Doctor Zhivago – a masterpiece revisited

Sixty years ago I read Boris Pasternak’s great novel, Doctor Zhivago. I was a first year undergraduate in University College Dublin. I had not read much at that stage of my life and in fact I did not know much about anything. But I did know that I had never read anything like that before. 

I have just reread it. Many years later there is still little in my fairly expansive and relatively discriminatory reading which can match it for its mysterious depth, beauty and power. Edmund Wilson wrote of the novel: “Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history”.

Boris Pasternak

In 1958 Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for literature. Doctor Zhivago had just been published in Italy the year before, to the chagrin of the Soviet authorities under whom Pasternak had struggled for years. Before the Prize for 1958 was announced rumours were circulating that he was going to be the recipient. They worried him and he wrote of them:

Some people believe the Nobel Prize may be awarded to me this year. I am firmly convinced that I shall be passed over and that it will go to Alberto Moravia. You cannot imagine all the difficulties, torments, and anxieties which arise to confront me at the mere prospect, however unlikely, of such a possibility… One step out of place – and the people closest to you will be condemned to suffer from all the jealousy, resentment, wounded pride and disappointment of others, and old scars on the heart will be reopened…

But the rumours were well-founded. On 23 October 1958, it was announced that he was in fact the winner of the Prize. The citation spoke of his contribution to Russian lyric poetry and for his role in, “continuing the great Russian epic tradition”. He accepted and to the Swedish Academy he wrote, “Infinitely grateful, touched, proud, surprised, overwhelmed.”

But as he feared and predicted, all this was a step too far for the monster which had shadowed him throughout his literary career. On 26 October, the Soviet watchdog, the Literary Gazette published an article entitled, “Reactionary Propaganda – Uproar over a Literary Weed”.

The KGB surrounded Pasternak’s dacha and he was threatened with arrest. His loved ones, some of whom had already spent time in Stalin’s gulags, were threatened as well. It was clear to him that should he go to Stockholm to receive the prize he would have to remain in exile for the rest of his life. For him, this was not an option.

On 29 October Pasternak told the Nobel Committee:

“In view of the meaning given the award by the society in which I live, I must renounce this undeserved distinction which has been conferred on me. Please do not take my voluntary renunciation amiss.”

The Academy responded:

“This refusal, of course, in no way alters the validity of the award. There remains only for the Academy, however, to announce with regret that the presentation of the Prize cannot take place.”

All of this was, of course, nothing more than a fulfillment of the prophetic story encapsulated in the masterpiece which had just reached the light of day in Italy the year before, and which was now enthralling the free world. Reading Doctor Zhivago today is unnervingly prescient, not just of what happened in Russia, of Pasternak’s own suffering, but of our own time plagued as we are by brainless ideologues who ruthlessly seek to mold mankind to their crazy bizarre imaginings.

But it would be wrong to limit the meaning, and indeed the mystery, of Doctor Zhivago to politics. It is a tragic and complicated love story, a story of forbidden love but one where the power of faith and conscience remains central in the suffering which unfolds for its protagonists. 

A clue to the vision of love, complicated though it may be, embodied in this extraordinarily poetic novel can be found in this short description: 

They loved each other, not driven by necessity, by the “blaze of passion” often falsely ascribed 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 under their feet.

Yuri Zhivago’s fictional life began some two decades before the Great War and the Russian Revolutions. He marries his childhood companion, Tonya, They love each other deeply, have children and live happily until the war and the revolution destroy the tranquility of their lives. 

Pasternak’s Yuri Zhivago is not a political man. While initially he hoped that the overthrow of the old regime would bring peace and justice, disillusion and eventually horror gripped him as he saw the hypocrisy, the brutality and the corrupted vision of the new masters unfold. He seeks to disappear. He is a complicated man who, in the disruption which war and revolution brought, falls deeply in love with someone with whom he knows he should not be in love. 

