life for ideas to germinate, he could write important works. "Cancer Ward" was an idea that just came to him as he was recovering from cancer, not when he was sitting at his desk writing feverishly. "Ivan Denisovich" came to him when he was laying bricks, and his mind had time to wander and daydream. The muse needs that space in order to come in. And he deliberately left no space. He had no time to go out and look at America, say, or walk the streets.

HB: Do you think his habit of isolating himself was a product of suffering in the labor camps? At a certain point he understands they are his destiny and he no longer seeks an easier position. He knew his role was to be the chronicler, the witness.

DMT: That's why he deliberately started being recalcitrant, in order to get sent to one of the harsher camps, a very brave thing to do in a way, and to be sent away from the scientific institute in Moscow.

HB: It was at the scientific institute that he became interested in language, was it not? There's controversy about the way he later worked with language in "The Red Wheel." Joseph Brodsky said, it wasn't really Russian; it was a kind of intellectual ur-Russian, not the language itself. Isn't there's a kind of Heideggerian slant there, throwing out language as its evolved, as its used, and trying to infuse supposed initial meanings?

DMT: You could almost say it has affinities with Joyce in "Finnegans Wake." As Joyce went blind, there was more concentration on the signs. As Solzhenitsyn went into his remoteness and his solitude, he thought more about the nature of language. It's a substitute for living, to some extent.

HB: What are the roots of your own love affair with Russian literature?

DMT: It probably has a relationship to my being Celtic. The Celtic is a kind of dreamy poetic race. There are affinities with the emotional side of Russian, the strong emotions which are rather un-English. But I also had two years of training in Russian when I was a young soldier. It was a way of avoiding really being in the army. But, gradually, some great teachers instilled their love of the language into us. The Russian poetry I heard stayed in my head. And then I translated Akhmatova, and learned a hell of a lot.

HB: Why the affinity for Russian literature in particular?

DMT: It's more daring in its ability to switch forms. When Pasternak wrote "Zhivago," it was unique in having a section of poems at the end of the book that was related to the prose. I probably have never known whether I'm a prose writer or a poet. It's Russian experimentation with form that appeals to me.

HB: There's a strong sense of fate in your work. Things are not by accident alone. In your memoir, "Memories and Hallucinations," you say, "Already I had enough examples to convince me that coincidences are no coincidence. They kept on coming."

It occurs to me you find something comparable in the Russians. This is what the Russians have working for them, a sense that there's more than what meets the eye. This is not English empiricism.

DMT: I would agree. English literary life produces great literature but there isn't that sense of the numinous the Russian writers can conjure up. They have this feeling of almost literally drawing on the spirits. Someone like Akhmatova living in terrible poverty and illness and under persecution thinks of Dante exiled from Florence. She feels a connection with Dante and conjures it up in the poem called, "Muse."

This drawing strength from the past, from past writers who also fought, if not against tyranny then at least against authoritarianism, this sort of almost mystical communion between Russian writers of different periods is something I admire very much.

HB: You've been fascinated with Freud and psychoanalysis. Part of it is connected to what we're saying about looking beneath the surface, seeing the hidden script.

DMT: And seeing how much guilt and anger can be traced back to childhood events.

HB: You try that approach on Solzhenitsyn, though you're never completely persuasive.

DMT: I don't suppose it was completely persuasive to me, either. But if I'd spent the first four years of my life cooped up in a house with loving but terrifying women who gave me endless attention but who also, when night fell, would pray that they still would be there in the morning, , and then and if my mother left and didn't come back for three years, I would think that would have some effect on my adult nature. Solzhenitsyn lived in a Soviet epoch where we assume personal lives just don't matter, but surely that childhood effected him. I look at some of his adult characteristics -- stubbornness, determination, parsimony and enormous dedication to work -- and it's exactly what Freud would have expected.

I take your point, it's not entirely persuasive. But if you're faced with having to write at least 200,000 words -- that was the lower limit I was given -- you have to take a few risks.

HB: You give background to the Russian Revolution by summoning up the horror of World War I.

DMT: And the Civil War.

HB: In other words, evil did not begin with the storming of the Winter Palace. World War I was the catastrophe that set things in motion for other catastrophes.

DMT: And, of course, the huge gap in wealth. I was quite persistent in getting them to reprint two photographs I saw in a book called "The Russian Century: a Photographic History of Russia's 100 Years" (1994). There's a scene of a countess's ball in St. Petersburg, 1914. The men have these arrogant mustached boyish faces, coifed for the camera. Against that, there was a shot of soup kitchen in St. Petersburg -- bleak factory walls behind, and these men, some of them with quite intelligent faces, who are hopeless, who have absolutely no hope. I wanted to put that in so as to show the Russia out of which the Revolution was born.

HB: Are you relieved to be done?

DMT: Absolutely. I never want to hear the word, "Solzhenitsyn" again after these next few weeks. I'm hoping that once I've done the last interview, my mind will be fresh and free to think of something else.

HB: The biography was a Solzhenitsyn-like labor.

DMT: It was, for a time, going into his mode, grinding it out. I'd never before in my life set myself a number of words in a day. I thought I'd never get through this in any reasonable amount of time unless I wrote at least 1,000 words every day.

The interesting thing now would be to see if he might write my biography.



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