Before They Met
- Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Harvill, 513 pp, £20.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 1 84655 379 0
Pauline Kael took against the rainbow at the end of David Lean’s film Doctor Zhivago. It was a ‘disgraceful effect’, she said, ‘a coarse gesture of condescension and appeasement to the Russians’, and she asked if Lean and Robert Bolt would have placed a rainbow ‘over the future of England’. Actually it’s difficult to think of David Lean placing rainbows anywhere much, and more significantly, the mood of the rainbow, if not the actual image, is fully there in Boris Pasternak’s novel, as Russian as you can get. It is true that Lean hangs his rainbow across the waters of a rather predictable Soviet dam, while the novel’s rosy view starts in Moscow.
Two veterans of the Second World War look out on an urban evening some time between 1948 and 1953 – ‘five or ten years’ have gone by since the last date mentioned, 1943 – and picture ‘a happy, tender sense of peace about this holy city and about the whole earth’. It’s true they haven’t much to go on, just ‘portents’ that no one else seems to be seeing, but they know how they want to feel. ‘To the ageing friends at the window it seemed that this freedom of the soul had come, that precisely on that evening the future had settled down tangibly in the streets below, that they themselves had entered into that future and henceforth found themselves in it.’ This is just the kind of writing that makes many people love this novel; and the same kind of writing that makes many other people cringe. Take your pick: the indomitable human spirit or wishful thinking.
Since the two old friends, only some 30 pages earlier, were identified by the novel’s hero as ‘hopelessly ordinary’, and unable to understand that ‘the calamity of mediocre taste is worse than the calamity of tastelessness,’ it may seem that we are invited to take their vision ironically, a promise of a future that can’t be better than tepid. Just wishful thinking then, a fake rainbow. But the friends have been provoked in part by the text of the now dead Yuri Zhivago’s notebook, ‘which they had read many times and half of which they knew by heart’. Does the irony include the castigator of the ordinary too? It’s true he castigates them only in his mind, telling them silently that ‘the only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me,’ but there doesn’t seem to be much irony here, only considerable impatience and self-aggrandisement, such as comes from knowing you’re the hero of a novel. We also, by this stage of the work, have read quite a few pages of the notebook as it was being written (‘to me art has never seemed a subject or an aspect of form, but rather a mysterious and hidden part of content’; ‘everyone is born a Faust, to embrace everything, experience everything, express everything’) and one conclusion we might draw from this reading is that the hopelessly ordinary and the eagerly exceptional are not all that far apart from each other, might well change places now and again. ‘Mysterious and hidden’. That sounds rather like entering the future and finding yourself in it, as the two friends imagine.
Reflections like these may tempt us to join the cringers; to side with Nabokov against Edmund Wilson, for example. The two men were still some seven years from their serious falling out over Pushkin, but they strongly disagreed here already. Nabokov thought Doctor Zhivago was ‘dreary conventional stuff’, and Wilson said it was ‘one of the great events in man’s moral and literary history’. Nabokov, we might say, took the view of the novel that Zhivago himself had of his friends; Wilson was speaking Zhivago’s own grandiose language. The novel was first published in Italian in 1957, and soon after in English, Russian and other languages. It didn’t appear in Russia itself until 1987. Pasternak was awarded, and accepted, the Nobel Prize in 1958; and then bullied into refusing it after all. His second telegram, cited by Richard Pevear in his introduction to this new translation, said: ‘In view of the meaning attributed to this award in the society to which I belong, I must refuse the undeserved prize that has been bestowed on me. Do not take my voluntary rejection with any ill will.’ ‘The meaning attributed to this award’ is a graceful way of not saying the meaning attributed to my book.
Clearly we could think the novel’s idea of unconventionality was a little conventional and also find virtues in it that Nabokov was never going to look for. Larissa Fyodorovna, often called Lara, the love of Zhivago’s life, remarks with seeming casualness: ‘It’s only in bad books that living people are divided into two camps and don’t communicate.’ She’s wrong, of course, it happens in good books and real life; but she’s right that we don’t all have to be in one of two camps all the time.
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