Pasternak’s Great Fairy Tale
“And then suddenly all that was gone. They were poor.”
Occurring on the third page of Doctor Zhivago, that sentence tells the reader a great deal about how the novel works. Gaining or losing money—chiefly losing it—was one of the favorite plot resources of the spacious and classic form of the great nineteenth-century novelists: Balzac and Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Hardy and Henry James. It is important in War and Peace that Pierre, whose role in the novel has something in common with that of Yurii Zhivago, inherits the vast Bezukhov fortune, and hence acquires for the purposes of the novel the freedom of action and movement that money in those days could give. Count Rostov, the other hero of War and Peace, has the same sort of fortune toward the end of the novel when he marries the rich Princess Mary. Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Prince Myshkin, is a rich man, and his financial situation sets him apart as much as his spiritual one.
At the beginning of his novel Pasternak deliberately deprives the Zhivago family of its wealth, as a kind of symbolic prelude to the revolution that is to come. Like so much else in the novel it happens as arbitrarily as if in a fairy tale: the rich king suddenly becomes a poor beggar. “There was a Zhivago factory, a Zhivago bank, Zhivago buildings, a Zhivago necktie pin,…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.” This wealth of gold both symbolizes and contrasts with the wealth of life which will be the precious gift and possession of the son, the hero of the novel.
In the world of the fairy story, where there are forests and gold, riches and poverty, sons and daughters, life and death, there is no room for the abstractions of political ideology. These have made a counterworld in which the real world of natural being survives as best it can, instinctively ignoring the horrors that abstraction brings, even though it may be almost wiped out in the rush of “progress.” The name Zhivago is a derivation of the Russian word meaning “life”; and Zhivago, the life-carrier, also bears within him the mortal affliction, a weak heart, which is the natural opposite of his life-bringing powers, themselves symbolized by his poems and by the candle that burns on the table as he writes—“a candle burned on the table, a candle burned.”
At the same time this poetic power of the hero, which is of course that of his creator Pasternak, is also able to fill the book with that richness and minutiae of life which distinguish a great novel by Dickens, say, or Tolstoy, or any other master of the art. How typical that in the passage I quoted about the Zhivagos losing their wealth there should be a reference to a Zhivago necktie pin—a wonderfully grotesque and felicitous touch, reminding us not of fairy tale but of the actual bustling capitalist society of prewar Russia, with its fashionable clothes and champagne parties. Pasternak’s hold on the world of things, so vital to fictional creation, is mesmerizing, authoritative, establishing itself in that first scene with the stationary train and the suicide of Zhivago’s father. “There was a faint stench from the lavatories, not quite dispelled by eau de cologne, and a smell of fried chicken, a little high and wrapped in dirty wax paper”; while the blood on the suicide’s face “did not look like his blood…but like a foreign appendage, a piece of plaster or a splatter of mud or a wet birch leaf.” Pasternak has the remarkable power of conveying the wonderful oddity of objects which is the life force of his poems, like the grass snake that young Dudorov, the terrorist’s son, sees a few pages later:
The rising sun had cast the long dewy shadow of trees in loops over the park grounds. The shadow was not black but dark gray like wet felt. The heady fragrance of the morning seemed to come from this damp shadow on the ground, with strips of light in it like a girl’s fingers. Suddenly a streak of quicksilver, as shiny as the dew on the grass, flowed by him a few paces away. It flowed on and on and the ground did not absorb it. Then, with an unexpectedly sharp movement, it swerved aside and vanished.
