Frye Scoop: On Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago

The following review by Frye, overlooked for the Collected Works, appeared under the “Turning New Leaves” column of the Canadian Forum 38 (December 1958): 206–7.  Frye reviews Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, trans. Max Hayward and Mania Harari (London: Collins and Harvill Press).

Reading this book is quite an experience; reviewing it, for one who knows no Russian, is an exercise in frustration.  It is abundantly clear that it is more of an epic poem than a novel.  The two main attributes of the conven­tional novel, vitality of character drawing and logicality of plot, are hardly present at all.  The story is a series of detached episodes connected by the most preposterous coincidences.  Characters wander in and out, or die and come back to life under other names. Only the incidental char­acters are described with much vividness, while the main figures loom up as cloudily as the heroes of Ossian.  But all the time we are aware that some different principle of unity is holding the book together, a principle based, as in most poetry, on the imagery, and on the symbolic values attached to that imagery.  It is not the picture of the revolution and civil war that organizes the narrative; it is the meaning that the author gives to such figures as the caryatids on a building, to iced rowanberries and lilacs, to the weeping face of the heroine Lara, to a waterfall that is associated with the dragon of a knight-errant romance, to the Siberian forest and its wolves, to the incessant references to the festivals of the Church, especially Christmas and Easter.  The author himself says that his hero was a poet interested in the tech­niques of symbolisme, because it is based on the principle “that communion between mortals is immortal, and that the whole of life is symbolic because the whole of it has meaning.”  A series of poems at the end, supposedly by Zhivago, provide the symbolic keys to the story.  But nobody can unravel this kind of writing except in the original language.  The translators do their best, but candidly admit that their translation has been done in a hurry and that it makes no attempt to give much more than the general sense.  What follows is consequently very tentative, and is designed only to encourage others to read the book for themselves.

The story itself is simple enough.  Yury Zhivago, whose father’s suicide starts the book off, is brought up in Czarist Russia and studies medicine.  He is also a poet, but does not regard poetry as a profession.  Drafted as a medical officer in the First World War, he sees the revolution bring unparalleled social chaos to Moscow, where he lives, and sets out with his wife and family to a village in the Urals.  There he manages, through the charity of an old friend, to live on the land for a while, though his emotional life is complicated by the reappearance of a girl he had known from childhood, Lara, now married to a non-party revolu­tionary whose new name is Strelnikov.  In the civil war Zhivago is kidnapped by the Reds because of his medical knowledge, and spends some years with the partisans in incredible hardship and misery, while his family make their way back to Moscow, whence they are exiled from the country.  Released at last, Zhivago goes back to the Ural village and has a brief and beleaguered affair with Lara, until it becomes obvious that Lara and her husband are next on the shooting list.  A middle-age roué named Komarovsky, who had debauched Lara in her youth and who is one of those greased eels that can wriggle through any society, communist or bourgeois, takes Lara off to the “Far Eastern Republic” in East Siberia, while Strelnikov shoots himself and Zhivago goes back to Moscow, a broken man.  Zhivago dies of a heart attack in a Moscow street car, and Lara, back from the Far East, disappears into “one of the in­numerable mixed or women’s concentration camps in the north.”  An epilogue, dated during the Second World War, says that “a presage of freedom was in the air throughout these post-war years, and it was their only historical meaning.”  Thus the book ends in a mood of serenity and hope.  We, of course, know that it has a second epilogue.

Doctor Zhivago is not by any means an anti-Red polemic, and it is only the terrified Soviet bureaucrats who have made it one.  In this country, where it is assumed that it is part of the job of a serious novelist to make serious criticisms of his society; it would hardly have raised a ripple or real controversy.  Zhivago was, like Pasternak himself, a grown man when the revolution began, and hence feels detached from the struggle to the extent of not accepting the official version of it as a crude melodrama of heroes and villains.  “It’s only in bad novels,” the author remarks, “that people are divided into two camps and have nothing to do with each other.  In real life everything gets mixed up.”  But he makes it clear that however brutal and savage the Reds were, the Whites were far worse, as, like all Fascists, they added sexual sadism to ordinary brutality.  Pasternak merely says what the communists themselves would say, in other and more carefully controlled contexts, that the real revolution, the bringing of freedom and equality to man, has not yet begun.  Also, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky before him, though in a way quite different from either, he is comparing the Russian society of his time with the vision of life set out in the Christian Gospel.

The conception which animates the whole book is outlined by an unfrocked priest at the beginning and repeated by other characters, including Zhivago himself, at intervals.  Up to the time of Christ, says the ex-priest, we have peoples with their gods, or man in a state of nature, where the individual is of little value in himself, and tyranny is the natural order of things, there being no suspicion that “any man who enslaves others is inevitably second-rate.”  Christ abolished both gods and peoples by putting the individual life in the centre of reality, and making love of one’s neighbor, free personality and the sacrificial life primary facts.  As this recreated the true form of society as well as of the individual, it brought man from a state of nature into a state of history, for history really starts with Christ.  Judaism, with its emphasis on a people and its god, rejects this principle, and the Russian Revolution has so far followed Judaism rather than Christianity.

