08 June 2012

"Doctor Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak
Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward and Manya Harari
"The Poems of Yurii Zhivago" by Bernard Guilbert Guerney
563 pages

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What follows is the review I published on Goodreads. It is much less of a product review and consciously more of an attempt at literary criticism than I have heretofore put forward.

I feel it compulsory, by way of introduction, to acknowledge not merely that I have seen David Lean's film of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago before setting out to read the source material, but to make note that it was one of the most important films of my life. I describe my first time viewing in a blog post for Flickchart, but the short version is that it was the first time I had ever seen a truly "grown-up" movie. I was mesmerized as much by its scale and grandeur as I was by its amoral and desperate themes. You can read the whole thing here if you like: Movies to See Before You Die: Doctor Zhivago.

Finally, I have read the source material for that towering film. Comparisons between the two are almost obligatory and yet I wonder what I could really say that might be of any originality. What matters, ultimately, is that Pasternak's novel reads as a chronicle of the Russian Revolution whereas Lean's film explores the drama of the doomed romance between the titular Zhivago and his beloved Lara. The differences are far greater than merely the depth of detail or the scale of the stories. Even the ambitions are distinctly different.

I knew from the time I began to learn about the film that made such an impact on me that Pasternak himself had encountered great difficulty at home over this novel. Indeed, he was forbidden from even accepting the Nobel Prize for literature! It's easy to assume that Pasternak imbued Zhivago with his own disillusioned observations and frustrations with the politics of his country. Zhivago is very much a Romantic figure, whisked away time and again to the adventures that would comprise his character arc. Rarely does Zhivago even put forth any aspirations of his own, save writing. Instead, his life is consumed by events not of his own design.

Certainly, this is how both Zhivago and, presumably, Pasternak saw Russia herself: an unwitting, reluctant yet ultimately cooperative hostage of the fervor of the times. No Russian individuals set out to create the U.S.S.R. Rather, they each envisioned a grand achievement in the course of mankind that never came to be. Pasternak privies us to the frustrations of the intelligentsia, who initially stoked the fires of revolution and later came to rue the paranoid, oppressive regime that took hold. We have a sense that the revolutionaries truly understood themselves to be agents of modernity, overthrowing the yoke of an obsolete past. This is best embodied by poor Pasha Antipov, who reemerges as the dreaded figure, Strelnikov ("The Shooter").

Pasha, excitable about the future and wholly committed to doing his part to build the kind of Russia where his family could finally enjoy the kind of golden age he had longed to see, becomes the scourge of the Revolution. The ruthlessness of his activities become a sort of urban legend, a testament to his zealotry. Indeed, the man even commands an assault on the heart of the city where he knows his own wife and daughter are sheltered! To spare them would be to expose his own weakness, and so he bombards the city. His wife, Lara, characterizes him as the "purest" man she has ever known. Not only does she understand why he is placing her and their daughter in harm's way; she admires him for it!

It may seem laughable, but there is something genuinely inspirational about true believers when they offer a full demonstration of their sincerity. Even when we find such people wholly misguided and even insane, there's something about the fact they're willing to actually go that far with their beliefs that manages to impress us. So it was with not only Strelnikov, but all those whose energy drove the Revolution. Their passion is admired even by the suspicious Zhivago, through whom we read the begrudging admiration of Pasternak.

Throughout, though, we have Zhivago - the hapless soul who comes to see how that passion has run roughshod over reason, fairness or anything resembling civility. The savagery of the Revolutionary combat drives one imbalanced soldier to slaughter his own family. Everyone saw it coming, no one knew what to do about it. They were spared making any decisions when the soldier then takes his own life. We are meant to be appalled by the killing of his family, whom we know he loved dearly. We want someone to reason with him, to dissuade him from what he considers a mercy killing, but it happens all the same. More appalling, really, is the response of the others. It's as though they're just grateful he ended his own life so the whole ordeal could be considered "closed."

Zhivago bears witness to this and other atrocities. Just as we may have initially admired Strelnikov, Zhivago is there to show us the blood spilled in the name of those ideals. Poor Pasha! Could he have become Strelnikov, had he actually understood what that would entail?

Pasternak juxtaposes the two men - caught in a very symbolic love triangle with Lara - to illustrate his thesis that however high-minded was the genesis of the revolution, its actual prosecution and the consequences of it were so unconscionable that it becomes impossible to accept any suggestion that Red Russia in any meaningful way resembles that of the dreamers' imaginations.