Like the snake itself, such passages slide into English without commotion or difficulty, creating the shimmer of poetry which transforms the whole book. This is vital in itself, for Pasternak’s actual verse, like all poetry, can only be translated with the loss of most of its living intensity. Thirty years or so after the book’s first publication in English, it is the feeling of poetry it gives which now makes its strongest impression, an impression of continuing vitality and greatness. For it is obvious that much in the novel that struck strong chords of feeling in the embattled age of the cold war will no longer have the same impact on today’s reader. No longer the explosive cry of freedom and protest from the heart of Stalin’s Russia, the book has now been published in its own country and been soberly valued and appraised, taking a distinctive and distinguished place in the tradition of Russian literary art. Indeed the Russian reader, and Russian literary critics, seem more interested in its art than its politics, insofar as the two can be separated; for examination and revision of the revolutionary past are now almost commonplace in the new era of glasnost.
The “message” of Zhivago to Russia has in a sense missed the boat, but that does not matter: indeed, to Russians it makes its stature as a work of art all the clearer. Russian critics are fascinated, for example, by the presence in the book of all sorts of influences and “voices” from Russian literature, from Pushkin to Andrei Bely. Tolstoy ends Anna Karenina with a suicide under a train: Pasternak begins his novel with the same event. Even small details supply the coincidence that a Russian reader notices. Pushkin writes of vine tendrils as elongated and transparent as a young girl’s fingers, the same kind of image that Pasternak uses in the passage just quoted.
But indeed, coincidence is something that the Western reader can hardly fail to be struck by, although it is coincidence of a different kind, the kind associated with the devices of fiction. Pasternak neutralizes these with amazing skill and effectiveness, showing how the chaotic time of revolution and civil war spawned such coincidences wholesale. Tossed about like corks in the tumult, people are thrown up against one another in all sorts of unexpected ways and places. The ruthless partisan commander turns out to be the same young officer we used to know, rumored to have been killed in an attack on the Austrian entrenchments in 1916. The old Swiss lady walking past the trolley in which Zhivago has his fatal heart attack was the former governess of a noble Russian whom he had known briefly when they both worked at a hospital during the war. And this final coming together is in any case unknown to both parties, without apparent significance. And yet everything in life has significance, just because it is life, the thing itself, and not the abstract vision of how it ought to be for which the tyrants of ideology drench the world in blood. As Zhivago observes, you must live, you cannot always be making preparations for living—a sharp comment on the Communist promise that everything is going to be wonderful, some day in the future.
When the novel appeared in 1958 in the excellent English translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari, the rapturous welcome it received soon gave rise to a great deal of argument and controversy. V.S. Pritchett, a connoisseur of the Russian novel, called it the best to come out of Russia since the revolution, “a work of genius.” Edmund Wilson in no way dissented, and drew particular attention to the originality of its structure, as original in its own way as that of Proust’s great masterpiece, A la Recherche du temps perdu, for it was based not on the traditional plot logic of the novel but on a series of chance encounters and partings. And these built up a graphically exact panorama of what life was actually like for Soviet citizens in the aftermath of revolution, and in the terrible years of Stalin’s supreme power.
But not all men of letters in the West were so deeply impressed by Doctor Zhivago. In particular Vladimir Nabokov, who had early achieved a reputation among Russian émigré intellectuals, and a second and greater one in America with Lolita and Pale Fire, pooh-poohed Doctor Zhivago from the start, calling it a piece of muddled and sentimental fiction ill-advisedly composed by a man who was a talented poet. Nabokov’s status as a Russian writer gave his views a certain authority, but they were strongly criticized by Edmund Wilson, who had already crossed swords with him over Dostoevsky (whom Nabokov held to be inflated and overrated) and was later to do so over Nabokov’s Pushkin translations. Nabokov objected particularly to the way Pasternak handled the love affair of Zhivago and Lara, pronouncing it facile and romanticized. On the other side an English critic, Stuart Hampshire, wrote that it was “one of the most profound descriptions of love in the whole range of modern literature.”
