Charmed Life

John Bayley

  • The Russian Revolutionary Novel: Turgenev to Pasternak by Richard Freeborn
    Cambridge, 256 pp, £27.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 521 24442 0
  • Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art by Guy de Mallac
    Souvenir, 450 pp, £14.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 285 62558 6
  • Pasternak: A Biography by Ronald Hingley
    Weidenfeld, 294 pp, £12.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 297 78207 X
  • Selected Poems by Boris Pasternak, translated by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France
    Allen Lane, 160 pp, £7.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 7139 1497 1
  • Poets of Modern Russia by Peter France
    Cambridge, 240 pp, £20.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 521 23490 5
  • Russian Literature since the Revolution by Edward Brown
    Harvard, 413 pp, £20.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 674 78203 8

The poet Blok once wrote about the ‘gloomy roll-call’ in Russian history of tyrants and executioners, ‘and opposite them a single bright name – Pushkin’. Quite true. But to put it like that is the equivalent of a single bright name outside the cinema – Omar Sharif as Dr Zhivago. The Russians have a word for the process – poshlost. This is not vulgarity, which is a good honest affair, but a factitious emphasis placed where none should exist, the facile forcing into expression and standardisation of what can only be true at the level of private, exploratory feeling. Television and advertising, politics and journalism, are the natural homes of poshlost, where it has its proper uses and its presence is so much taken for granted as to be relatively benign. Though bad art may embody poshlost, its pretensions are usually harmless and recognisable: worse things happen when good art is taken up by poshlost, and has the kind of qualities which it can take over.

When does this happen? Not with Mozart, with Shakespeare or with Pushkin, geniuses who can never be denatured, no matter what is done to them in the name of admiration or idolatry. Not even with Tolstoy, in spite of all the ballyhoo of Tolstoyism: his great achievements in art stand inevitably separate from the committed, parabolic aspects of his life. But the larger his talent the less easy it is for the 20th-century writer to separate himself from the exploitation of his own personality, an exploitation which he initiates, with which he collaborates, and which continues after his death. This occurs in a very obvious sense in relation to an artist like D.H. Lawrence, but in a much more subtle and peculiar sense it is true of a great poet-artist like Pasternak. The tradition in English is different: the greatness in poetry of a Yeats or an Eliot, however complex a matter, does not depend directly on their ‘views’, or upon their self-appointed role in society. Their legend is personal, not exemplary, and their achievement as poets is not a sort of holy collaboration with the national soul, a struggle requiring the poet to present himself as both prophet and sacrifice. And of course they had not participated, as Pasternak did, in the convulsions of a revolution and its aftermath. Pushkin did not consciously or voluntarily become the single bright name opposed to the record of Russia’s rulers: he got on with the job of being an artist. But for Pasternak that job turned into becoming such a bright name, making a sacred identification of himself and his art with life, the life that had gone down into the grave and would rise again. The only thing of importance in the lives of the minor characters in Dr Zhivago is that they lived in the times of the great man; they could bear witness to the mystery and miracle of his existence.

In his excellent book on the Russian Revolutionary novel Richard Freeborn discusses the many forerunners of Dr Zhivago, and implies, what is certainly the case, that the novels which had sought to come to terms with the new world of the Revolution – Fedin’s Cities and Years, Veresaev’s The Deadlock, Bulgakov’s The White Guard, and perhaps most of all Olesha’s Envy – all oppose to the new revolutionary phenomena a solitary intelligent who is unable to come to terms with them, and who tries to make something out of his life in terms of former mystical, national or artistic traditions, seeking unsuccessfully to reconcile the new with the old. Zhivago has plenty in common with such heroes, but he is not only incomparably more compelling, as a projection of his creator, in terms of art: he is also strong where they are weak and vacillating, filled with confidence and sureness where they are hollow and empty. Whatever his anguish in terms of his personal life and of the collective scene, Zhivago/Pasternak is a man who knows he is right. In terms of art he is as Lenin was in terms of politics. Unlike the traditional Russian intelligent, he opposes to the Bolshevik scene a conviction as convinced and as crafty, an ideology as sure of itself, as that with which Lenin and his entourage were able to seize power from the nerveless hands of the liberals and the bien-pensant Russian intelligentsia.

It is precisely this ideological confidence which lends itself to and collaborates with the kind of poshlost which in the Soviet Union is now in charge of the Communist legend. Although Zhivago is dead before the great purges, he is in his own way a colleague in Stalin’s cult of personality. Pasternak himself had a strange relation to Stalin, a relation involving a kind of mutual respect. ‘Don’t touch the cloud-dweller,’ Stalin is supposed to have said about him, and the assumption is that the tyrant, who had a nose for such things, sensed that Pasternak was no threat to him but was admiring him in his own peculiar way. The poet Gumilov, Akhmatova’s husband, had actually taken part in an anti-Bolshevik conspiracy, for which he was executed, and if Pushkin had been present in Petersburg at the time of the Decembrist uprising, he would have been on the square with his friends. Milton and Petöfi are true revolutionary poets. Pasternak was no more capable of throwing himself into the struggle than Tennyson would have been, or Rilke. This is to speak frivolously of a terrible matter, but his role seems to have been ultimately understood by Pasternak rather than chosen by him – one can hardly speak of deliberate choice in such a context – because the figure of the sacrificial artist claimed the same kind of unique role and unique authority, at a given historical moment, as Stalin implicitly claimed. A saviour was needed, to lead the people back to life, as a new Tsar of steel had been needed, at least by the inherent logic of the Bolshevik ethos, to fuse the national sense of purpose, the will to drive towards the industrial future.

On several occasions Pasternak insisted that there could, as it were, be only one true artist at a given time. In addition to everything else about Communist ideology, he utterly rejected the role of the artist as a kind of social engineer or welfare worker, playing his part beside his party colleagues. This was the view that Mayakovsky promulgated, at least officially – that artists and poets must be turned out by the Soviet state in ever-increasing numbers, like tanks and lorries and doctors and TV sets. For Pasternak the saviour poet of the age must be a single figure, and the poems reveal his identity. In true art ‘the man is silent but the image speaks’, as it does at the end of the last Zhivago poem.

You see, the progress of the ages is like a fable, which on its way has the power to burst into flame. In the name of its awful majesty I will go down with willing torments into the grave.

  I will go down, and rise again on the third day, and as boats float on the river, the centuries like a caravan of barges shall float out of the darkness to me for judgment.

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