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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Book on Solzhenitsyn Stirs Debate

While it probably won't rank with the towering controversies Alexander Solzhenitsyn has weathered in his 78 years, a literary squabble over a forthcoming biography of the Nobel prizewinner is producing charges and countercharges of lies and censorship.


The occasion for the dispute is a New York Times article about English writer D.M. Thomas's biography of Solzhenitsyn. The article says Solzhenitsyn tried to stop publication of the book because Thomas interviewed the Russian writer's first wife.


But the writer's current wife, Natalya Solzhenitsyn, says the article's claims are false.


In her May 15 article, Dinitia Smith previewed the biography, scheduled for publication in January 1998 by St. Martin's Press, which had also planned to publish a collection of nonfiction works by Solzhenitsyn, translated and edited by several U.S.-based academics.


According to Smith's article, "last month Solzhenitsyn's associates abruptly withdrew their book, saying they were under orders from the Solzhenitsyn family, which is angry that Thomas interviewed Solzhenitsyn's first wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya, and planned to use photographs that she had given him but that Solzhenitsyn considered his."


But Natalya Solzhenitsyn, in a telephone interview last week, called the article an "absolute lie."


She said the reason for the withdrawal of her husband's book had nothing to do with the Thomas biography. "We haven't said anything against the Thomas biography; we can't, because we haven't seen it."


She added that her husband, who suffered under the Soviet regime for his ideas and writings, believed fully in the right of authors to write -- and publishers to print -- what they want.


Solzhenitsyn said her husband had never had a contract with St. Martin's Press to publish the book, a proposed collection of works written over the last 10 years. She said that "several professors, Slavists" who have worked with Solzhenitsyn in the past came up with the idea, but had no authority to enter into negotiations with the publisher.


She said she thought the article was "an attempt, by using the name of Solzhenitsyn, to make an ad for this biography."


Smith said in a telephone interview from New York that Natalya Solzhenitsyn "lied to The New York Times" about the absence of a contract with St. Martin's Press. "And now she's lying to" The Moscow Times."


"They had a verbal agreement -- the editors and translators of Solzhenitsyn in America had submitted the manuscript for publication," Smith said. "St. Martin's drew up a contract with the editors and translators.


"At that point, the American editors and translators had to get permission for use of his writing; some are his works, some are interviews with Solzhenitsyn.


"Some of the material he owns. He had to give permission for its use.


At that point, the Solzhenitsyns -- according to what I learned and their fax to their American associates -- they decided that they did not wish to have the book published because the biographer D. M. Thomas had interviewed the first wife. ... They felt that was unfriendly to them."


Smith said she could not supply a copy of the fax, nor say who gave it to her. It wasn't clear, she said, how the Solzhenitsyns found out about the Thomas biography's contents.


"So Mrs. Solzhenitsyn lied to the paper, claiming to know nothing of this. Secondly, she apparently is lying to you."


According to the Times article, the biography details a troubled marriage, reporting that Solzhenitsyn regarded his first wife's desire to have children as selfish and that he had relationships with other women.


Robert Weil, a senior editor in the trade division at St. Martin's, who is working with Thomas on the biography, said the collection was a done deal. Weil said that Karen Wolny, of the scholarly and reference division, was working on the Solzhenitsyn project. Wolny did not return calls.


Natalya Solzhenitsyn said she and her husband first learned of the proposed publication after their agent, Claude Durand of Fayard in Paris, saw a flyer from St. Martin's about it. St. Martin's Press was contacted, Solzhenitsyn said, and informed that they were not authorized to proceed. "We didn't break any contract," Solzhenitsyn said. "There was no contract to break."


As a result of the Solzhenitsyns' direction to their American colleagues, Smith wrote, "Thomas and his editors have accused Solzhenitsyn, a figure of almost biblical moral severity and a symbol in the West of the freedom to write, of trying to censor them."


But Thomas said Monday that "I don't see it as a case of censorship outright. It seemed to be a response to a flyer from St. Martin's Press, suggesting I'd had huge cooperation from his first wife, which wasn't true."


Weil said, "I have not found any example that [Solzhenitsyn] has been trying to censor this biography. He has refused interviews with D. M. Thomas. ... He merely withdrew his own book from publication with another division. I found it very disappointing that Solzhenitsyn did withdraw the contract from our academic and scholarly division. Was it ever an active case of censoring the book? No."