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On Reading Dr Zhivago Anew

Boris Pasternak

Pasternak was born 10 Feb 1890 and died 30 May 1960. He was born in Moscow and lived in and around Moscow until his death at his dacha at Peredelkino, a retreat colony 20 mi. SW of Moscow for writers and other culturally elite Muscovites.

Pasternak’s family was among the elite nonobservant, wholly assimilated Jews of Moscow. His father Leonid was a famous painter and professor of painting. His mother Roza Kaufman was a celebrated concert pianist. His parents converted to the Orthodox Christian faith before he was born. As a child and youth his family entertained the likes of the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Leo Tolstoy and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. His younger brother Aleksandr became an architect; his sister Lydia was a chemist and also wrote poetry; his sister Josephine was a professor of philosophy.

Pasternak became a poet after initially exploring music and composition, and then seeking higher education as a philosopher at Marburg Germany. Unable to serve in World War I because of physical problems (one leg shorter than the other) he worked in a chemical factory near Perm, which it is believed gave him the model for Varykino in Zhivago.

His first poetry collection Twin in the Stormclouds was published in 1914, and the  collection My Sister Life, published in 1921 though written initially in 1917, put him on the literary map of Russia. His approach to poetry would have an effect on many other poets of the second 20th century generation, including his contemporaries Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Mandelstam. Pasternak forms a bridge in Russian poetry between the symbolist tradition (invoking the muse to provide a connection with the people through nature, using symbols of the actual world to represent spiritual realities; use of intuition and illogical connections – Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valery) represented by Alexander Blok, who preceded him, and the expansive use of imagery, rhythm, and idiomatic language one finds in Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky. He also worked as a translator of the works of both Goethe and Shakespeare into Russian.

Pasternak married twice, first in 1922 to the art student Evgeniya Lurye who bore their son Yevgeny in 1923. His second marriage, to Zinaida Neuhaus, lasted until his death, but he also had a long relationship with Olga Ivanskaya, who was more his real wife than Zinaida in the period from the forties until his death. She is said to be the model for Lara in Dr Zhivago. Zinaida also bore a second son Adrian, who died as a child in 1945. Sometime in the 1940’s Pasternak converted to Orthodox Christianity and was secretly baptized.

Pasternak was hugely popular during his lifetime. We need to recognize that poets were the rock stars of Russia before there were any rock stars. Large crowds of people would turn out for their recitals. The poetry is to be heard, not read. It was performed and not read quietly; Russian poets are thespians as well as poets. We heard Yevtushenko a few years ago and he is still the “rock star” of Russian poetry; he came with a troupe of people who performed with him, following his Russian renditions with English translations that partook every bit as much of the dramatic tradition.

Translation also requires a note. Russian, unlike contemporary English, still has functional declensions of nouns, conjugations of verbs, and the use of case endings for pronouns and adjectives. This allows for far more rhyming possibilities than does English. You can hear this by comparing the recitation of even a short poem, say Pasternak’s Hops, which is contained in the Zhivago collection.

Под ракитой, обвитой плющем,
От ненастья мы ищем защиты.
Наши плечи покрыты плащем,
Вкруг тебя мои руки обвиты.
Я ошибся. Кусты этих чащ
Не плющем перевиты, а хмелем.
Ну, так лучше давай этот плащ
В ширину под собою расстелим.

Under a broom bush, entwined with ivy,
We seek refuge from foul weather.
A raincoat covers our shoulders,
My arms are entwined about you.
I am wrong. The bushes of this wood
Are wound not with ivy, but hops.
We’d do better to take this coat
And spread it out underneath us. 1953

Among the émigrés, Marina Tsvetaeva lived in Prague, Berlin, and Paris before returning to Russia in 1941. Her poem for Pasternak talks about their closeness despite the distance between them.

Dis-stance: versts, miles…
They’ve dis-joined us, dis-mantled us,
So that we would be quiet,
At the world’s farthest ends.

