Solzhenitsyn's History Lesson
In many accounts of Solzhenitsyn's life, in articles and memoirs about him, people who know him personally mention that he was a knizhnik, a bookman, one who trusted books for experience more than he trusted life. Maybe after the horrible years spent in the gulag it was only normal to hide away from life's troubles. But according to Nabokov, inarguably a great literary authority and acclaimed stylist, "In a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is...between the author and the world" (Speak, Memory). Thus, the artist cannot afford to shut himself off. Solzhenitsyn knows all the artistic devices to employ, but, sadly, his words stay empty, surprisingly unable to shape images:
The whole world was completely invisible. No Stwolowicze, and no Yushkevichi, with its white churches. No Poland. No Russia. No Germany. Under the invisible cloud-wrapped dark depth of the sky--nothing, just one man.
Significant words and striking phrases are used here in vain. They don't produce a live, sensitive picture of a lonely man in the plain of war but leave just a dull impression, as in another example, even better:
In twenty years of life and struggle Lenin had experienced every kind of opponent--the haughtily ironical, the sarcastic, the sly, the base, the obstinate, the persistent, not to mention the spluttering-rhetorical, the quixotic, the effete, the slow-witted, the lachrymose, and other miscellaneous shits.
In fairness, the book is not without trenchant observations and well-written pages. For example, the inner monologues of both the Emperor and the Empress are constructed in a clever way and are not only revelatory of their characters but show how their personalities influenced the soon-to-come revolution. But the modest number of stirring passages is not what we expect from a literary personage of Solzhenitsyn's caliber. The moving passages get lost in the ocean of opaque verbiage, and the novel presents itself as one dull surface without sparkly waves or sunny reflections. Solzhenitsyn's style would be best described by the good Russian word veshchat (to pontificate).
The writer majestically pontificates with little respect for the reader, regardless of one's attention, interest or the necessity of the narrative itself. His czarlike and prophetic utterances--"Art demands distillation of actuality"--and his referral to himself in the third-person as "the author" and "he" sound frighteningly above humanity. Jesus did go to the desert to acquire truth, but he was God, after all. Solzhenitsyn (because it was so harshly earned) had a better chance at prophecy than many others, but the sad truth is that humans rarely forgive pontification in other human beings.
When Aleksandr Isaevich returned to Russia in 1994 after twenty years of exile, he was greeted as a saint, a martyr, almost God himself. He was considered the hope of the people in general, as well as of the new post-Communist regime. He was expected to enlighten, to lead, to explain. Yeltsin and Gorbachev, democrats and Communists, nationalists and socialists, met with him to learn from the great man's wisdom. His collected works came out, all his articles and essays were published. He was given any tribute he desired, was asked to anchor a TV and a radio show. Russia finally proved wrong the famous maxim that a prophet is not honored in his homeland. The country had its prophet back and respectfully clung to his every word. They waited for his words, either on TV screens or in books, with breathless eagerness.
Grave disappointment ensued. I don't know anyone who failed to switch to another channel when Solzhenitsyn was veshchat in his weekly programs, or was able to get through the writer's bookish and dead style. After a year or so both the TV and the radio show were canceled. Aleksandr Isaevich accused the media authorities of antipatriotism and conspiracy, but, to tell the truth, his public appearances were boring, declaratory and uninformative. After Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward, the great man had lots of words but nothing to say.
That tragedy is visible on the page once more. Instead of becoming an immortal monument to Solzhenitsyn's literary glory, The Red Wheel as a whole, including November 1916, is a doleful gravestone for his self-buried but once obviously immense talent.