The OF Blog: Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

Monday, March 15, 2010

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

He could remember a time in his early childhood when a large number of things were still known by his family name.  There was a Zhivago factory, a Zhivago bank, Zhivago buildings, a Zhivago necktie pin, even a Zhivago cake which was a kind of baba au rhum, and at one time if you said "Zhivago" to your sleigh driver in Moscow, it was as if you had said:  "Take me to Timbuctoo!" and he carried you off to a fairy-tale kingdom.  You would find yourself transported to a vast, quiet park.  Crows settled on the heavy branches of firs, scattering the hoarfrost; their cawing echoed and re-echoed like crackling wood.  Pure-bred dogs came running across the road out of the clearing from the recently constructed house.  Father on, lights appeared in the gathering dusk.

And then suddenly all that was gone.  They were poor. (p. 5)

Revolutions are nasty, capricious matters.  A political revolution in particular tends to be brutal, toppling buildings, regimes, and the heads of several of its opponents.  A social revolution is even more cataclysmic, as whole world-views are altered and conceptions of order are either suspended or abolished completely.  The failed 1905 Russian Revolution and the more successful Oktober/Bolshevik Revolution of 1917-1923 combined the two revolutionary types described above.  It is in many ways the culmination of events that had been brewing in Russia ever since the days of Peter the Great and his dreams of westernizing Russia.  Russia before the revolutions was a very top-down society.  Serfdom had been abolished less than two generations before the 1905 Revolution, but the masses still had relatively little power compared to their Western counterparts.  But between 1905 and 1923, one of the most drastic socio-economic (not to mention political) upheavals took place.  Like the fictional Zhivago family, the formerly rich and powerful became paupers and the working classes, or rather the the soviets who claimed to represent the proletariat, rose to prominence.

When Boris Pasternak, himself a scion of a well-to-do Russian-Jewish family born in 1890 (he also had some strong ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, as is apparent in this novel), began writing Doctor Zhivago in the 1950s, the Russia of his youth had been almost completely transformed.  Gone were the czar and his court.  The capital had been moved back to Moscow from St. Petersburg. The great industrialists (represented in part with Zhivago's father, who died in the opening scene of the novel from a suicide involving a train) had had their properties confiscated; the State controlled almost everything.  But what was the Revolution?

This question seems to have haunted Pasternak the remainder of his post-1917 life.  Unlike other Russian writers and philosophers, such as Nabokov, Pasternak did not flee Russia when the Bolsheviks gained complete control in 1923.  He lived through the Stalinist purges of the 1930s (indeed, Stalin himself is reported to have removed Pasternak's name from an arrest list, thus beginning an uneasy coexistence between Pasternak and the authorities that lasted until 1958), although he wrote little until the war years and its aftermath.  Some, like Nabokov, accused him of being a lapdog to the Bolsheviks, a coward who was afraid to voice his opposition to a tyrannical regime.  This was quite ironic, considering that Doctor Zhivago created a more visceral reaction from the post-Stalinist communist regime than did anything that Nabokov, Mikhail Bulgakov, or Alexandr Soltzhenitsyn ever managed to do with their works.

For those familiar with the movie, this story has been billed as a love story.  While indeed Yuri Zhivago's passionate and often star-crossed interactions with Lara/Larissa Feodorovna Guishar does indeed drive much of the internal tension of the novel, the book is far more complex than its cinematic adaptations over the years have revealed.  If anything, the true "love" expressed in this novel is Zhivago (the name itself being derived from the Russian word for "life") and his complicated, sometimes cynical love for his Russia and for the Revolution.

The novel takes place over the course of Zhivago's life, roughly paralleling the events that Pasternak experienced.  Although one has to be careful extrapolating from a novel, it appears likely that Pasternak did take some elements of his life, especially in his scenes involving the Jewish friend of Zhivago's, Gordon, and tweak them to create some of the more powerful points of the novel.  It is certainly the case that the Soviet authorities were outraged when the manuscript had been smuggled out of the country in 1956 and published without their consent.  But what about it could have enflamed them?