Dis-stance: versts, reaches…
They’ve disbanded, disrupted us,
Disunited and dissolved us,
Not knowing that we are an alloy

Of inspirations and sinews…
They haven’t dispirited us, but they’ve dispersed us,
Dissected… Wall and moat. Displaced us, like eagles-

Conspirators: versts, reaches…
Not dismayed, but displanted.
Across the slums of the earth’s latitudes
They disarranged us like orphans.

How many is it – oh, how many – Marches?!
Since they disordered us like a deck of cards!

His trials really began at the publication of Zhivago in Italian in 1957, the novel having been smuggled out of the country by Isaiah Berlin. Following this he received the Nobel Prize in 1958, the year the book came out in English translation from Max Hayward and Manya Harari. Since they had to work in such haste, they did omit some repetitious portions of the text. These omissions are considered negligible.  Following the publication of Dr Zhivago, Soviet politicians denounced Pasternak viciously, calling his the work of a pig. His membership in the Writers Union was revoked, and he was essentially forced by Krushchev to refuse the Nobel Prize. Those close to him felt that this great trial increased his vulnerability and hastened his death. The news of his death was minimally reported in the Soviet Press because of his essential banishment within his own country, but thousands came to his funeral anyway in testimony to his place in their hearts and in Russian literature.

Despite the turmoil of the end of his life, Pasternak was not a suffering poet. His work for the most part remained in print, even if in translation and other countries. He did not suffer deprivation economically and never spent time in prison, though there is evidence that Stalin once wanted to sentence him to the Gulag.

At his death his long-time friend and sometime critic, Anna Akhmatova, numbered with him among the four greatest 20th century Russian poets, wrote these words:

Yesterday, a voice no one could imitate
Fell silent; he who spoke to forests has abandoned us.
He has become a life-giving grain of wheat,
Or the first rain of which he loved to sing.
All the flowers in the world will greet his death
But suddenly it has become very quiet here
On this humble planet we call…earth.

Comments on Zhivago

The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said that Pasternak was a 19th Century novelist, for all he admired Doctor Zhivago and Pasternak’s poetry. I think that Yevtushenko’s judgment is correct, but it immediately leads to the question of what kind of a 19th Century novelist was Pasternak?

If we consider the Russian tradition, in which Pasternak stands, and which I suspect most people know through either Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov, the two dominant voices in the 19th Century were Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Of the two, Dostoyevsky seems to have understood the soul better, to have plumbed the depths of the human condition as if with a microscope, and to have surveyed life with awesome profundity. Tolstoy is admittedly a less deep thinker.  Their theological positions demonstrate this; Tolstoy took a simple, almost naïve, approach to the Christianity he learned through culture and church, whereas Dostoyevsky was steeped in the great tradition of Orthodoxy and used it as a backdrop in his works.

But when you approach these two great writers as a reader who is primarily interested in narrative and story and character development, I think most of us would say that Tolstoy is the greater writer.  Really, in putting them side by side, would you not say that Tolstoy’s narrative is invariably more pregnant and opulent, his tales are more full of the complexities of human relationships, and his characters are more memorable?  Compare Tolstoy’s Resurrection with Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, for example, and what do you see? Tolstoy tells a story, rich in human foibles as well as human gracefulness; whereas Dostoyevsky appears to be writing a philosophical treatise in novel form.  With Tolstoy you get story, with Dostoyevsky you get pathology; with Tolstoy you get narrative, with Dostoyevsky you get philosophy. Above all with Tolstoy you get a realized landscape; with Dostoyevsky you get characters whose psychological profile does not seem to need a realistic surrounding. As David Bentley Hart has said, Dostoyevsky is “brilliant wherever extreme effects are called for, but almost hopeless at creating a substantial world around the delightful clamor of his characters’ voices.” In my estimation, Dostoyevsky’s novels, like Notes from the Underground and The Idiot, can be read as psychological studies set in a novelistic framework, but the characters do not stand out as fully fleshed as those of Tolstoy. Even in the Brothers Karamazov, a book I dearly love personally, the three brothers always seemed to me, at least, to represent positions in intellectual and philosophical society of the time rather more than they are portraits of real human beings.

