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Boris Pasternak: "Doctor Zhivago" (1956)

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. Life itself, the phenomenon of life, the gift of life, is so breathtakingly serious!
-Boris Pasternak


Most of us are only familiar with Doctor Zhivago from the epic David Lean film version (indeed this is one of the books I come across most frequently at book sales, almost always unread). The movie is beautiful but strangely inert, has a somewhat disjointed narrative and conveys no clear philosophical message--flaws which I always assumed were a function of the difficulty of converting a Russian novel to film and the inexplicable casting of two really awful actors (Omar Sharif & Julie Christie) in the lead roles. But now, having reread the novel, it seems to me that these weaknesses are inherent in the novel. Just as Lean seemed most interested in the story as a vehicle for presenting cinematic images, the real life in Pasternak comes less from the narrative itself than from the poetry that Zhivago produces. And the message of the novel, assuming that there is one, is presented awfully subtly.

Zhivago himself, the name means "life" in Russian, is a pretty docile leading man. The story follows him as he is buffeted by the winds of change in Russia from 1903 to his death sometime after WWII.
We can take at least a twofold message from the novel. Pasternak seems first of all to be speaking out, however obliquely, against a system which denies life and destroys artists, as the Soviet regime had. However, he also seems to be saying that the artist is relatively helpless against the tides of history. It is ironic in light of this that Pasternak became such a cause celebre. A good deal of this novel's reputation surely rests on the Western reaction to Soviet efforts to quash it. Perhaps I've simply lost the ability to read between the lines of samizdat, but I thought the condemnation of Communist Russia in the book was exceedingly mild, almost too much so. And there is one section in particular, right at the end of the book, where Pasternak waxes optimistically over how the nation may be entering a period of renewed freedom now that the war has been won. This kind of wishful thinking comes across as incredibly naive. I guess I too will have to fall back on the reaction that the novel provoked and assumed that even such feathery criticism as the book contains was important in crystallizing opposition to the regime.

But Doctor Zhivago is understood to be semi autobiographical and to the extent that Zhivago is acted upon rather than acting himself, perhaps he is intended to convey Pasternak's own ambivalence about the role he had played by remaining in Soviet Union and continuing to work. Indeed, there is a really poignant moment in Isaiah Berlin's piece on the author, where Pasternak, near desperation, seeks to solicit Berlin's opinion on whether people believe that he has collaborated with the government because he remained in the USSR or whether they instead accept that he felt compelled to stay. In fairness to Pasternak, it should not be necessary to leave a country (as did Solzhenitsyn) or be disappeared (as was Isaac Babel) or be imprisoned (as were countless others) in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of your opposition to an evil government.

To be honest, the subtlety of Pasternak's message and our increasing distance from the time when even such subtleties could prove incendiary, served to deaden the effect of a novel which already suffers from being a tad too episodic. In the final analysis, I guess I respected the book more than enjoyed it and found it more interesting as a key artifact of an age that is quickly receding from memory than compelling as a novel

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