A handwritten sign hangs beside the door of the Cavendish, Vt., general store: NO REST ROOMS. NO BARE FEET. NO DIRECTIONS TO THE SOLZHENITSYNS. An intriguing story can be read between these lines: not only the presence in this small (pop. 1,355) Vermont town of a world-renowned Russian author but also the determination of his adopted Yankee neighbors to protect his privacy.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn arrived in Cavendish with his wife Natalya and four sons in 1976, some 2 1/2 years after he had been charged with treason and forcibly exiled from the Soviet Union. Settling in at a 50-acre mountain retreat, purchased with royalties from Western publications of his works, the author of such books as Cancer Ward and The First Circle gradually disappeared from headlines and public view. Admiring pilgrims hoping for a glimpse of the 1970 Nobel laureate -- as well as suspected KGB snoops -- were discouraged by the natives and by an impressive security system ringing the enclosure.
These outward signs of reclusiveness prompted much speculation. What was Solzhenitsyn doing in his bucolic isolation? After 13 years, an answer is finally emerging, and it is mind boggling. Aided by Natalya ("I don't think I could have done it without my wife"), he has constructed a virtual factory of literature. Laboring nearly twelve hours a day, seven days a week in a three- story building behind his house that serves both as a workplace and library and as a typesetting and proofreading center, he has produced more than 5,000 printed pages in Russian of an epic called The Red Wheel. Using the techniques of fiction but based on exhaustive historical research, this project aims at nothing less than a vast overview of the events leading up to and culminating in the Russian Revolution of 1917.
It will be years before the complete cycle of novels is available in English. But an enormous preview of what lies in store is being published this week as August 1914 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 854 pages; $50 hardback, $19.95 paper). This novel first appeared in English in 1972; after his banishment from the U.S.S.R., Solzhenitsyn was free to explore new troves of archival material, particularly at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and has now expanded the text by some 300 pages. Much of the additional material concerns the evil (in Solzhenitsyn's view) activities of Lenin during Russia's hasty entrance into World War I, and the heroic (ditto) career of Pyotr Stolypin, the Prime Minister under Czar Nicholas II who was assassinated in 1911 by an anarchist named Dmitri Bogrov. Translated by Harry T. Willetts, this version is essentially a brand-new work.
And it is not, it must be added, a day at the beach. Those who feel guilty, summer after summer, about not reading War and Peace can positively grovel at the prospect of the unquestionably difficult and demanding August 1914. It offers an encompassing narrative, told from dozens of different perspectives, of Russian life circa 1914 and of the nation's stark unpreparedness for the military offensive launched against Germany in August of that year. With this ! story Solzhenitsyn mixes snippets from contemporary newspapers, a succession of official documents and a series of "Screens," scenes described as if they were intended for a film script. The overall effect of this avalanche of information is daunting indeed.