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Viewing Solzhenitsyn Through a Freudian Lens

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in his Life
by Michael Specter

Nobody can quite figure out what to do about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He is one of the century's most important writers, but it has been decades since he produced a book worth talking about. A bearded, inflexible prophet whose blazing truths were too much for a police state to bear, Solzhenitsyn was forcibly ejected from the Soviet Union and immediately transformed into a living martyr.

Permitted to reside in Vermont, where the isolation and cold weather he sought were both abundant, he hurled an occasional thunderbolt toward the motherland and at those liberals in the West who liked to pretend that the Soviet Union wasn't a completely evil empire. But basically he sat in his room for 18 years and wrote.

When the wall fell down, people in Russia and the West expected the bard to return at once to the land that claimed and created his soul. They didn't know him. The man who gave us two of the most essential documents of the 20th century — ''One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'' and the monumental assault on the totalitarian world of the Soviets, ''The Gulag Archipelago'' — has never been the selfless type.

He came back to the land in his own time, and to this day seems amazed that people in Russia find him a sort of biblical apparition, a joke clinging fiercely to a world that no longer exists.

As D. M. Thomas points out in this long, redundant and almost completely derivative biography, when Sanya — as Mr. Thomas insists on calling him throughout the text — was a child, he was so certain of his worth that he felt sorry for the other students when he was too sick to go to school. Despite the use of the diminutive — calling Solzhenitsyn Sanya throughout a major biography is a little like writing about Victor Hugo and calling him Vic — nothing is going to make Solzhenitsyn seem cuddly. Never lacking for self-esteem, he is, as Mr. Thomas suggests, one of the least ''clubbable'' guys of modern times.

Still, literature is not a popularity contest, and when it mattered most, Solzhenitsyn delivered the goods. In 1961, when the renowned editor of the journal Novy Mir, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, began late one night to read the first unpublished copy of ''Ivan Denisovich,'' he was so moved by its power that he got out of bed, put on a suit and tie and sat up the rest of the night reading the staggering account of life in Stalin's slave camps. He said it would have been an insult to read such an epic in his pajamas.

Mr. Thomas has many such good snippets scattered throughout the lengthy tome. Unfortunately, most of them are taken from an earlier, far better biography of Solzhenitsyn by Michael Scammell (to whom the author gives prominent and complete credit). Unable to secure his own interview, Mr. Thomas decided to collect what is known, reinterpret it and layer it with a thick patina of his own Freudian world view. That is, when he was relying on facts.

More than once, when he could have no way of knowing what was going on, he simply writes, ''I can imagine,'' and lets loose a wild riff of fiction. Few biographies make more vapid but aggressive use of the words probably and perhaps.

Perhaps based on no evidence, Mr. Thomas says that at one point in prison, Solzhenitsyn was ''probably experiencing a reawakening of eros.'' He writes that ''perhaps'' the last journey of Anna Karenina flickered through the ''anguished mind'' of his first, cast-off wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya as she contemplated suicide. (If it was suicide she contemplated. Despite Mr. Thomas's heavy reliance on her version of events, we get nothing new from him, nor a comprehensible explanation of why she tried to divorce the writer when he was in the camps.) Perhaps the news that Solzhenitsyn had lost patience with a lawyer and literary executor permitted the ''broodingly Slavic lips'' of another former friend and ally, Olga Carlisle, to twitch ''in a mirthless smile.'' Or maybe not.

Mr. Thomas believes in Freud. He writes that the great poet Anna Akhmatova, if only she ''could come to him just once in the shape of the girl of 1913,'' might have captured Solzhenitsyn's heart. Why not? She captured everyone else's.

Solzhenitsyn reminds Mr. Thomas of Freud's description of the anal temperament: ''the repression and the repudiation of the possibilities for pleasure.'' Sure, it does seem to apply to this stiff man, for whom rectitude and certainty are the twin verities of life. Still, is that because he is anal?

I don't mean to ignore the importance of Freud here, or anywhere else. But it is also possible that Solzhenitsyn's lack of joie de vivre might just have something to do with the circumstances of his life, in which he played an active, prolonged and devastating role in one of the darkest chapters of modern history.

Mr. Thomas writes fluidly and at times with great grace and urgency. No matter how many times it has been attempted before, Mr. Thomas can bring the dead fury of the camps to life. He knows how to write about fear; and fear, in a history of the 20th century, is a useful force to have at hand.

Still, Mr. Solzhenitsyn–a little like the last Communist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev–seems somehow monumentally stranded by the end of the epoch he helped destroy. It would be good to have a biographer, particularly one so dependent on Freudian imagery, speculate on why. Is it the final indignity of a cruel century? Bad luck? Did the man simply outlive his time? Or is it that once Communism was vanquished the writer had little of value left to say?

On these questions, and on so much more, Mr. Thomas remains mute.

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