Boris Pasternak's 'Doctor Zhivago' Should Inspire Reverence

September 8, 1958

by Irving Howe | October 23, 2013

photo credit: STF/AFP/Getty

On this day in 1958, Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Six days later, he refused to accept it, stating in a telegram: "Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must reject this undeserved prize which has been presented to me. Please do not receive my voluntary rejection with displeasure." Below is Irving Howe's review of Pasternak's masterwork, Doctor Zhivago, the novel that surely inspired the Nobel committee to bestow such an honor upon him.

Doctor Zhivago, the novel which climaxes the career of the Russian poet Boris Pasternak, is a major work of fiction; but it is also—and for the moment, perhaps more important—a historic utterance. It is an act of testimony as crucial to our moral and intellectual life as the Hungarian revolution to our political life. It asks for, and deserves, the kind of response in which one's sense of the purely "literary'" becomes absorbed in a total attention to the voice of the writer.

The book comes to us in extraordinary circumstances. A great Russian poet who maintains silence through years of terror and somehow, for reasons no one quite understands, survives the purges that destroy his most gifted colleagues; a manuscript sent by him to an Italian Communist publisher who decides to issue it despite strong pressures from his comrades; the dictatorship meanwhile refusing to permit this book, surely the most distinguished Russian novel of our time, to appear in print—all this comprises the very stuff of history, a reenactment of those rhythms of brutality and resistance which form the substance of the novel itself.

Doctor Zhivago opens in the first years of the century, spans the revolution, civil war and terror of the thirties, and ends with an epilogue in the mid-1940s. On a level far deeper than politics and with a strength and purity that must remove all doubts, it persuades us that the yearning for freedom remains indestructible. Quietly and resolutely Pasternak speaks for the sanctity of human life, turning to those "eternal questions" which made the 19th Century Russian novel so magnificent and besides which the formulas of Russia's current masters seem so trivial.

The European novel has traditionally depended on some implicit norm of "the human." In our time, however, this norm has become so imperiled that the novel has had to assume the burdens of prophecy and jeremiad, raising an apocalyptic voice against the false apocalypse of total politics. Some of the most serious Western writers hive turned impatiently from the task of representing familiar experience and have tried, instead, to make the novel carry an unprecedented amount of speculative and philosophical weight. Sacrificing part of the traditional richness of the European novel, they have kept searching for new, synoptic structures that would permit them to dramatize the modern split between historical event and personal existence. As a result, their work has occasionally thinned out into parables concerning the nature and possibility of freedom.

But where certain Western novelists have wrenched their narrative structures in order to reach some "essence" of modern terror, Pasternak has adopted a quite different strategy. With apparent awareness of the symbolic meaning of his choice, he has turned back to the old-fashioned leisurely Tolstoyan novel. His aim is not to mimic its external amplitude, as do most Soviet writers, but to recapture its spirit of freedom and then bring this spirit to bear upon contemporary Russian life. Given the atmosphere in which Pasternak must live and work, this kind of a return to the Tolstoyan novel comes to seem a profoundly liberating act.

Pasternak refuses to accept any claim for the primacy of ideological systems. Avoiding any quest for the "essence" of modern terror, he prefers to observe its impact upon the lives of modest and decent people. Again and again he returns to what might be called the "organic" nature of experience, those autonomous human rhythms which, in his view, can alone provide a true basis for freedom. The Tolstoyan narrative structure takes on a new and dynamic character, embodying his belief that everything fundamental in life remains inviolate, beyond the grasp of ideology or the state.

I do not mean to suggest that Pasternak permits a facile spirituality to blind him to the power of circumstances. He knows how easy it is to debase and kill a man, how often and needlessly it has been done; some of his most poignant chapters register the sufferings of the Russian people during the past forty years. Yet he is driven by an almost instinctive need to ding to other possibilities, and he writes about ordinary experience with such affection and steadfastness that, even under the blows of accumulating historical crises, it takes on a halo of sanctity. Not the fanaticism of the will, but existence as rooted in the natural world, seems to him the crux of things.

Yuri Zhivago, the central figure of the novel and in some ways Pasternak's alter ego, comes to this realization while still a young man. As he is driven from the battlefields of the First World War to revolutionary Moscow to partisan fighting in Siberia, and then back again to Moscow, Zhivago tries to keep hold of a few realities: nature, art, the life of contemplation. No matter how desperate the moment may be, he feels that the preservation of his inner identity is still possible if he can watch a cow grazing in the fields, read Pushkin's poems and speak freely to himself in the journal he intermittently keeps.