Some have criticised the novel for a heavy reliance on unbelievable coincidences, a certain chaotic element in the plot and a failure to adequately characterise the protagonists. Pasternak defended the structure in a letter to Stephen Spender.

This was written in the context of Edmund Wilson’s New Yorker 1958 review of the novel. Wilson had noted that it was full of recurring coincidences, and that, while the events in it seemed real, it wasn’t actually a realistic novel. Not long afterwards he wrote another article about it for Spender’s Encounter

Pasternak wrote to Spender, expressing his gratitude to and admiration for Wilson. He explained ‘coincidences’ and ‘chaos’ and said that his sense of reality–the whole–has always been this: that there is a purpose, an end…a reached sending… Whatever the cause, reality has been for me like a sudden, unexpected arrival that is intensely welcome. I have always tried to reproduce this sense of being sent, of being launched… there is an effort in my novels to represent the whole sequence (facts, beings, happenings) as a great moving entity… a developing, passing, rolling, rushing inspiration. As if reality itself had freedom of choice… Hence the reproach that my characters were insufficiently realized. Rather than delineate, I was trying to efface them. Hence the frank arbitrariness of the “coincidences.” Here I wanted to show the unrestrained freedom of life, its very verisimilitude contiguous with improbability…

Complicated, I know, but for any reader of this magnificent work of art, it is well worth grappling with it.

Another element in the vision of Pasternak – and reflected in Yuri Zhivago – is his belief in God and divine providence. This belief pervades the entire work, from beginning to the end. The ignorance of the new masters of Russia and their rejection of Christianity is at the heart of Zhivago’s revolt. It was also at the heart of the regime’s rejection of the author and his work. As we read his reflections on the monster then ‘slouching towards Bethlehem’ we are reminded of an exchange in a conversation in Dostoevsky’s Demons (The Possessed) where one character is arguing for the destruction of God and the deification of man: 

Then there will be a new life, a new man, everything new … “Then history will be divided into two parts: from the gorilla to the destruction of God, and from the destruction of God to …,  at which point his interlocutor interrupts, …“To the gorilla?”  Again, an exchange not without resonances in our own time.

Zivago, from the beginning of his liaison with Larissa Fyodorovna Antipov, struggles intermittently but unsuccessfully with his human frailty. He and Lara are portrayed in a kind of Davidic relationship where both the glorious love of the Song of Songs interplays with the pain and sorrow of David’s cry of repentance, the Miserere (Psalm 50). 

The denouement of their relationship is played out in the aftermath of two incidents recounted in the latter part of the novel. One is a conversation, providentially overheard by Zhivago, between Lara and her deeply religious friend, Simushka, perhaps a type of the prophet Nathan. The other, which happens as this conversation is just ending – is Yuri’s receipt of a letter from his wife in Moscow, telling him that they are being deported from Russia.

Begin, Simushka. I’m listening, says Lara.

Simuska begins by saying that a human being is made up of two parts. Of God and work and that the development of the human spirit breaks down into separate works of enormous duration. 

They were realised in the course of generations and followed one after the other. Egypt was such a work, Greece was such a work, the biblical prophets’ knowledge of God was such a work. Such a work — the latest in time, not yet supplanted by anything else, performed by the entire inspiration of our time — is Christianity…  what it brought…was new and unprecedented.

She then uses some beautiful liturgical texts from the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church to explain, and ultimately convert both Lara and Zhivago.

She explains how hymns in the liturgy are formed by juxtaposing images from the Old and New Testaments. Instances from the old world — the burning bush, the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the youths in the fiery furnace, Jonah in the belly of the whale, and so on – are compared with instances from the new, for example, the Mother of God’s conception and the Resurrection of Christ. 

In a whole multitude of verses, the virgin motherhood of Mary is compared with the crossing of the Red Sea by the Jews. For instance, in the verses of “In the Red Sea, a type of the virgin bride was figured” it is said: “After Israel’s passage, the sea remained impassable; after Emmanuel’s birth the undefiled one remained intact.” In other words, the waters of the sea closed after the crossing of Israel, and the Virgin remained intact after giving birth to the Lord. What sort of incidents are made parallel here? Both events are supernatural, both are equally recognised as miracles. In what did these two different times, the ancient, primitive time and the new, post-Roman time, which was far more advanced, see a miracle?  

