Before They Met

Michael Wood

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.

Boris Pasternak

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.

Doctor Zhivago is full of coincidences, as Nabokov says in another of his swipes (‘stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences’), but they are not trite, they are part of the novel’s deepest plot, the novelist’s attempt to get the chance to do his work, to smuggle a sense of shape into a recalcitrant history. Of course the young Yuri, riding through Moscow in a sleigh, sees ‘the same things that had caught Lara’s eye not long before’, even though he hasn’t met her yet. That’s how twinned destinies work. And when it turns out that the man (a voluptuous lawyer) who seduced Lara when she was a girl is also the man who nudged Yuri’s profligate father into committing suicide by jumping from a train – the same train we see from a distance suddenly stopping in the first pages of the book – we’re not surprised, we’re satisfied. Although we probably could do without Lara’s rather clunky comment: ‘It can’t be! What a portentous detail! Is it really true? So he was your evil genius too? How that brings us together! Simply some sort of predestination!’ She’s not usually as dim as this, and it’s sad to see her employed so patently for Pasternak’s wink at the possibly careless reader. By ‘voluptuous lawyers’ Nabokov meant just one rather stereotyped Russian rake. Pasternak’s figure is more than that, and less than Lara’s evil genius. The lawyer doesn’t bring the two lovers together because the plot has been doing nothing else since it settled down around page 70. But he is one powerful emblem of the forces at work everywhere in the novel, sometimes malign, often benevolent and occasionally crazy but always individualised, significantly altering the apparently impersonal world.

At the Western Front during the February Revolution of 1917, a young commissar addresses a group of mutinous soldiers, and is shot and killed, apparently at random, before other rebels stab his dead body with their bayonets. Several years later, in the Urals with the partisans during the Civil War, we meet the man who fired that shot. He is a brutal, unthinking fellow and he’s killed a lot of people – ‘a lot of your kind’, he tells Zhivago – but the only case he thinks of at all is that of the young commissar, and the memory is driving him mad. Why did he do it, why did he ‘destroy the lad’? ‘He made me laugh, he was killingly funny. I shot him from laughter, stupidly. For no reason.’ He is right, laughter is not a reason. But this death has now become particular, man to man, it is no longer part of the general disorder of revolt.

The same killer, an ardent family man and much worried about the safety of his wife and children in the turbulence of the Civil War, finally slaughters them himself in order to save them from torture, or more precisely because his mind cannot bear the thought of such torture any more. ‘He cut down his wife and three children with that same razor-sharp axe with which he had carved wooden toys for the girls and his beloved son, Flenushka.’ He doesn’t kill himself, he just wanders around the partisan camp for a while, and then disappears. Does the memory of his murder of the young commissar have something to do with his distress and madness? The suggestion is that it’s the randomness of his own action that he cannot bear; its arbitrariness not its immorality. He now understands that in a world of such erratic motivations everyone is a threatened hostage, and every death is particular.

Zhivago has a theory of such particularity, and indeed a theory of the emblematised forces of the world, and elaborates them even before he meets the haunted killer. What he likes about Pushkin and Chekhov, as compared with Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, is ‘their shy unconcern with such resounding things as the ultimate goals of mankind and their own salvation’. They allowed themselves to be rightly ‘distracted by the current particulars of their artistic calling’. And when Zhivago describes the infrequent but essential interventions of his half-brother in his life he also defines one of Pasternak’s own basic principles of construction: ‘Perhaps the composition of every biography, along with the cast of characters acting in it, also calls for the participation of a mysterious unknown power, an almost symbolic person, appearing to help without being called, and the role of this beneficent and hidden mainspring is played in my life by my brother Evgraf?’

The point, it seems, is not that we all have such symbolic persons in our lives, for good or ill, but that we can’t coherently recount a life without them – can’t save a life from mere history except through the fantasy of a secret agent whom history won’t recognise.

The Soviet objections to Doctor Zhivago presumably did not rest on a sophisticated reading – or perhaps on any reading – of the novel, but there is a real oppositional threat in such a theory of life-writing. It’s not that Pasternak, like his hero at one stage, is caught on some middle ground, too ‘dangerous’ for the moderates and ‘insufficiently red’ for the ‘politically advanced’. He’s not on any ground where ordinary politics has a purchase; and that too is a form of politics.