The revolution began with a breathless moment like that of the Incarnation itself.  “Only real greatness,” says the hero of the revolution, “can be so misplaced and so untimely.”  But it soon becomes clear that the professionals who organized the revolution can only function in a state of revolution.  Revolution is the opiate of the bureaucrat, and it soon enters the “second stage” in which the spirit of narrowness which led to the upheaval is worshipped as “holy.”  There must be constant purges and massacres, constant setting up of imaginary enemies, and falsehood becomes a way of life.  With a few deft touches Pasternak indicates the development of a new pseudo-morality.  When Zhivago, as a partisan conscript, reproaches his captain, who has become a dope addict, with embezzling his medical supply of cocaine, the captain instantly retorts with: “You cut the study circle again last night.  You have an atrophied social sense, just like an illiterate peasant woman or an inveterate bourgeois.”  Zhivago is sickened by having his brain-washed friends tell him how much better they feel, and sees that men who are not free “always idealize their bondage.”  And he himself, when he realizes he has heart disease, notes that heart disease is often caused by the mental strain of living with so much lying.

Christianity as Pasternak conceives it is not just a creed or an institution: religion, like revolution, also has a “second stage,” which emphasizes the least important things.  One can believe that history begins with Christ and still be an atheist, for the more abundant life that Christ brought can be conceived in purely secular terms, as a service to society that continues to live after death.  Marxism is a betrayal of Christ’s view of man, not because it is atheistic, but because it has forsaken the concrete for the abstract.  The really material things, food, shelter, love, art and society, have been replaced by an abstract parody of them.  “In those days of the triumph of materialism, matter had become an abstract notion, and food and firewood were replaced by problems of alimentation and fuel supply.”  The gods may have gone, but the myths of power which were the real forms of those gods still remain.  “Ordinarily, people are anxious to test their theories in practice, to learn from experience, but those who wield power are so anxious to establish the myth of their own infallibility that they turn their backs on truth.”  Zhivago being a poet as well as a doctor, he sees how revolutionaries turn to the kind of rhetorical jargon which is diseased language, a sort of verbal cancer, and is an infallible sign of a diseased society.  “Instead of being natural and spontaneous as we had always been, we began to be idiotically pompous with each other.  Something showy, artificial, forced, crept into our conversation.”  The novel begins with the suicide of Zhivago’s father, who was apparently what the Russians call an obyvatel, a detached observer of society, driven to despair by the sense of his own sterility.  Zhivago’s own death was not a suicide, but it helped to establish the fact that there is still a proletariat in Russia, in the Marxist sense of a group excluded from the benefits of society, and that this new proletariat is the group of those who can think and observe independently.

But although Christ delivered man from the state of nature, a genuinely free and creative human existence does not repudiate nature, but recovers its real relation to it.  This is the point at which Pasternak’s symbolism takes over, and at which the non-Russian reader feels his deficiencies sharply.  Evidently Pasternak thinks of man and nature as forming a common organism, in which the immortality of man is one with the death and rebirth of nature.  A good deal is made of Zhivago’s interest in camouflage, or the way organism absorbs itself into its environment.  The farfetched coincidences in the plot, and the way in which so many of the characters disappear and return to life, are deliberately adopted as part of the book’s convention, and seem to suggest that the human and historical counterpart of evolution is a kind of invisible providence, a larger design of which the individual is largely unconscious.  The containing form of this providence, and of the whole novel, is the ancient myth of the virgin-eating dragon killed by a hero who, in the original form of the myth, also dies. The poem which deals with this myth is translated twice at the end of the book, and the myth itself is given in a realistic form in the epilogue, in the story of Zhivago’s daughter.   This daughter, along with Zhivago’s mysterious half-Mongol brother Yevgraf, who seems to be invulnerable to purges and takes her under his protection at the end of the book, represents the continuing power of renewed life which will succeed the mutual sleep of the hero, his bride, and the dragon of chaos and terror.

Doctor Zhivago is a deeply impressive and moving novel in translation, and it may well be a very great one.  A novel derives its social significance only from the resistance it happens to meet, and the fact that this book is banned in Russia and vociferously denounced by officials who have presumably not read it, has given it an extraneous and topical importance.  Its fate is typical, not exceptional, for the Soviet record in literature is a miserable one, with so many of their really first-rate writers having disappeared in purges or been driven to suicide or exile.  The functionaries of the Soviet Union could get the sputniks into the air, but cannot endure to be told that they are not meeting the ethical standards of the New Testament.  It is possible that their failure in the latter area may turn out to be more important, even historically, than their success in the former one.

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