Rereading: Doctor Zhivago

The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva once said that Boris Pasternak looked like an Arab and his horse. In the 30s a Soviet cartoon turned him into a long-jawed sphinx, paws curled over a lectern. As a public speaker he was incomprehensible. His work is notoriously hard to translate.


In his increasingly difficult times, it also became safer not to be easily understood. When Stalin startled the life out of him with a "friendly" midnight phone-call – Well? What can you say about that poem of Mandelstam's? – Pasternak replied with a deflective discussion of what was, for him, the fundamental issue of human right over life and death. Questioning a homicidal despot's power to his face carries some risks. Fortunately, Stalin was too impatient to understand, and cut off the call. This time, the sentence for Mandelstam's anti-Stalinist poem was a mild form of exile – but in the great purge of 1937 he was one of the 44,000 liquidated. Beside Pasternak's name, Stalin reputedly scribbled the instruction "Don't touch this cloud-dweller".
Pasternak's work is also difficult because his mind-set is unpredictably complex, evocatively associative, synaesthetic and polysemous. His vocabulary is exceptionally wide, and his intellect has a pronounced metaphysical cast. In an uncollected letter to TS Eliot, Pasternak explores their shared aesthetic in ambitiously faulty English. Eliot's art, he writes, like his own, is "a casually broken off fragment of the density of being itself; of the hylomorphic matter of existence . . ." Pasternak became much more accessible in his later work. Doctor Zhivago was suicidally vivid and forthright. The poems that accompany it are translucent.
From his schooldays, Pasternak tells us, Yury Zhivago had dreamed of writing "a book of impressions of life in which he would conceal, like sticks of dynamite, the most striking things he had so far seen". Doctor Zhivagowas that book. It was packed with dynamite and, as Pasternak expected, it blew up in his face.
Pasternak was the first writer of the Soviet regime who dared convey the truth about Russia's recent history. In the space of 40 years the Russians of his generation suffered two world wars; three revolutions; civil war and famine; the disasters of collectivisation and famine; the purges of the intelligentsia, the military, the Soviet political elite and the kulaks. Starvation, cannibalism, murder, reprisals, legitimised slaughter – nothing is glossed over in the novel's unflinching particularity. It ends withKhruschev's Thaw, tentatively celebrating "a new freedom of spirit" embodied in the book Zhivago wrote before his death.
Pasternak's hopes were denied when the forthcoming Russian edition ofZhivago was withdrawn from the Soviet press. In 1958 its publication in the west coincided with the Nobel prize, awarded for Pasternak's poetic achievements and his work "in the great Russian epic tradition", clearly linking Doctor Zhivago to Tolstoy's War and Peace. The Soviet response was to denounce Pasternak as a traitor. He was expelled from the writers' union, robbed of his livelihood and vilified in the press. He refused to seek exile in the west, and declined the Nobel prize. Within two years he was dead.
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