A rather quiet politics, though, and it’s striking that Zhivago, for all his vivid sense of a life to be lived, rarely takes charge of his own actions. He becomes a doctor, gets married, goes to war, performs various good deeds and thinks the right thoughts, but he rarely connects himself to anything or anyone, except Lara, with whom he spends very little time, and whom he finally allows to go off (for her own safety, in the belief that he will follow) with the rakish lawyer. He has five children and pays no attention to any of them – it’s true he doesn’t know about the last, and neither do we until the Epilogue. When he moves with his family from Moscow to the Urals he zigzags briefly between home and Lara’s house, and then is captured, or requisitioned as a doctor, by the partisans. His situation here seems to take the shape of one of his own symbols, a matter now not of a person but of something like a syndrome. Can’t he escape from the partisans? Is anyone guarding him properly?

It seemed that this dependence, this captivity, did not exist, that the doctor was free and simply did not know how to take advantage of it. The doctor’s dependence, his captivity, in no way differed from other forms of constraint in life, equally invisible and intangible, which also seem like something non-existent, a chimera and a fiction. Despite the absence of fetters, chains and guards, the doctor was forced to submit to his unfreedom, which looked imaginary.

His three attempts to escape from the partisans ended in capture. They let him off for nothing, but it was like playing with fire. He did not repeat them any more.

There seem to be two quite different claims here. Zhivago seemed to be free, since there were no visible chains, but he wasn’t, the partisans didn’t need such chains, they just caught him every time he tried to get away. At the same time the illusion of his freedom among the partisans ‘in no way differed’ from the illusion of freedom anyone has in ordinary social life, a form of captivity by another name. Is this a reason for not escaping? No, but it’s a reason for not expecting much from any escape, and this is the plight Zhivago finds himself in again and again.

Before he goes to the front in Galicia we are told that he ‘longingly anticipated his disappearance from family and university horizons’, and during the ‘last eight or nine years’ of his life, after Lara’s departure with the lawyer and his own return to Moscow, apart from brief flashes of writing, he is plunged into a ‘prolonged indifference towards himself and everything in the world’. Then he abandons the mistress and children he has collected almost without noticing, and briefly finds himself, just before he dies, as the prospective poet of the city. ‘To that end she has brought me up and given art into my hands.’ ‘She’ is Moscow, not even Lara. The narrator tells us that ‘no such poems’ are to be found in Zhivago’s notebook, and wonders whether the poem ‘Hamlet’ – the novel closes with a selection of 25 of Zhivago’s poems, ‘not merely an addendum’, as Pevear reminds us – ‘belonged to that category’. In the poem Hamlet asks his maker if ‘this once’ he may be spared having to ‘play this role’, knowing that he will probably have to go on with it anyway. And what matters in this context is the weary but intense desire to refuse, as if Zhivago were some kind of Russian Bartleby, preferring not to be wherever he was.

Boris Pasternak

At the end of the story, with Zhivago dead of a heart disease and Lara’s husband, a famous, fierce commissar of the Red Army, having shot himself once he realised he had become a piece of unwanted history, Lara pulls the pieces together, thinking ‘Nobody’s left. One has died. The other killed himself. And only the one who should have been killed is left alive.’ The third figure is the lawyer, and by ‘should have’ she means both to protest against the unfairness of such a survival and to recall her own attempt to kill him long ago, before she even met Zhivago, although of course our hero was present at the shooting – we wouldn’t expect the plot to miss such a chance of anticipatory connection.

This emptying out of a crowded world – there were only three people in it really, and two of them are gone – is what allows us to feel that the very large cast of characters, many of them very colourful, is actually a frieze or a chorus rather than a set of individuals. We would be wrong to give in to this feeling entirely, since the suffering, patience and wit of many of these characters are very real, and the novel, taking us through European war, revolution, and civil war in Russia, has some memorable pictures of long waits for transportation, burned out villages, endless train journeys, hungry cities, frozen wastes, hideous violence and maiming. There is a whole historical world here, and it can’t be refused. But having said that, we do need to pay attention to the novel’s own attempt to refuse it, and the following passage perhaps says more than it wants to about the fantasy, the dream of difference, that lies at the heart of the book. The subject is the now longstanding relation between Zhivago and Lara:

Still more than by the communion of souls, they were united by the abyss that separated them from the rest of the world. They both had an equal aversion to all that was fatally typical in modern man, his studied rapturousnes, his shrill elation, and that deadly winglessness which is assiduously spread by countless workers in the sciences and the arts so that genius will go on being an extreme rarity.

