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Sentences in ‘Doctor Zhivago’ by Boris Pasternak

The grassy smell of earth and young greenery made your head ache, like the smell of vodka and pancakes in the week before Lent. (page 84)

The book fills up effortlessly with resonant descriptions. Having only this week started a book the plot of which I have known for over forty years, it is these close descriptions, together with the internal thoughts of the main characters, that stun with their immediacy. Here, for example, is an analogy that isn’t an analogy, more like an opportunity to raise up the evocation, for indeed nature and religion are at one in this seasonal image. Where else but Russia? we think And its reality of “vodka and pancakes” only enriches the nostalgia. We observe Lent at the end of the sentence, wondering in anticipation whether the church seasons will be mentioned in the same intimate way after the Revolution in 1917, or if they will be slowly replaced in the narrative by other ways of marking out time. Only by reading the book will we find out.

There he had command of a detachment of semi-invalids, whom equally decrepit veterans instructed in the mornings in a drill they had long forgotten. (page 133)

Chekhovian humour infuses the book, something I did not expect in quite such abundance, having only the film in my head. This one sentence vignette of some minor parade ground behind the main German-Russian frontline, is simply too absurd not to be true. In a single stroke Boris Pasternak shows the uselessness of the Russian war effort. The image is both a microcosm of the futile position of the men and a symbol of the macrocosm of the Russian Army itself, impossibly underprepared and reliant on outdated skills.

That June in Zybushino the independent republic of Zybushino, which lasted for two weeks, was proclaimed by the local miller Blazheiko. (page 155)

Ditto this bizarre claim on history, made after Moscow withdraws from the War and before the Revolutions of 1917 transform the country. Such is the state of flux and excitement, wonder and dread overtaking Russia, a statelet like Zybushino can be declared, Pasternak asserts, and survive for some weeks without any authority being able to uphold or suppress it. Zybushino is no more than a depot town for grain, somewhere in Russia or Ukraine, yet the locals (Bolsheviks or Mensheviks or Whoever) turn it into the prototype for a soviet. Presumably the Communist authorities in the 1950s did not want people to be reminded that such ludicrous pretensions could and did occur. The idea of Zybushino, ‘the mouse that roared’, is the sort of comic invention that must have been read with raised eyebrows by the comrades in the Kremlin. Is Blazheiko a hero or a fool? He could be both, or even neither, depending on how you care to apply interpretation. Is he an innocent Pasternak figure, or a puppet of sly satire?  

Superfluous furniture and superfluous rooms in the houses, superfluous refinement of feelings, superfluous expressions. (page 198)

The attack on the middle class is already well underway when Zhivago returns to Moscow after the revolution. The family has given over the ‘superfluous’ downstairs of their home to an Agricultural Academy and finds ways of adjusting to this intrusion on their lives by adopting the propaganda language of the new rulers. The implication of ‘superfluous’ is that necessity alone dictates how people will live their lives. Anything judged bourgeois can be dispensed with, even if that means coercive action by the state authorities. Creature comforts can go, yet in this sentence we see that feelings and expressions may be treated as material possessions in the same way as furniture and homes. Too much of the wrong kind of feelings and expressions can be judged ‘superfluous’ by the authorities and, as we know, this became the case a decade later. 

Alongside well-dressed rich people, Petersburg stockbrokers and lawyers, one could see – also recognized as belonging to the class of exploiters – cabdrivers, floor polishers, bathhouse attendants, Tartar junkmen, runaway madmen from disbanded asylums, small shopkeepers, and monks. (page 256)

The class of exploiters in carriage 14 of the train to the Urals is a cross-section of the predictable and unpredictable. While we expect stockbrokers and lawyers to be enemies of the people, the Bolshevik propaganda makes that explicit, the rest of the list is tenuous, if not contradictory. The class of exploiters, we are being told, consists of anyone the revolutionaries decide is an exploiter, or an enemy of the people. Anyone, in fact, could anytime soon be branded an enemy, including any of the Bolsheviks themselves. Little wonder the leaders of the revolution were paranoid. Cabdrivers, floor polishers and bathhouse attendants were all minor jobs that maintained the status of the middle class. A Tartar junkman may be there because he sold goods for profit (ditto small shopkeepers) or just because he was a Tartar. We can guess that the revolution broke up the charities of asylums, having no use for madmen. Monks make the list because they were, in dialectical materialist terms, of no earthly use and exploiters for generations; that this shows a complete lack of knowledge about monastic vows, is neither here nor there. The doctor and his family have an allotted bunk (something not shown in the film, where everyone scrambles for a place in the carriage), which can be read as a small irony. We assume that doctors too are from ‘the class of exploiters’, given that Zhivago is here in carriage 14, yet the novel rides on the unexpressed tuth that any society depends on its doctors. The old regime needs doctors at the battle front, the revolutionaries need doctors in the civil war. Doors will open for Zhivago because he serves life, an end that in any circumstances no one can deny without denying someone’s life. As we learn, this is driven not just by idealism but by necessity. 

Mischief and hooliganism were counted as signs of the Black Hundred in Soviet areas; in White Guard areas ruffians were taken for Bolsheviks. (page 386)

In other words, uncontrollable violent behaviour was typical of all sides in the civil war following the revolution. For those who did not take sides, each side may as well have been as bad as the other. Yet all sides wish to claim their own violence as simply the necessary end for the salvation of Russia. The short Part Ten (‘On the High Road’) depicts people in Siberia caught in the midst of this upheaval. No one is left untouched by the mayhem of words and actions, as each side battles to take advantage of a situation in which the old regime no longer controls society. While making every attempt to be realistic, Pasternak succeeds in presenting scenes that are by turns horrible, pathetic, absurdly comic, and hallucinatory. Without inviting the reader as such, Pasternak nevertheless causes us to ask how we ourselves would respond to such unstable social conditions, where anything you said or did now could be your reprieve or death sentence tomorrow.

