This is not a book about Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It is the book. Previous studies, above all the monumental and patient work of Michael Scammell, ‘will give you all the facts’ – as biographies do in Auden’s poem. D M Thomas presents us with a huge historical canvas – a history of twentieth-century Russia seen through the eyes of its most famous ‘difficult customer’; a biography of Solzhenitsyn through the lens of historical experience. Thomas’s book therefore reads like a great Russian novel. And because it has the generosity needed by the creator of fiction, it gives us back our reasons for revering Solzhenitsyn while recognising his feet of clay. It is difficult to think of a literary biography that has impressed me more. It is easily in the same league as Froude’s Carlyle, or Leon Edel’s Henry James.
Anyone writing a book of this scale and magnitude about Solzhenitsyn faces the difficulty of his reputation, or rather lack of it, in the new mafia-dominated, post-Soviet Russia. There is an extraordinary paragraph towards the end of Thomas’s story which reads, ‘in that Spring of 1994. Moscow bookstores were selling good quantities of novelised versions of the Charles Bronson movie Death Wish, an Italian TV series Octopus, and a Mexican soap, Simply Maria. Stephen King was a big bestseller. A British journalist, looking for copies of Solzhenitsyn, found nothing in the fiction section at House of Books, Moscow’s biggest bookstore. A girl told him he could try the secondhand section….’