In the one case, by the command of the people’s leader, the patriarch Moses, and by the swinging of his magic rod, the sea opens up, lets a whole nation pass across it, a countless multitude, hundreds of thousands, and when the last one has crossed, closes again, and covers and drowns the pursuing Egyptians. A spectacle in the ancient spirit, the elements obedient to the magician’s voice, the great thronging multitudes, like Roman armies on the march, the people and their leader, things visible and invisible, stunning. 

In the other case, a maiden — an ordinary thing, the ancient world wouldn’t have paid attention to it — secretly and quietly gives life to a child, brings life into the world, the miracle of life, the life of all, He who is “the Life of all”, as he was later called. Her childbirth is unlawful not only from the point of view of the scribes, being outside wedlock. It also contradicts the laws of nature. The maiden gives birth not by force of necessity, but by miracle, by inspiration. 

What an enormously significant change! How is it that for heaven (because it is in the eyes of heaven that this must be evaluated, before the face of heaven, in the sacred framework of uniqueness in which it is all accomplished) — how is it that for heaven a private human circumstance, negligible from the point of view of antiquity, became equivalent to the migration of an entire people?  

Something shifted in the world. Rome ended, the power of numbers, the necessity, imposed by arms, of living en masse, as a whole population. Leaders and nations became things of the past.  

The person, the preaching of freedom came to supplant them. An individual human life became God’s story, filling the space of the universe with its content. As it’s said in one of the hymns of the Annunciation, Adam wanted to become God and made a mistake and did not become Him, but now “God becomes man, so as to make Adam God”’  

Sima digresses for a moment on the folly of the ideologues of her time and their false philosophy of happiness Then she goes on: 

A few words about Christ and Mary Magdalene. This isn’t from the Gospel account of her, but from the prayers of Holy Week…I think from Holy Tuesday or Wednesday. But you know that without me, Larissa Fyodorovna. I simply want to remind you of a thing or two, and not at all to lecture you.  ‘“Passion” in Slavonic, as you know perfectly well, first of all means “suffering”, the Passion of our Lord, “the Lord goeth to His voluntary passion” (that is, to His voluntary suffering). Besides that, the word is used in the later Russian meaning of vices and lusts. “Having enslaved the dignity of my soul to passions, I turned into a beast…’

 Now listen with what genuine passion, with what directness regardless of anything, this mention is made… she asks the Lord: “Loose my debt as I have loosed my hair.” That is: “Release me from guilt, just as I have released my hair.” How materially the thirst for forgiveness, for repentance, is expressed! You can touch it with your hands. 

Simushka then recounts verses from another hymn  ‘Here, with terrible tangibility, she laments for her past, for the fact that every night her former, inveterate habits flare up in her. “For I live in the night of licentiousness, shrouded in the dark and moonless love of sin.” She asks Christ to accept her tears of repentance and incline His ear to the sighing of her heart, so that she may wipe His most pure feet with her hair, with which the stunned and ashamed Eve covered herself in paradise.’

After these two incidents, everything changes for Zhivago and Lara and both of them enter on a path of suffering which they did not foresee but can only be read as part of their redemption. They enter a reality of the kind spoken of by Pasternak, a reality that was for him like a sudden, unexpected arrival that is intensely welcome…as a great moving entity… a developing, passing, rolling, rushing inspiration. As if reality itself had freedom of choice… 

Like all great art which represents the mystery of humanity to us, there is no single interpretation which explains this work. We can only joyfully – and sorrowfully  – enter into its mystery and glory in the graces given to people who open these doors and windows to us, helping us to be, perhaps, wiser and better people by doing so.

This reflection on Doctor Zhivago first appeared in the February, 2023, issue of Position Papers Review.