Pasternak does not take an accusatory stance.  He does not berate the Soviet authorities openly in this novel and rarely is there even a hint of such sentiments.  Instead, what this novel shows, especially toward its latter parts, is just how violent and transformative the Revolution truly was.  From scenes involving Zhivago encountering the sailors of the St. Petersburg soviet to detailing his experiences between caught in the crossfire of the Bolshevik Reds and the anti-Bolshevik (and not necessarily conservative, although certainly several such groups were) White, Pasternak describes a Russian society caught up in a fervor that leads to arguments of kind (how far should the Revolution go?) as well as those of type (were the Bolsheviks bad for the Russian people?).  One scene three-fourths into the novel, involving Zhivago's love interest, Lara/Larissa, underscores the confusion that the Revolution has caused:

"Ah, that's hard to answer.  I'll try to tell you.  But it's strange that I, an ordinary woman, should explain to you, who are so wise, what is happening to human life general and to life in Russia and why families get broken up, including yours and mine.  Ah, it isn't a matter of individuals, of being alike or different in temperament, of loving or not loving!  All customs and traditions, all our way of life, everything to do with home and order, has crumbled into dust in the general upheaval and reorganization of society.  The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined.  All that's left is the naked human soul stripped to the last shred, for which nothing has changed because it was always cold and shivering and reaching out to its nearest neighbor, as cold and lonely as itself.  You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first two people on earth who at the beginning of the world had nothing to cover themselves with - and now at the end of it we are just as naked and homeless.  And you and I are the last remembrance of all that immeasurable greatness which has been created in the world in all the thousands of years between them and us, and it is in memory of all those vanished marvels that we live and love and weep and cling to one another." (pp. 402-403)
This passage also reveals another thematic element, that of connecting Russia's religious past with the unfolding Revolution.  Pasternak makes several allusions throughout the novel to the endtimes, first having Zhivago viewing the Revolution through the lens of an earthly paradise being achieved and then later through scenes such as this, where the Revolution is more of a maelstrom that has sucked its victims into its maw, devouring them.  Pasternak here notes that in this calamitous time, all that is left is but "the naked human soul stripped to the last shred."  Yuri Zhivago and Lara, in addition to the whole host of other characters introduced over the course of this novel, are eventually presented as being creatures trying to make headway into an extremely stiff wind.  All around them, the world is collapsing, being destroyed, or (to some) being transformed into something perilous and perhaps even enchanting.  It is this complex brew of emotions, juxtaposed with characters who have been ravaged by the Revolution, which makes Doctor Zhivago such a haunting novel.

As a novel, Doctor Zhivago succeeds on several counts.  The tension between Zhivago and Lara/Larissa provides only one of several layers of narrative tension that help drive the story forward.  Pasternak's prose, at least as read in English translation, appears smooth and the layers of detail rarely threaten to overwhelm the reader, despite how unfamiliar some readers may be with Russian patronymic conventions.  There are so many layers to this story that this short essay does not attempt to cover them all.  For those wondering about the changing social climate between the proletariat and the former capitalist leaders, this is covered, but ultimately is not a major part of the novel, despite several evocative scenes.  The Jewish question is hinted at, with conclusions that are left more to the reader to decipher than for anything to be spelled out explicitly.  Even the most central character after Yuri, the Revolution itself, has unspoken, unstated elements for the reader to consider long after the final page has been read.  Perhaps the greatest clues to all these are to be found in the poems that form a coda to the novel.  Those serve as guides to several of the issues that Pasternak raises in the novel, but like the novel itself, interpretations are left for the reader to provide, not the author.

Were there any major flaws?  Not really.  While it took about a hundred pages for this reader to gain a feel for Pasternak's rhythms, after that stage, things unfolded in a smooth, measured pace that felt oddly controlled, considering the chaotic element being treated.  Doctor Zhivago certain deserves the praise that it's received over the past 50+ years and despite the Revolution having run its course, the story still contains a powerful punch for those reading it.

Note:  This essay/review was composed as part of an ongoing discussion at this forum that I frequent.


Camilla said...

I am surprised you don't mention that there is a massive discussion on the book happening on right now.

I have been eyeing it, but I don't have the time. It is dreadfully annoying. I liked the book many years ago.

Lsrry said...

Oversight that I now corrected, since I did mention it in passing in my previous thread about my review plans.

And for others curious about the review, do follow the link I provided at the bottom, as the discussion already is one of the better online book discussions at that new site.

Essays Writing said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

Anonymous said...

The book didn't really add up for me; if Lara is so wonderful why did Pasha leave her? It would have been agony for Lara to leave her child and look for Pasha but no exploration of that. What did she see in Komarovski? It all seems to be written from the male point of view, the women unexplored.

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