Who was right? It is easy to say they all were: and yet this is probably also true, for Doctor Zhivago is one of those rare works—whether we consider it fiction, poetry, or a kind of imaginary autobiography—which make no attempt to protect themselves against the reactions of the reader. It does not seem to care whether we are moved or unmoved by it; whether we criticize its sentiment and its discourse or whether we surrender to them. Like life itself it goes on its own way, indifferent to the conflicting responses of those who are, as it were, living it. This is an extremely rare quality in a modern novel, for modern fiction is the most self-conscious of art forms, the one which most depends on entering into a kind of unspoken dialogue with the reader, seeking at once to impress him with its novelty of vision and to anticipate his objections.
But for Pasternak Doctor Zhivago was a personal testament, a work that in an age of pharisaism (as Zhivago writes in one of his poems) expressed the character of its author and his views with a total clarity and individuality. Lara’s husband, once Pasha Antipov and now Strelnikov the partisan leader, is told by Zhivago of Lara’s continuing and absolute love for him, indicating his role in the novel as an upright individual, living to right the wrongs and injustices of the old tsarist system, but standing apart from the Bolshevik party with its regimenting bureaucrats, and the Cheka’s new apparatus of state terror. Despite the severity of his methods Strelnikov is a hero of politics, as Zhivago is of the private life; and Lara loves them both for their different kinds of heroism. They are the two just men whose example might be the salvation of Russia, but Strelnikov dies a hunted victim of Bolshevik tyranny, and Zhivago the life-saver will also decline and disappear from life.
But heroes they remain, a heroism symbolized by the love Lara bears them; and that is why they have their meeting in Strelnikov’s last hour, and talk “as only Russians in Russia can talk.” Pasternak-Zhivago is certainly not modest about his role, but a show of modesty on the part of the author here would itself be self-conscious and insincere. Pasternak speaks up for the private man, and for his own right to value himself more highly than anything in the world—to value himself thus at a black time in history when all individual Russian selves were required to worship the state and the system.
Zhivago is the vessel of life, and Lara is his soul mate, the natural partner of the unique and individual self. As the novel says, in a passage that probably particularly irritated and repelled Nabokov, the pair are not driven by “the blaze of passion,” like lovers in the ordinary sense.
They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet. Perhaps their surrounding world, the strangers they met in the street, the wide expanses they saw on their walks, the rooms in which they lived or met, took more delight in their love than they themselves did.
Such an attitude might seem to lack a sense of humor and proportion: it invites criticism, even derision; and yet the book gives it its own transparency and truth. Lovers do feel like that about the world around them, and in a moderately happy and civilized society it is right that they should.
Pasternak is speaking out against a world that implicitly denies such love, or merely allots it a place in the ideological system, whereas the vision of the novel embraces the paradox that by being so wholly solipsistic such a love is wholly communal as well. What is entirely private is nonetheless welcomed and recognized with love everywhere. Pasternak’s difficulty is that the privacy of love, and of the sense of oneself, has here to be put in plain view, “shown forth” as the Bible has it, in a way inevitably unnatural to it.
For the whole tradition of the Russian novel is “committed” and combative, always conscious of the rivalry between two ideological attitudes or points of view. To the great Russian critic Belinsky, writing in the 1840s, it was obvious that the Russian novel’s duty and justification—its promise of glory, too—were to be an instrument in the war of progress, the war to bring enlightenment and justice to society. In that war Doctor Zhivago also takes its place, but since it is defending and glorifying “life itself,” against the soulless authority of state socialism—the kind of authority forecast by Dostoevsky in his parable of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov—it cannot avoid “publicizing,” so to speak, the essential privacies of existence. “Man is born to live, not to prepare for life”; but in the process it is living itself that may become a kind of new ideology.
Not that Pasternak himself had been against the early promise of the revolution—far from it. As the first part of the novel shows, Yurii Zhivago and his friends all hope and expect a great deal from the primal stirrings of liberation. The young Pasternak was proud of having been struck by a Cossack whip when taking part in a demonstration in Moscow before the war, and the episode occurs in much the same context in his novel. The Pasternaks were a large and close-knit Moscow family, cultivated people, some of whom were singers, artists, and composers. Pasternak’s father was a well-known painter; his own younger brother became an architect. Pasternak himself studied in Germany before the war, and was drawn to becoming a philosopher, then a composer, before discovering his true vocation as a poet.
