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Special Section on Biography

"Read no history," Benjamin Disraeli advised: "nothing but biography, for that is life without theory." Let theory stand for the grand systems in the light of which mere human beings are at best a nuisance. Then biography, in contrast, is the realm of stubborn particulars: messy, contingent, resisting abstraction. Theory is the Great Society; biography is the Robert Taylor Homes. Theory is French; biography is English. (Thus it makes perfect sense when the literary theorist Terry Eagleton contemptuously observes that "there would seem to be no end to the peculiar English mania for the Individual Life.")

Fittingly, this special section on biography begins with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who defied the mad, murderous attempt to make reality conform to the theories of Marx and Lenin. In his book "Invisible Allies," Solzhenitsyn sketches the improbable lives of some of the individuals who helped to topple the edifice of Soviet power.

Theory bears strange fruit. We've all seen the poster art of Socialist Realism: a brawny, purposeful tractor-driver, say, ushering in the bright dawn of the proletariat. The American cousins of those Soviet painters are churning out Christian biographies. See Harry Stout's "Biography as Battleground" for a report from the front.

Other essays consider the statesman William Gladstone, the poets Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, and the novelist Robertson Davies: an odd bunch. What they have in common, Roger Lundin reminds us, is "the contrapuntal complexity of a human life." And therein lies the endless fascination of biography.

--JW

What Solzhenitsyn Has Done for Us Lately

By Edward E. Ericson, Jr.

" 'The Russian Question' at the End of the Twentieth Century"

By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Translated by Yermolai Solzhenitsyn

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

135 pp.; $15

"Invisible Allies"

By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Translated by Alexis Klimoff

and Michael Nicholson

Counterpoint

344 pp.; $29.50

"The Solzhenitsyn Files: Secret Soviet Documents Reveal One Man's Fight Against ...

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