"Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile," by Joseph Pearce. Baker Books. 334 pages. $17.99.
One day last September, the president of Russia stopped by the suburban Moscow home of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, presented the writer with a large bouquet and spent two hours discussing with him the fate of their long-suffering land. The next day Solzhenitsyn, speaking to a television interviewer, withdrew his previous criticism of Putin and instead offered praise for the Russian leader's "fighting spirit," "extraordinary prudence" and "balanced judgment."
The episode left some of Solzhenitsyn's old acquaintances among former Soviet dissidents aghast. After all, Putin had made his career in the KGB, which tried to annihilate all copies of Solzhenitsyn's works before helping force him into exile in 1974. As president, Putin has moved to muzzle the media, publicly praised the legacy of the secret police and sought to concentrate political power in his hands.
It is too early to tell whether Solzhenitsyn's embrace of Putin or the critics' disgust will be vindicated. But two facts stand out: Putin felt it worth his while to court the 82-year-old writer, dismissed as a political and literary relic by many young Russians; and Solzhenitsyn showed he was still capable of baffling expectations and making a splash.
If ever a life provided material for a gripping biography, it is Solzhenitsyn's -- his battlefield heroics during World War II; his arrest for criticizing Stalin in letters from the front; his odyssey through a dozen prisons and labor camps; his survival of cancer; his fleeting moment as an officially sanctioned author in 1962, when "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" was published as part of Khrushchev's campaign to discredit Stalinism; his covert completion of "Gulag Archipelago," a magisterial three-volume account of the Soviet prison camp system that may be his most enduring achievement; his authorship of half a dozen massive novels; his two decades of exile in Switzerland and Vermont, punctuated by thundering denunciations of Western decadence; and his return to Russia in 1995 to a life as author, television commentator and prophet, revered, reviled and often merely ignored.
Unfortunately, Joseph Pearce's new biography does not have the scale, the depth or the literary quality the subject deserves. It is a serviceable, if flawed, summary of the Solzhenitsyn story for those who do not have the time to tackle Michael Scammell's authoritative 1984 biography, novelist D.M. Thomas' 1999 work or Solzhenitsyn's 1975 memoir, "The Oak and the Calf." All three are far longer, far more sophisticated works. All have been mined heavily by Pearce, as his footnotes acknowledge.
Pearce doesn't know Russian; one of Solzhenitsyn's sons translated for him during his interview. He appears to have only the most superficial knowledge of Soviet history. He is, however, the author of two books on the English fantasy writer J.R. Tolkien, and he offers a breathless account of how he proposed to Solzhenitsyn that there is a special "affinity" between Solzhenitsyn and Tolkien, a notion he says Russian writer greeted with "ready acceptance."
Well! There may be a more far-fetched literary pair than the author of "The Hobbit" and the author of "The First Circle," but it is not easy to come up with one. In fairness, Pearce rarely strays quite that far afield. For the most part, his straightforward narrative is a reminder of the epic drama of the life Solzhenitsyn has led.
Scott Shane, is on leave from a position as a reporter for The Sun. He was Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991 and is the author of "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union."