“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.
Copyright © 1991 by John Bayley