Exempted from military service by a leg injury he spent most of the war in the Urals, the scene of much of the action in Doctor Zhivago, and returned to Moscow in 1918. By now a well-known lyric poet, he was prolific in the Twenties and Thirties, producing such long poems on revolutionary themes as The Year 1905 and Lieutenant Schmidt, and also writing autobiography and doing translations, particularly his well-known translations of Shakespeare plays. This was the period in which Stalin was consolidating his rule, and writers and artists were subject to all kinds of state pressure. Even his poems on such hallowed legends of the Bolshevik party as the mutiny of the Black Sea fleet in 1905 under Lieutenant Schmidt, who became one of the Revolution’s martyrs, did not save Pasternak from criticism at the hands of proletarian writers’ associations, and the Ministry of Culture.
Fortunately the tyrant himself looked upon him with benevolence, for reasons that remain obscure to this day. It is true that Pasternak never attacked Stalin or his government personally, unlike the quixotic Mandelstam, Pasternak’s friend and fellow-poet, who was sent to his death in a Far Eastern gulag for writing a lampoon on the great Soviet leader. It seems that Stalin actually rang Pasternak up at the time of Mandelstam’s final arrest to ask what sort of poet he was. When Pasternak did his best to explain, and to give his own views, the line from the Kremlin went dead. Pasternak never forgot the incident, or ceased to blame himself for not having made more of it. But it seems certain that Stalin had not only made up his mind about Mandelstam’s fate but had decided that Pasternak himself was no threat to the Soviet regime. “Do not touch the cloud dweller,” he is reported to have remarked, with a certain irony if the story is true, to his OGPU subordinates.
Pasternak himself may have become aware of this attitude on Stalin’s part. If so, it is also ironic that the mysterious stranger Evgraf, the slit-eyed benefactor from Siberia who turns out to be Yurii Zhivago’s half brother, should also be a man of high authority in the Soviet system, and a general. Like many Russian writers before him, Pasternak had his own way of registering undercover meaning and significance in his art, and his own brand of humor as well. Evgraf is the mystery figure of the fairy story, who turns up at moments of crisis to rescue the hero; and this goes naturally with Pasternak’s vision of Russia under the Soviet regime as like a land bewitched by an evil enchanter, an enchanter whose agents may nonetheless exercise a power of arbitrary preservation, as well as of destruction. It was commonplace at the time of the Great Terror for a family to be swept off by the secret police while one member, who perhaps had been out to buy the groceries, was miraculously left alone.
Humor indeed plays a much larger part in Doctor Zhivago than both the praise and the criticism of the novel would suggest, and does much to lighten what might otherwise be the somewhat portentous gospel of “life” that Pasternak is preaching. Some of it is black humor, like the death of the unfortunate Commissar Gints, when he stands on the lid of a water butt to make a speech and has a fall, which causes the mutinous soldiery to burst out laughing and to shoot at him. Some of it is touching in a nightmare way, as when the young White cadet, captured by the Reds in Siberia, keeps adjusting the school cap on his bandaged head, readily assisted by the two peasant soldiers who are guarding him. Perhaps the most interesting and most effective example of a saving but comical incongruity in the book comes just after the passage I have quoted, where Zhivago tells the doomed partisan leader Strelnikov how much Lara loved him, because he is “the embodiment of what a human being should be,” and “unique in [his] genuineness.” But following this, tribute, we find Strelnikov intent only on discovering how, and under what circumstances, Lara made these remarks.
“She had been doing this room and she went outside to shake the carpet.”
“Sorry, which carpet? There are two.”
“That one, the larger one.”
“It would have been too heavy for her. Did you help her?”