What must one be, to rave year after year with delirious feverishness about nonexistent, long-extinct themes, and to know nothing, to see nothing around one! (page 453)

Although this is Zhivago’s response to seeing Reds posters in Yuriatin on his return from forced revolutionary service, one can hear the same complaints rising up all through the seventy years of Soviet rule. It is a response to propaganda, the same repetitious phrases and directives. The disconnect with reality is galling for those who must live with the enforced changes and are powerless to influence them. Pasternak is describing the same feelings many Russians would have felt in the forties and fifties when these lines were composed. Nothing was to change. Given such heartfelt rejection of the Party’s modes of communication, it is not surprising the Party experts saw Pasternak’s book, in passages like this, as a direct attack on their work. Something had to give. When we hear Zhivago’s protest  we intuitively hear as well the cry for a language that is not raving, delirious, feverish. He desires a world of new themes and knowledge, i.e. in the language used by Pasternak in this book.

To be occupied with it alone is the same as eating horseradish by itself. (page 482)

Lara and Yuri agree that philosophy by itself is simply not living. They are talking in the lucid chapters of conversation after they are reunited. These chapters are themselves a change from the sort of novel that has lovers caught up in lovemaking to the exclusion of all else; they are a climax of emotional and intellectual rapport between the two, and Pasternak certainly built the tension before their reunion. Real relationships are about commonality. They agree, for example, that “philosophy should be used sparingly as a seasoning for art and life,” and will not read books devoted entirely to philosophy. Finding themselves brought together again in the midst of vicious civil war, Lara and Yuri hold out against the diminishment of life brought about by people who are all philosophy, and nothing else.   

In a sweeping script, taking care that the appearance of the writing conveyed the living movement of his hand and did not lose its personality, becoming soulless and dumb, he recalled and wrote out in gradually improving versions, deviating from the previous ones, the most fully formed and memorable poems, ‘The Star of the Nativity’, ‘Winter Night’, and quite a few others of a similar kind, afterwards forgotten, mislaid, and never found again by anyone. (page 517)

A surprise shock ends this sentence describing Zhivago, as he writes his poetry through the night at Varykino. None of the poetry at the end of the book will ever be saved or read by anyone. The spectre of Osip Mandelstam and the poets of the Stalinist age rises up before us: ‘never found again by anyone.’ In his subordinate clauses Pasternak tracks the process of poetic composition in loving detail, only to end the sentence with the desolating conclusion that none of this work will ever reach its potential reader. We read the poems at the end of the novel, but within the frame of reference of the story itself none of these poems survive. We read poems lost in time. This long sentence is a premonition of more to come, for we are made aware that like the destiny of the poems, the people associated with the poems will also, likely as not, be ‘forgotten, mislaid, and never found again by anyone.’ The sentence anticipates the startlingly brief summary of Lara’s fate just before the Epilogue.

People from the sidewalks came over to the little group around the body, some reassured, others disappointed that the man had not been run over and that his death had no connection with the tram. (page 582)

At the very moment when Zhivago dies of a heart attack on a city tram, Pasternak does Chekhov. The internal life of Zhivago has been expansive and courageous, we have read much and will find more in the poems at the end of the book. But his own end is prosaic and surrounded by cynicism and blank looks. Like everything else that happens in the shocking section called ‘The Ending’, Zhivago’s death is a final humiliation. Pasternak places us in the midst of anonymous city life, where immediate compassion is scarce. This is not the end, family and friends will come to mourn and remember. But it is the end in the same way that so much of the novel is told, with a mixture of cruel irony and matter-of-fact reportage. The poetry is going on inside those we have come to know.

As swarms of midges in summertime
Fly towards a flame,
Snowflakes flew from the dark outside
Into the window frame.
(page 635)

Here is one of several uses in the poems of the image of a window. It is verse two of ‘A Winter Night’. Russia is a country of windows. The eye trained to read icons will view the image in a window frame with particular attention. Since starting these sentences I have watched the David Lean film again on DVD. How irregular it is to the story in the book, an interpretation rather than a deliberate retelling. And one of the cinematic motifs is his own use of the window. This makes sense coming from a maker of millions of little windows, but one wonders if Lean has not pondered windows while reading the poems. They serve numerous purposes in the film. Zhivago’s half brother watches the orphan girl come to his office at the hydro-electric plant, an office all windows. As a young boy, Zhivago gazes through a blue window after his mother’s funeral. As a young man he steps through the upstairs glass doors of his townhouse to witness the march and subsequent massacre of worker protestors. Soon after he witnesses, though double panes of interior glass, an argument between Lara and Komarovsky, thus discovering their tormented secret relationship. Zhivago watches the moon from the little window in the train carriage, free for a while to contemplate something other than his companions, especially the anarchist and his ravings. There is the unforgettable wall of ice at the carriage door, an opaque window smashed by a shovel to reveal the passing countryside of war ruin. At the dacha in the snow Zhivago scratches at a window of snow flakes, only to watch them turn into spring flowers, one of several visionary moments for the poet involving windows. The film was made about halfway through the Cold War, at a time when the outside world knew little about Russian life. The publication of ‘Doctor Zhivago’ was the smashing of a window. What was glazed over suddenly became crystal clear. The vast readership of the book saw how individual lives had been affected by the unbelievable course of politics inside Russia. Lean’s unconscious, or possibly very conscious, use of windows serves to identify how Western cinema-goers related to his country. Scratching at the icy window to see Lara one last time departing by troika across the fields, Zhivago knew scratching wouldn’t work: the plate glass had to be broken to give him a clear view.  

All quotes here are from the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage Classics Edition, Random House, 2011)


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