Of course they love each other, and love separates its adherents from the world. But here, it seems, the separation is the ground and the aim, and by the end of the sentence we’ve almost lost the lovers to an allegory of everyone else’s mediocrity. Just think: genius is still rare.

This is the voice and tone in which Zhivago thinks of his supposedly mediocre friends, but there is something more going on here and everywhere in the book: a desperate fight to assert the immediate; a claim to unprogrammed, actual existence. ‘To belong to a type is the end of a man, his condemnation.’ ‘Man is born to live,’ Zhivago grandly says right after this assertion, ‘not to prepare for life.’ The failure of the Revolution, according to Zhivago, is that it had no quarrel with order, loved it no less than the old regime. ‘Salvation lay not in faithfulness to forms, but in liberation from them.’ ‘The disease of our time’, Zhivago remarks, is one microscopic form or other of cardiac haemorrhage, brought on by ‘a constant, systematic dissembling. It’s impossible, without its affecting your health, to show yourself day after day contrary to what you feel, to lay yourself out for what you don’t love, to rejoice over what brings you misfortune.’ Lara had said something similar some time before. ‘Untruth came to the Russian land’, she says, when ‘people … had to sing to the general tune.’ She speaks of ‘the ready-made phrase’ as ‘first monarchistic, then revolutionary’, so it’s not at all clear when untruth arrived, or even if there was a time before it except in myth.

But we are wrong to look to these sentences for logic or historical diagnosis. What they express, sometimes snobbishly, is a longing for an authentic life that seems both within reach and always unavailable, and it says a great deal for the breadth of vision of the novel that although it unmistakably privileges the perspectives of Zhivago and Lara, it also understands the shifts and subterfuges by which other people survive. Sometimes seeming to rejoice over what brings you misfortune is the only way of staving off further misfortune, and if ‘the general tune’ is ‘hopelessly ordinary’, it may be just the tune to sing in extraordinary times.

Pevear is right to say the novel is not ‘a moving love story’. It is a love story, and it is moving; but what’s moving is the burden of difference the love has to bear. Of difference, and of connection to a world that history and politics, it seems, have contrived to lose. This is what Lara thinks as she weeps over Zhivago’s coffin:

They loved each other because everything around them wanted it so: the earth beneath them, the sky over their heads, the clouds and trees. Everything around them was perhaps more pleased by their love than they were themselves. Strangers in the street, the distances opening out during their walks, the rooms they lived or met in … Never, never, even in moments of the most gratuitous, self-forgetful happiness, did that most lofty and thrilling thing abandon them: delight in the general mould of the world, the feeling of their relation to the whole picture.

In another context this would be a version of an ancient lyrical trope linking the life of human love to the condition of the universe, like Othello’s ‘When I love thee not, chaos is come again,’ and it is partly that here too. But the stresses are all strange: ‘They loved each other because’; ‘perhaps more pleased’; ‘never, never’. If love often takes what’s around it as a metaphor, here love itself seems to be a metaphor, but for what? For an intimate relation with ‘the general mould of the world’, a relation that is itself, paradoxically, irredeemably particular. Quite early in the book we are told that Lara loves the ‘intricately fragrant air of the vast space’ of rural Russia: ‘It was dearer to her than a father and mother, better than a lover, and wiser than a book.’

This tilt is clearest in the novel’s many evocations of the colours and shapes of that world. I can’t compare the new translation in any detail with the 1958 version by Max Hayward and Manya Harari, but this feature does stand out in the present text. ‘It was a dark, rainy, two-coloured day,’ we read. Here is ‘mute, dark, hungry Moscow’. Here are birch trees that stand ‘straight as martyrs’; clouds that race ‘like halfwits’; ‘taffeta darkness’; rainwater ‘tinged with cinnabar’. The point is not so much the originality of these evocations as their specificity, their representation of a will to defeat generality. Such a will itself becomes general, of course, if it lasts for more than a moment, like the attachment to ‘the general mould of the world’. But its practice can be particular. It won’t save us from history, but it might save history from forgetting us.