It is more important for Strelnikov to establish the facts, and to be reminded of the way his beloved one shook a carpet, than to hear her praise of his own being and character. Strelnikov, like Zhivago, sees love less in sentiments than in detail, in the actual “livingness” of life.
The kind of protection that Stalin and his terrifying regime seemed to extend to Pasternak might have ended at any time. His parents and sisters had fled into emigration; he himself appeared at many times to be in danger, particularly after the war, when Doctor Zhivago was being written and when Pasternak’s contacts with the West were viewed with extreme suspicion. The source of greatest anguish to him was the threat of persecution of his mistress, with whom he lived at Peredelkino, in the writers’ colony outside Moscow. Often his own wife and children, with whom he maintained a warm relationship, were there too. Something of all this is expressed in Doctor Zhivago’s relationship with Lara, and with his wife, Tonia; above all in the feeling of a desperate clinging together in the face of the imminent possibility of separation. No novel I can think of conveys more graphically and more agonizingly the reality of sudden and irrevocable parting, as it happened for decades all over Russia, as it could happen in any country overwhelmed by the consequences of arbitrary terror.
It is somehow fitting that Yurii Zhivago, the life principle, should have to undergo these continual and unpredictable deaths and vanishings. “Partir—c’est mourir un peu,” as the French say; and the disappearance of Zhivago’s wife and family into emigration, Lara’s unavoidable flight with Komarovsky, and his own abduction by the partisans just at the moment he has fallen in love with Lara are conveyed in the novel with an unsurpassed vividness, a reality which, ironically, could be transmitted only by a great work of art and not by a record or memoir of those times and events, however harrowing and accurate it might be. It would be fair to say, moreover, that the effect of these sudden partings greatly enhances the emotional intensity of Pasternak’s portrayal of the lovers. In the face of such a threat their sense of each other is naturally heightened and intensified, just as it is in Chaucer’s great narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde, where the lovers’ closeness is inseparable from the knowledge that at any moment the war may divide them forever.
Like most students and intellectuals of that prewar and prerevolutionary era, Zhivago was in no sense a believer—Pasternak was not one himself—but the rituals and rhythms of the Russian Orthodox Church help to form the sense of the past, of old legend and story, which assumes a natural and indispensable importance in an age and a society like Zhivago’s. Then a heartless modernity was imposing itself with every violence it could, and seeking above all to blot out the past. Like all Russian novels Doctor Zhivago has its literal and didactic side, and the dialogues in the novel sometimes openly debate the question. In chapter two Zhivago’s uncle discusses with his friend the fads of Tolstoyism and mysticism in Russia during the last days of the tsar; and they agree that these are of no true significance, and fill no real and universal need of the twentieth century. “The whole thing is artificial…. Modern man has no need of it.” But after the Revolution has shown what modern man is like, or what he has become, the need for these old traditions presents itself overwhelmingly, as it does in the imaginative life and vision of Zhivago and his creator.
Pasternak was partly Jewish, and although there was no strong tradition of Jewish belief on either his mother’s or father’s side of the family, both had extensive connections with the sophisticated and cosmopolitan Jewish families of France and Central Europe, as well as in Russia. The more significant, therefore, that Pasternak himself preferred to present a wholly Russian image, identifying himself solely with Russian literary and cultural tradition, and with the Russian Orthodox Church. On more than one occasion conversations in the novel refer disparagingly to the Jews’ wish to keep their own identity and destiny sacred and apart, and the character Gordon (a common Jewish surname in Russia) could be said to embody some of Pasternak’s prejudices on the subject. Pasternak’s own hatred of anti-Semitism was at least partly in opposition to the identification of so many Russian Jews with the Revolution, its aims, and its methods.
The same dualism can be found in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. Both authors fear and repudiate the tendency, ever latent in Russia, to make a scapegoat of the Jews for the nation’s ills; but Pasternak’s implicit answer to the problem is to claim for himself and his book—which he pronounced to be the only one of his works to which he attached real importance and which he wished to survive—a universality grounded in the deepest Russian instincts and experience. Dostoevsky had made the same claim for Russia as the source and home of such a human universality.
