When Nobel Prize-winner Solzhenitsyn blew up at a protester in Harvard Yard, was it all according to what he had learned during his harsh years in Soviet labor camps? The question arises in connection with one of the details that give this literary memoir its extraordinary human interest.
The protester had appeared at a press conference after Solzhenitsyn's famously controversial commencement address on the decline of the free West. The protester's sign said something like, "Don't replace communism with fascism." Solzhenitsyn's glaring display of outrage suddenly brought to life shakespeare's line: "Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear."
Now, in "The Oak and the Calf," we read what Solzhenitsyn told a soviet editor who wanted him to "behave discreetly" at an important meeting:
"I'll let you in on a secret. I never lose my self-control; it's impossible for anyone trained in the camps to do so. If I blow up, it will only be according to plan. . . ."
Or consider the beard that Solzhenitsyn has been wearing in his exile. That same editor, the redoubtable Alexander Tvardovsky of the magazine Novy Mir, worried about Solzhenitsyn's growing a beard in the tense days of the '60s, when his descriptions of camp life were first allowed to be published.
"People say, 'He must have some reason for growing a beard, . . .'" said Tvardovsky. "It's very convenient for crossing the frontier."
"How on earth can a beard help anyone cross the frontier?" Solzhenitsyn asked.
"You could shave it off, of course, and go across unrecognized."
As the thundering pettinesses of Soviet bureaucracy jostle the cruel fears of the end of Kremlin thaws, Solzhenitsyn somehow manages a kind of wry comedy of repression.We know the horrors of the camps from his other books, including "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," which was the big breakthrough. We know the story of their arduous road to publication as described by others. Here is writer's triumphant ordeal in his own flavorsomely translated words, evoking how it felt to attain a precarious celebrity in middle age, settling old scores, displaying a bit of the self-righteousness to which he might be said to be entitled.
"Never hide things in books, my friends!" Solzhenitsyn warns, noting the availability of operatives to examine every one. In the camps and afterward he had develop other means of concealing writings he was determined to preserve for posterity without significant change, whether he was around to see them published or not. He used tiny handwriting, rolled pages into tight cylinders, squeezed them into a bottle, and buried it. He save his verse by memorizing thousands of lines, aided by improvised decimal counting beads. Then he memorized prose, too, spending as much as a week out of every month in regular repetition of everything he had memorized."
"One Day . . ." spoke to the peasant origins of Tvardovsky and of Soviet leader Khrushchev, who particularly liked Ivan's care with the mortar in a bricklaying scene. After the manuscript was carefully steered around other editors to Tvardovsky -- what personalities emerge from the faceless hierarchy! -- news of his favorable reaction reached Solzhenitsyn. "Like a bird flying smack into a pane of glass that telegram came."
This is but one of the vivid images in a prose that has some of the journalistic literalness found in the novels."The face is bloodless under its patina of vice . . . ," Solzhenitsyn writes of an adversary. He worries about himself "slithering toward conformity." He stops refusing to give interviews and addresses a meeting, because he has learned that "the writer exists not to write but to defend himself." The title of this book comes from a sentence about going on as long as life goes on, "or until the calf breaks its neck butting the oak, or until the oak cracks and comes crashing down." Russians presumably would need no further explanation.
The celebrated Havard commencement speech had left many disappointed, not because Solzhenitsyn scolded a West that often warrants scolding but because he didn't seem to have a gut understanding of the Russia he writes about here.
The western radio "droned on" about the persecution of author Solzhenitsyn after Moscow's reaction set in against him. But he doesn't call it persecution. "Persecution -- this? Compared to my life in the camps?"
It is a matter of perspective. As Solzhenitsyn said elsewhere, "How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?" Here, in a style whose resilience bespeaks a central quality of its author, he helps those with the taken-for-granted luxury of freedom to understand a man who once wrote to his Soviet editor: "I feel that my whole life is a process of rising gradually from my knees. . . ."