In the Footsteps of Giants: An Interview with Michael Scammell

Article excerpt

BIOGRAPHER MICHAEL SCAMMELL has devoted much of his long career to writing about two of the 20th century's foremost intellectuals, whose impassioned writings defined in human and moral terms the stakes in the struggle against communism. Scammell's book about the Nobel Prize-winning dissident Russian writer Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, published in 1984, was the first major biography to shed light on this towering yet secretive figure. Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, which came out last year to much acclaim, revived the reputation of the protean Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler, best known for his 1940 anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon.

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Scammell was born in 1935 and grew up in a working-class family near Southampton, England. Attracted to writing from an early age, he landed a job as a messenger for a local newspaper at 16. Two years later, he was drafted into the army and, as luck would have it, was sent to school to learn Russian. At the conclusion of his military service, Scammell studied Russian at Nottingham University and then at Columbia University, where he earned a PhD (and currently teaches translation and writing). He took up translating, and his first effort, the experimental novel Cities and Years, by Konstantin Fedin, caught the eye of Vladimir Nabokov, who asked Scammell to help translate two of his early Russian-language novels, The Gift and The Defense, into English. Eventually, Scammell would translate many other books from Russian into English, including works by Feodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

In the early 1970s Scammell helped found Index on Censorship, a magazine that continues to defend writers against state persecution and bring their censored texts to the attention of the public. He served as the magazine's editor for nearly a decade, published Solzhenitsyn's work, and started on the path to becoming one of today's most widely admired biographers. In 1985 he was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he studied the emigration of artists who left the Soviet Union to work in the West.

Writer and translator Michael McDonald interviews Scammell about his life and work.

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MICHAEL McDONALD: How did you become a biographer?

MICHAEL SCAMMELL: A big question. Until I was in my early twenties, all I wanted to do was write fiction. I tried many times, but came to the conclusion that I didn't have the stamina for it, so I turned to translation, putting the words of foreign writers into English--which is a kind of creativity: creativity with language but not with thought. I also wrote a large number of reviews of other people's books, but it was only in the period right before the Index on Censorship came along that the idea of writing a biography about Sohhenitsyn first occurred to me.

McDONALD: And so what did you do?

SCAMMELL: Well, I was a freelancer--a polite term for unemployed-- at the time, so I extorted a tiny advance and went off to collect everything I could find out about Sohhenitsyn's life. Looking back, it's curious that I had the biographical itch from the beginning, because I could have written about many things, I suppose, and it didn't necessarily need to be a biography, but that was the way I thought about it. However, Solzhenitsyn was so successful at covering his tracks that I couldn't find out nearly enough to satisfy me, and I simply gave up.

McDONALD: But the seed had been planted.

SCAMMELL: Yes. And as I moved from freelancing to editing the Index on Censorship full-time, I got to publish a lot of dissident literature from the Soviet Union--Solzhenitsyn obviously being the most stellar dissident writer of them all. In time, I ferreted out some early poetry by Solzhenitsyn that I'd found in samizdat, and out of the blue I was contacted by Dr. …