So I’m not sure if I want to make any decision on Pasternak vis-à-vis the two previous writers. By the time Pasternak was young Dostoyevsky was dead. But we know that Tolstoy was a friend of the family and much admired by young Boris. The tilt is in the direction of Tolstoy, I think, but in saying that I don’t want to infer that Pasternak’s characters are either as well-developed as the Count’s, nor on the other hand that he lacks the psychological sophistication of the great Dostoyevsky.

Pasternak was never defined as a modernist, but there are signs indicating his identification with that movement. For example, there are disjointed parts that don’t seem to fit together; there are characters that seem to be incidental who come into play as major figures at a later stage of the novel. There are breaks between parts of the novel that seem inexplicable. A stream of thought will simply evaporate and another one begin. These are signs of modernism. By the same token, Pasternak values tradition, reason, and has hope for humanity, which is identified with God – all signs that run counter to the modernist tradition.

I did not come here to argue a position on previous writers. I do, however, think we must begin with the tradition that Pasternak inherited in order to see him within the framework of his generation.

Pasternak told Krushchev that he would relinquish the Nobel Prize because Russia was more important to him “than life itself.” He was a true man of his country, with all its faults and failures.

Most of us know or knew the book through the classic movie made of it in the mid-Sixties starring Omar Sharif as the Doctor. This has colored our reception of the novel, I think, in ways that are both helpful and unhelpful.

Helpful is the vastness of the depiction. The screenplay by Robert Bolt followed the Bolt formula, which was to use natural phenomena as background for epic adventure. In Lawrence of Arabia it is the sand. In A Man for All Seasons it is water. In Zhivago it is snow and more snow and yet more snow. Some critics – Edmund Wilson, Harold Bloom, Iris Murdoch – have argued that Dr Zhivago was the greatest Russian novel of the 20th Century, because it picks up on the vastness of the terrain and its effects on people, and because it explores the human landscape from many angles.

Helpful is the focus on the relationships between Zhivago, Lara, Komarovsky, and Tonya, with Antipov/Strelnikov thrown in as well. These are the central characters of the novel, of course, and Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin played them quite brilliantly, with Tom Courtenay and Rod Steiger turning in superb performances as Antipov and Komarovsky, respectively. Who can forget the scene where Yuri stumbles across Strelnikov’s train and we discover that the General is, in fact, Pasha Antipov?

Not so helpful is the stripping away of major chunks of the story. Yuri’s uncle Nikolai, who is a model intellectual and writer for the developing Zhivago, is absent from the movie. The relationship between Zhivago and his lifelong friends Niky and Misha is written out of the movie. His relationship with Marina after his return from the East and their two children is totally ignored.  The discovery of his lost daughter Tanya is telescoped and put in a different framework than you have in the novel. Lastly, the focus on the love story between Zhivago and Lara is overdone, on one hand, and represses the rich content of political dislocations and tribulations of the era. And at the same time I want to say that the figure of his wife Tonya is much stronger in the novel than as depicted in the movie.

The religious innuendo of the book was also, in usual Hollywood fashion, ignored completely. All of this is unhelpful to someone who wants to know what the book is really about.

Pasternak used Christian themes quite commonly, as did both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky returned to the church after a period of atheism; Tolstoy’s Christianity was of a simple, socially engaged character that rested on his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Pasternak shows both sympathy for and comprehension of the Christian message and the Christian church year as practiced in the Orthodoxy of Russia. Like Tolstoy in Resurrection, where Prince Nekhludov seduces Maslova on the weekend that extends from Good Friday to Pascha (Easter), he uses dates in the church year as markers and symbols for the action in the novel. He does note in a few places that Jews suffered additional trials, but on a personal level this was untrue for the Pasternak family, who were among the educated and elite class of Russian Jews.

The question that remains is this: What is it about Zhivago that created such an adverse reaction in the Soviet State of the time? The book is not confrontational toward the regime, although there are critiques strewn through it. I think an answer may be found in the Nobel Lecture delivered by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in 1980. Milosz says that the duty of the poet, especially in a time of repression or subservience, is to keep open the channels of speech.