Just as Zhivago is carried through the revolution against his will, so too must we notice that nothing good ever happens for him of his own doing. Everything positive in his life is the doing of some benefactor or other. Most conspicuous of these is his half-brother, Evgraf, who appears just a few times throughout Zhivago's life but each time he is nearly a deus ex machina with seemingly unlimited resources and influence. Evgraf's generosity is so bountiful, in fact, that through much of the second part of the book I wondered why Yurii didn't just go to him. It's not even a matter of pride; it's as though he is entirely oblivious his brother even exists until those times when Evgraf miraculously resurfaces.

Evgraf's moral counterpart must surely be the self-serving, loathsome Komarovksy. Just as Evgraf sees Yurii through his darkest hours, Komarovsky is the architect of much of the strife and misery that dominates Lara's life from her childhood through her adulthood. He is a predator, fixated on the vulnerable Lara from the beginning. His connections are clearly just as powerful as are Evgraf's, but he uses them for himself. Even when he offers his assistance to Lara and later, Lara and Yurii, he does so knowing that it will be him to whom they are indebted.

In the end, though, the self-serving Komarovsky retreats into exile where he continues to poison Lara's life, whereas the benevolent Evgraf has weathered the revolution with his influence entirely intact. Indeed, his final act in the book is to connect with his long-lost niece and by reaching out to shield her under his sphere of influence, he offsets the damage inflicted upon the girl by Komarovsky's selfishness.

Lastly, of course, there are the women: sweet Tonia and damaged Lara. Zhivago's courtship of Tonia, begun prior to the revolution, was yet another major event in his life in which he deferred to the dictates of others. It is simply assumed that Yurii and Tonia will wed, and for his part Yurii is actually rather indifferent about it - though he takes at face value that he wishes to be Tonia's husband and that they love one another. At times, he even seems to believe it. Yet we can tell his heart is never fully in their marriage.

Lara, however, crosses his path too many times not seem his true destiny. She gets under his skin in a very specific way. He has a specific perspective on life, politics and love that becomes increasingly disillusioned by the events surrounding them, but she has been disabused of any notions of idealism since her rough childhood. They find a philosophical equilibrium together. With Yurii, Lara is able to find some of the peace denied by the rest of her life. Likewise, the poet in Yurii thrives in the company of the one woman who truly understands and appreciates him for who he is.

Tonia is perhaps the most obvious victim of the whole affair. She entered into marriage with Yurii, envisioning a life together. Even after unforeseen events tear them apart, she remains dutifully faithful to their domesticity until eventually, she and the rest of their family are forced into exile to Paris. There is no place in Red Russia for intelligentsia who don't toe the mark, and Tonia's sweetness makes us empathize all the more with their banishment. These were people who truly cared about the affairs of Russia - and because of that, there is no audience for their criticism once things get out of hand.

Lara, meanwhile, is the kind of survivor who learned to navigate class subjugation before the revolution and this enables her to weather the ensuing tumultuous events. There will always be Laras in Russia and every other society, because there are always victims of the machinations of others. Yurii comes to characterize his political perspective not even as being about Russia, but of humanity. Surely, his devotion to Lara parallels his growing admiration for that part of humanity that overcomes the artificial, oppressiveness that dominates "modernity" and society at large. It's as though they're the only two "real" people in all of Russia, while everyone else is either a paragon of abstract ideals or a caricature wishing to be taken for a paragon.

There were several gaps between my reading sessions, including nearly two months where I didn't even open the book. Regardless of the time that passed, I was able to almost immediately return to Pasternak's Russia and recall all that I needed to follow each passage. It is presented as a large volume, but I came to view it as a collection of "episodes," much like a soap opera might be considered. It is a testament to Pasternak's specificity and thoroughness that I only twice felt compelled to thumb back to previous pages to verify that I knew what was going on.

In point of fact, when I first began reading Doctor Zhivago, I had already begun writing the first draft of my own novel. Its ambitions are much more modest, of course, and even if I ever get it published no one will ever speak of the two in the same breath. I was very conscious, though, of the difference between his writing and mine. I like to think I wrote only what was necessary to tell my story, and I feel he did this as well. Yet, his is a very verbose, flowing prose whereas mine was often very truncated. I did find all the "coincidences" a bit much to swallow (particularly in the conclusion and epilogue), but I cannot say I am aware of a single expendable word. To cut down Pasternak's writing would be to mar the beauty of his work.

Like all great works of art, Doctor Zhivago is a crucible of humanity. What more trying time is there, than a state of endless, chaotic violence? The artifice of civilization itself is wholly deconstructed, much as Plato explored in his Republic dialog. Where Plato had the luxury of indulging in hypothesis, however, Pasternak had real events from which to draw and into which to place his narrative. One would be mistaken to characterize this as "historical fiction," for that suggests that it is a made-up story set in specific time and place from real history. Certainly, it is that but it is also something much greater: it is a work of art.

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