It is this effort to preserve the personal basis of reality which forms the main stress of Zhivago's experience—an effort always secured in a radiantly intense feeling for nature. One of the loveliest episodes in the novel occurs when Zhivago and his family, to avoid starvation during the civil war, decide to leave Moscow. They take a long journey eastward, and at one point their train becomes stalled in drifts of snow. For three days the passengers work in the open, helping to clear the tracks. A light of joy comes over them, a feeling of gratification for this gift: "The days were dear and frosty, and the shifts were short because there were not enough shovels. It was sheer pleasure."

Somewhat earlier in the book Zhivago reflects upon his life while traveling homeward from the First World War:

Three years of changes, moves, uncertainties upheavals; the war, the revolution; scenes of destruction, scenes of death, shelling, blown-up bridges, fires, ruins—all this suddenly turned into a huge, empty, meaningless space. The first real event since the long interruption was this trip . . . the fact that he was approaching his home, which was intact, which still existed, and in which every stone was dear to him. This was real life, meaningful experience, the actual goal of all guests, this was what art aimed at—homecoming, return to one's family, to oneself, to true existence.

The novel begins with a series of dipped vignettes of pre-revolutionary Russia, apparently meant to suggest a Tolstoyan breadth and luxuriousness of treatment. A few of these vignettes seem hurried and schematic in effect, but many of them are brilliantly evocative, quick and sharp glimpses of another Russia.

But which Russia: the Russia of the Czars or of War and Peace, the country Pasternak remembers from his youth or the marvellous landscape of Tolstoy's imagination? The alternative, of course, is a false one, and I raise it merely to indicate the presence of a real problem. For in the mind of a writer like Pasternak, historical reality and literary heritage must by now be inseparable: the old Russia is the Russia both of the Czars and of Tolstoy. And as he recreates it stroke by stroke, Pasternak seems intense upon suggesting that no matter what attitude one takes toward the past, it cannot be understood in terms of imposed political clichés.

He is any case, rigorously objective in his treatment. He portrays both a vibrant Christmas party among the liberal intelligentsia and a bitter strike among railroad workers; he focuses upon moments of free discussion and spontaneous talk such as would make some contemporary Russian readers feel envious and then upon moments of gross inhumanity that would make them think it pointless even to consider turning back the wheel of history. Pasternak accepts the unavoidability, perhaps even the legitimacy of the revolution, and he evokes the past not to indulge in nostalgia but to insist upon the continuity of human life.

Once, however, the narrative reaches the Bolshevik revolution, the Tolstoyan richness and complexity promised at the beginning are not fully realized. Partly this is due to Pasternak's inexperience as a novelist: he burdens himself with more preparations than he needs and throughout the book one is aware of occasional brave efforts to tie loose ends together.

But mainly the trouble is due to a crucial difference between Tolstoy's and Pasternak's situations. Soaring to an incomparable zest and vitality, Tolstoy could break past the social limits of his world—a world neither wholly free nor, like Pasternak's, wholly unfree—and communicate the sheer delight of consciousness. Pasternak also desires joy as a token of man's gratitude for existence; his characters reach for it eagerly and pathetically; but the Russia of his novel is too grey, too grim for a prolonged release of the Tolstoyan ethos. As a writer of the highest intelligence, Pasternak must have known this; and it is at least possible he also realized that the very difficulties he would encounter in adapting the Tolstoyan novel to contemporary Russia would help reveal both the direction of his yearning and the constrictions of reality.

It is Pasternak's capacity for holding in balance these two elements—the direction of his yearning and the constrictions of reality—that accounts for the poise and strength of the novel. Like most great Russian writers, he has the gift for making ideas seem a natural part of human experience, though what matters in this novel is not a Dostoevskian clash of ideology and dialectic but Zhivago's sustained effort, amounting to a kind of heroism, to preserve his capacity for the life of contemplation.

Zhigavo’s ideas, it seems fair to assume, are in large measure Pasternak's, and as they emerge in the book, subtly modulated by the movement of portrayed events, it becomes clear that the central point of view can be described as a kind of primitive Christianity, profoundly heterodox and utterly alien to all dogmas and institutions. I would agree with the remark of Mr. Max Hayward, Pasternak's English translator, that Zhivago's Christianity "would be acceptable to many agnostics." Acceptable not merely because of its ethical purity but because it demands to be understood as a historically-determined response to the airless world of Soviet conformity. In such a world the idea of Christ—even more so, the image of Christ facing his death alone—must take on implications quite different from those it usually has in the West. Zhivago's uncle, his intellectual guide, suggests these in an early passage:

What you don't understand is that it is possible to be an atheist, it is possible not to know whether God exists, or why, and yet believe . . . that history as we know it began with Christ. . . . Now what is history? It is the centuries of the systematic exploration of the riddle of death, with a view to overcoming death. That's why people discover mathematical infinity and electromagnetic waves, that's why they write symphonies. Now you can't advance in this direction without a certain faith. You can't make such discoveries without spiritual equipment. And the basic elements of this equipment are in the Gospels. What are they? To begin with, love of one's neighbor, which is the supreme form of vital energy. And then the two basic ideas of modem man—without them he is unthinkable—the idea of free personality and the idea of life as sacrifice.

Together with this version of Christianity, Zhivago soon develops a personal attitude toward Marxism—an attitude, I should say, much more complex than is likely to be noted by American reviewers seeking points for the Cold War. Zhivago cannot help but honor the early Bolsheviks, if only because they did give themselves to "the idea of life as sacrifice." His enthusiasm for the revolution dies quickly, but even then he does not condemn it. He is more severe: he judges it.

Unavoidably Zhivago also absorbs some elements of the Marxist political outlook, though he never accepts its claims for the primacy of politics. Indeed, his rejection of Marxism is not essentially a political one. He rejects it because he comes to despise the arrogance of the totalitarian "vanguard," its manipulative view of man, in short, its contempt for the second "basic ideal of modern man . . . the ideal of free personality":

Marxism a science? [says Zhivago during a discussion on a train in Siberia] Well, it's taking a risk, to say the least, to argue about that with a man one hardly knows. However—Marxism is too uncertain of its ground to be a science. Sciences are more balanced, more objective. I don't know a movement more self-centered and further removed from the facts than Marxism. Everyone is worried only about proving himself in practical matters, and as for the men in power, they are so anxious to establish the myth of their infallibility, that they do their utmost to ignore the truth.

Still more withering is Zhivago's judgment of the Soviet intelligentsia:

Men who are not free . . . always idealize their bondage. So it was in the Middle Ages, and later the Jesuits always exploited this human trait. Zhivago could not bear the political mysticism of the Soviet intelligentsia, though it was the very thing they regarded as their highest achievement.

Such statements are plain enough, and their significance can hardly be lost upon the powers in Moscow; but it must quickly be added that in the context of the novel they are much less abrupt and declamatory than they seem in isolation. Pasternak is so sensitive toward his own characters, so free from any intention to flourish ideologies, that the novel is never in danger of becoming a mere tract. The spectacle of Zhivago trying to reflect upon the catastrophe of his time is always more interesting than the substance of his reflections. His ideas are neither original nor beyond dispute, but as he experiences them and struggles to articulate them, they take on an enormous dignity and power. If ever a man may be said to have earned his ideas, it is Yuri Zhivago.

Zhivago's opinions reflect the direction of Pasternak's yearning, the long-suppressed bias of his mind; but there is, in the novel itself, more than enough counter-weight of objective presentation. Pasternak is extremely skillful at making us aware of vast historical forces rumbling behind the lives of his central figures. The Bolshevik revolution is never pictured frontally, but a series of incidents, some of them no more than a page or two in length, keep the sense of catastrophe and upheaval constantly before us—Zhivago fumbling to light an old stove during an icy Moscow winter while in the nearby streets men are shooting at each other, a callow young Menshevik "heartening" Russian troops with democratic rhetoric and meeting an ungainly death as his reward, a veteran Social Revolutionary pouring bile over the Communist leaders, a partisan commander in Siberia fighting desperately against the White armies. And as Zhivago finds himself caught up by social currents too strong for any man to resist, we remember once again Tolstoy's concern with the relationship between historical event and personal life.

Once Pasternak reaches the revolutionary period, the novel becomes a kind of spiritual biography, still rich in social references but primarily the record of a mind struggling for survival. What now matters most is the personal fate of Zhivago and his relationships with two other characters, Lara, the woman who is to be the love of his life, and Strelnikov, a partisan leader who exemplifies all of the ruthless revolutionary will that Zhivago lacks.

Zhivago himself may be seen as representative of those Russian intellectuals who accepted the revolution but were never absorbed into the Communist apparatus. That he is both a skillful doctor and a sensitive poet strengthens one's impression that Pasternak means him to be something more than an individual figure. He speaks for those writers, artists and scientists who have been consigned to a state of permanent inferiority because they do not belong to the “vanguard” party. His sufferings are their sufferings, and his gradual estrangement from the regime, an estrangement that has little to do with politics, may well be shared by at least some of them. Zhivago embodies that which, in Pasternak’s view, man is forbidden to give to the state.

