Doctor Zhivago

By Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) Everyman’s Library (1991)

This reader is daunted by an attempt to summarize the impact of a work as great as this; it is the most flawless fiction that I have ever read. As a bonus, it’s an object history lesson. Never have I witnessed such a puree of seamless prose and poetry. This Gothic literary masterpiece stands like a beacon among the great historical fiction of all time, challenging and often excelling triumphant works such as, War and Peace, Tale of Two Cities, Gone with the Wind, and The Source. There is no better depiction of 20th Century Russia and Communism than Pasternak gives in this touching, heart wrenching tale.

Dr. Zhivago was smuggled from Russian and first published in 1958, and was forged into one of Hollywood’s greatest films in the mid-1960’s. Pasternak allows the reader to view Russia and Communism from the eyes of all strata of society, from the nobility to the bourgeois-laboring class; his plots begin in the early 1900’s, well before the Tsar was overthrown and take the reader through The Stalin Era. It took Pasternak three decades to complete Zhivago and another decade plus to smuggle it into Western Europe to Italy, where it was first published, circa 1957. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but the Communist regime forced him to decline it and persecuted him inscrutably for the last two years of his life . Reading Pasternak (who was also the most prominent Russian poet of the 20th Century) is an education in the art of observation, perception and self expression. The voices of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Chekov are audible in Zhivago, which, to me, trumps them all. Pasternak’s plots and sub plots are gripping, as disparate lives are interwoven from the opulence of the nobility in pre-Communist Russia to the endless persecutions, privations, squalor and tragedies that befell all social classes after The Russian Revolution. The characters breathe three dimensionally and pull the reader inside their breasts to feel their vibrant heart beats as real-life events cast them about like leaves in a raging tempest: Yuri Zhivago, the tender, loving doctor-poet-esthete; Tonia, his elegant, lovely wife; Lara/Laura, the scholarly femme fatale-love of his life, who disappears into one of the labor camps in Siberia for some years (just as Pasternak’s mistress was persecuted for her affiliation with him); Pasha Antipov, Laura’s husband, who becomes Communist leader “Strelnikov” (“the shooter”) and who is later hunted by his own Party until he commits suicide; Komarovsky, the ruthless lawyer-predator, who abused Laura as a child and relentlessly pursued her evermore; and the benevolent Uncle Kolia, the sole survivor among the lead characters, who remains to guide the balalaikist, Tanya, the lost daughter of Yuri and Lara.

Above all, Zhivago teaches us how to love: “They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth beneath their feet…Their conversations, however casual, were as full of meaning as the Dialogues of Plato…and they loved with passion…” As the philosopher Stuart Hampshire said, “It is one of the most profound descriptions of love in all of literature.”

Pasternak, like his American contemporary, the sublime Theodore Dreiser, writes effortless and unselfconscious prose. He is devoid of artifice and makes no attempt to protect himself from any negative reactions from his readers. In his story lines, like life itself, truth predominates; nothing is settled or concluded; everything is beginning (and ending) at every moment. At points, his plot contains the unexpected humor and gaiety of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, but Yuri Zhivago, like Hamlet, is a tragic figure; yet, in an obvious double entendre, Pasternak named his lead character “Zhivago”, which, in Russian, means “Mr. Lively”.

Unlike Dickens and most, Pasternak has no overriding message to give. Or does he? Of course, he notes the horrors of Communism: At first, he saw Communism as a valuable reprieve from the repression of Tsarist Russia, but, all too soon, the oppression became “infinitely worse…Only the oppressors had changed…All of life is a struggle for freedom from rulers,” an almost paraphrase of Jefferson. “A revolution,” Yuri laments, “is good only on its first day.” “Communism preaches that all must do for The Party and wait for the better life that will some day emerge.” “There can be no Party Line about life…One must live, not always be preparing to live.” (This line seems to be a precursor of the popular adage, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.”) In the most damning indictment of Communism, he descries, “When everything belongs to everyone, no one takes care of anything.” “Lacking originality is the most damning objection to the revolutionary [and religious] mentality. Imitation [accepting the conclusions of others] leads to brainwashing [and robot like conformance].”

His central theme is “power [or repression] vs. the individual” -- as the grim allegory of all history. “Man is a wolf to man.” No one or thing has exposed the evils of Communism (and all oppressive governments) more compellingly than Zhivago – even though, in fear of his life no doubt, he omitted to note that Stalin had become the largest mass-murderer in history, outdoing Hitler by slaughtering eight million kulaks (property owners), to seize wealth and curtail opposition, effectively denuding Russia of its intellectuals and some say as many more of the middle and lower classes: a tragic end to history’s most frightening chapter. There is no telling the degree to which Pasternak’s brazen expose (for the times) expedited the fall of Communism – and unmasked the bitter emptiness and drunken indifference which remain pervasive in Russia today.

In spite of the tragedies and the unspeakable tortures, so grimly unveiled, Zhivago is somehow uplifting. The sweetness of loving relationships prevails and consumes the mind of the downtrodden. The prose continuously stuns the reader with its celestial loveliness: “The blizzard was alone on earth and knew no rival…It was snowing and whenever the front door opened, the wind rushed past as though tangled in a thousand knots by flickering snowflakes…The light of the lamps streaking into the yard went down the trees in a dusty vaporous flow…Everything was growing feverishly with the magic yeast of life…The moon stood high; its light covered everything like a thick layer of white paint…The moonlit night was extraordinary like merciful love or the gift of clairvoyance.” The beauty of Pasternak’s prose in his native Russian must be beyond our less attenuated powers of imagination and, to this reader, surpass all the great Russian novelists.

Yet, his unforgettable prose exposes something more universal: the nuances, the subtle observations about life’s ebb and flow, and the depth of human emotions, and the sublime emotions that a great love can impart to one’s life. Yuri celebrates the livingness of things and eschews Party blueprints for some idyllic tomorrow; he daily sucks the nectar of beauty from every rose, sunset, shadow, snowflake, raindrop, bird’s song and star. He sees, feels, savors and loves, in spite of all else; he LIVES: “The candle burned; the candle burned,” as he allegorically observed. Therein rests his essence.

I am drawn to this novel as is a moth to light or a child to its mother’s bosom; it nurtures the soul; it is a salve to one’s life-spirit; it feeds mental milk and honey and calms one’s anxieties, even as it reveals the lives of those who spin the infamous tale of predatory Communism and Russia’s macabre Revolution, its birth and its wretched denouement. Spellbinding words spill from Pasternak’s immortal pen to form a mélange of poetic images, which hold his prose together like gossamer threads, painting landscapes, people and their culture, and he does this as quickly as a breeze caresses and leaves us, but leaving an indelible photographic-like image in our minds. No sooner are we enthralled with such visuals than he sweeps us into dialogue or events that captivate us no less. Like all of the classics, he must be read slowly, contemplated, re-read and digested; only then can we elevate the poet in all of us, and our powers of observation are heightened forever. There simply can be no better way to learn the genesis of the culture of modern Russia and clearly no more inspirational and rewarding fiction to be found. While I read and loved this novel in the 1960’s, I was too young to appreciate it until now, my third slow-read of this priceless historical fiction.