His words: “A peculiar phenomenon makes its appearance: the language of a captive community acquires certain durable habits; whole zones of reality cease to exist simply because they have no name. …Only if we assume that a poet constantly strives to liberate himself from borrowed styles in search of reality is he dangerous. In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” (p. 13) The phrase “whole zones of reality” has echoed in my mind since I first read the essay.

This theme – speaking the one word of truth – worked its way into much of the literature of the oppressed in central Europe and the Soviet Union during the last years of communism. (Roth’s series was highly influential in my literary life.) It is the major theme of Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which deals with the need for humor in the face of humorless regimes, and with the enforced forgetfulness that airbrushes people out of memory. Milosz argues passionately in his Nobel lecture that the passage of years will dim memory and allow for revisionist histories based on fantasy or denial…like those who deny the holocaust…like those who have already forgotten the many millions of victims of the Communist regimes in Ukraine, Russia, Poland, and elsewhere.

This theme of keeping open whole zones of reality in danger of foreclosure was expressed by a host of writers from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution, Poland, Rumania, Hungary and elsewhere. In this theme we have a means to understand both Pasternak’s aim and the virulent opposition to his one solitary novel.

Pasternak was initially impressed with the Revolution, in fact tried to alter his poetry to fit the model of Soviet realism, so much so that Vladimir Nabokov for a moment scorned him as a tool of the regime, but by the mid-Thirties he was already disenchanted and began to seek for ways to express himself on the thin boundary line between personal freedom and the imposed soviet collectivism.

Remember the historical context. Several major poets, first Yesenin in 1925 [The Stern October has deceived me](his life was complicated by other problems as well) and then Mayakovsky [The Bedbug] in 1930, and then finally Tsvetaeva in 1941, all committed suicide in face of the dashed hopes for the revolution and its illusions. Mandelstam was imprisoned several times, exiled once, and then died an old man of 46 in Siberia in a prison camp in 1938.

Dr Zhivago ends with a final chapter of poetry; Pasternak intended this as the final chapter; it is not an appendix. The poetry is rooted in the three major themes Pasternak worked throughout his life: nature, human love, and the meaning of individual and personal life. At least two of these themes were enough to put him in opposition to the regime. They were his pistol shots in a silent room.

In Zhivago, Pasternak is not arguing political or religious positions straight out – though the book is not bereft of them (see p. 233). He is arguing for the right of individual people to live their lives in relative peace and safety. He is arguing for the supremacy of love over repression, love as a form of freedom that overcomes fear. (Strelnikov’s speech, pp. 410f.) And he is, of course, arguing as a poet in another medium, which is rather like speaking a different language. (a theme struck on 109, 368-70)

Pasternak was a poet rather than a novelist, and this shows through in the hesitations, the starts and fits one feels reading through the book. This is his only novel. Everything else he wrote was either poetry in collection, or else what we would today call memoir but which was then classed as autobiography.

The Czech writer Milos Vacik – my son-in-law’s father, memory eternal – put the matter well in a brief memoir: “The poet knows how to penetrate the depths of the human condition. However, it may be beyond the poet’s ability to penetrate the depths of the inhuman condition. …I believe…that the great poetry of this, the dawn of the forthcoming century, poetry in whose depths is a sense of responsibility for life, shall wear on its toughened face at least the inherited drops of blood left by our dead.” (Literature Prison Exile, pp. 100-106.) Pasternak died trying to penetrate the depths of the inhuman condition by opposing to it the simple desires of a man to find peace and love in a hopeless and agonizing and disjointed world.

His great compatriot Mandelstam – the fourth great Russian poet of the 20th century – lost hope, but according to the sources roundabout him, Pasternak never did, most likely because his faith allowed him to continue to hope for the renewal of humanity, which is at the heart of the Orthodox emphasis on the Resurrection. It is no accident that the poems of Dr Zhivago end with a sequence about Holy Week and Easter.