Mr. Hayward reports that Pasternak has apparently referred to Turgenev’s Rudin as a distant literary ancestor of Zhivago. Any such remark by a writer like Pasternak has its obvious fascination and one would like very much to know exactly what he had in mind; but my own impression, for what it may be worth, is that the differences between the two characters are more striking than the similarities. Rudin, the man of the 1840’s, is a figure of shapeless enthusiasms that fail to congeal into specific convictions; he is the classical example of the man who cannot realize in action the vaguely revolutionary ideas that fire his mind. Zhivago, by contrast, is a man rarely given to large public enthusiasms; he fails to achieve his ends not because he is inherently weak but because the conditions of life are simply too much for him. Yet, unlike Rudin, he has a genuine "gift for life," and despite the repeated collapse of his enterprises he brings a sense of purpose and exaltation to the lives of those who are closest to him. There is a key passage in his journal which would probably have struck Rudin as the essence of philistinism but which takes on an entirely different cast in 20th Century Russia:

Only the familiar transformed by genius is truly great. The best object lesson in this is Pushkin. His works are one great hymn to honest labor, duty, everyday life! Today, "bourgeois" and "petty bourgeois" have become terms of abuse, but Pushkin forestalled the implied criticism. . . . In Onegin's Travels we read: "Now my ideal is the housewife.

My greatest wish, a quiet life and a big bowl of cabbage soup."

There is undoubtedly a side of Pasternak, perhaps the dominant side, which shares in these sentiments; but it is a tribute to his utter freedom from literary vanity that he remorselessly shows how Zhivago’s quest for “a quiet life” leads to repeated failures and catastrophes. For Zhivago’s desire for “a big bowl of cabbage soup” indicates—to twist a sardonic phrase of Trotsky’s—that he did not choose the right century in which to be born.

The novel reaches a climax of exaltation with a section of some twenty pages that seem to me one of the greatest pieces of imaginative prose written in our time. Zhivago and Lara, who have been living in a Siberian town during the period of War Communism, begin to sense that their arrest is imminent: not because they speak any words of sedition (Zhivago has, in fact, recently returned from a period of enforced service as doctor to a band of Red partisans) but simply because they ignore the slogans of the moment and choose their own path in life. They decide to run off to Varykino, an abandoned farm, where they may find a few moments of freedom and peace. Zhivago speaks:

But about Varykino. To go to that wilderness in winter, without food, without strength or hope—it's utter madness. But why not, my love! Let's be mad, if there is nothing but madness left to us. . . .

Our days are really numbered. So at least let us take advantage of them in our own way. Let us use them up saying goodbye to life. . . . We'll say goodbye to everything we hold dear, to the way we look at things, to the way we've dreamed of living and to what our conscience has taught us. . . .We'll speak to one another once again the secret words we speak at night, great and pacific like the name of the Asian ocean.

From this point on, the prose soars to a severe and tragic gravity; every detail of life takes on the tokens of sanctity; and while reading these pages, one feels that one is witnessing a terrible apocalypse.  Begun as a portrait of Russia, the novel ends as a love story told with the force and purity of the greatest Russian fiction; yet its dependence upon the sense of history remains decisive to the very last page.

Through a ruse Zhivago persuades Lara to escape, and then he returns to Moscow. He falls into shabbiness, illness and long periods of lassitude; he dies obscurely, from a heart attack on the streets of Moscow. Lara's fate is given in a fierce, laconic paragraph:

One day [she] went out and did not come back. She must have been arrested in the street at that time. She vanished without a trace and probably died somewhere, forgotten as a nameless number on a list that afterwards got mislaid, in one of the innumerable mixed or women's concentration camps in the north.

Like the best contemporary writers in the West, Pasternak rests his final hope on the idea that a good life constitutes a decisive example. People remember Zhivago. His half-brother, a mysterious power in the regime who ends as a general in the war, has always helped Zhivago in the past; now he gathers up Zhivago's poems and prints them; apparently he is meant to suggest a hope that there remain a few men at the top of the Russian hierarchy who are accessible to moral claims. Other old friends, meeting at a time when "the relief and freedom expected at the end of the war" had not come but when "the portents of freedom filled the air," find that "this freedom of the soul was already there, as if that very evening the future had tangibly moved into the streets below them."

So the book ends—a book of truth and courage and beauty, a work of art toward which one's final response is nothing less than a feeling of reverence.

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