Strangely enough, this feeling for the communal nature of experience, the crises and partings that afflict everyone alike in a time of revolutionary war and violent change, goes in Doctor Zhivago with something quite different: the absolute uniqueness of Doctor Zhivago himself, and hence of his author. The poems Zhivago has written, and which are appended to the novel, are, as it were, the stamp of this uniqueness; and they make a great contrast with the much more conventional “message” of the novel, which is in the same tradition as the giant work of Russian fiction, Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A number of scenes from War and Peace have their equivalents in Doctor Zhivago, for example the vignettes of warfare and its psychological consequences. When captured by the French, Pierre becomes aware of the “machine” in whose grasp he now is, and its complete separation from the human feelings and human solidarity of men when they are not regimented, or conditioned to an ideological style of behavior.
Like Tolstoy, Pasternak has an unerring sense of this particular incongruity. That schoolboy captured by the Red soldiers, and with a head wound, can think only of the need to keep his cap straight as it slides about on his bandaged head, and the two soldiers guarding him obligingly help in this. Most likely the boy will be shot, but in the meantime his attempt at maintaining a proper appearance—proper, that is, to this age of fanaticism and rhetoric—is abetted by those who may be ordered to shoot him. Zhivago feels that there is “a profound symbol” in the boy’s absurd action, and he
longed to rush out and address the boy in the words that were impatiently welling up inside him. He longed to shout to him and to the people in the railway coach that salvation lay not in loyalty to forms, but in throwing them off.
Also in the railway coach is Strelnikov (“the Shooter”), the brilliant partisan commander whom Zhivago feels to be “possessed of a remarkable gift, but…not necessarily the gift of originality. This talent, which showed itself in his every movement, might well be the talent of imitation.”
This is Pasternak’s principal and in a sense most subtle objection to the revolutionary mentality. People may become good by imitating good actions, but the idea of moral imitation on a grand scale, as revolutionaries or pharisees or fanatics exhort the people to practice it, can lead to the spectacle of a whole nation brainwashed into worshiping the Stalinist regime. Zhivago is the only man in step.
Now if Pasternak had merely claimed this to be so in his novel, in the same way that he puts into it a conventional and traditional message in the manner of Tolstoy, the reader would be fully entitled to reject him in the end as a solipsist, a man of naive vanity. There are moments when the reader may feel this. Zhivago’s two friends, Gordon and Dudorov, are only “redeemed” because they lived in Zhivago’s time, knew him, and can bear witness to him, like the disciples. The beatification of Zhivago by his creator could hardly go further than that. And indeed Pasternak’s own friends, notably the Oxford professor Isaiah Berlin, who used to visit and talk with him in the postwar days, testify in a number of ways to a kind of dignified monomania in the great writer. It appears in the somber but magnificent poems written by “Zhivago,” poems such as “Gethsemane” and “Mary Magdalene,” in which the themes of death and resurrection imply that the hero dies and is reborn in the poems, symbolizing the death and rebirth of Russia after the dark night of communism.
Yet the most important thing in the novel remains the element of fairy story, revealed in the poem “Fairy Tales,” the timeless legends of good and evil, captivity, rescue, and love, which remain deep in the country’s folklore. In Doctor Zhivago Pasternak has revived them in a manner wholly fascinating and original, and combined them in an inimitable way with his own poetry, a poetry of acute visions and perceptions, more deep and realistic than any conventional “realism” in fiction. Zhivago is indeed a triumphant emblem of his times, and of the need for the individual to be shown forth, in his unique singleness and integrity of being, in an age which exalted the new mass man as a triumph of socialist ideals and social engineering. It is in the face, of these things that “a candle burned on the table, a candle burned.”
Copyright © 1991 by John Bayley