I read a paperback edition of this novel in the late 60’s after watching the David Lean movie of the same name. I couldn’t have taken every word in because, as I’m reading it again now, from a tenth impression of the 1958 English translation, most of it is new to me. But that could also be due to preferring the filmed version over the written. Such is youth.
What strikes me is the hero, Yury Zhivago, is a very insecure individual. This seems to come out in every passage where he is thinking his inner thoughts to himself. I suspect these were Boris Pasternak’s inner thoughts, too, which gives the novel its personal power to move me. I have thought these same things, although never really giving voice to them, except maybe in my poetry.
The term, ‘hero in his own story’ doesn’t seem to apply here. It’s more likely that he felt he was chronicling the events as they unfolded during the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war. As a reporter, he saw the absurdity of life through the before and after of their historic conflicts. It is reminiscent of living through the 60’s and watching the nighty news. “The whole world’s watching.”
It’s obvious, isn’t it? The Russian Orthodox Church is one of the most enduring branches of Christianity, even after religion was abolished by the Russian Soviets. Pasternak makes reference to liturgy and scriptures many times through this novel. His thinking isn’t revolutionary, but some of his words show an interesting take on some beliefs.
Dr. Zhivago’s impromptu lecture to Anna about death.
Resurrection. — In the crude form in which it is preached for the consolation of the weak, the idea doesn’t appeal to me. I have always understood Christ’s words about the living and the dead in a different sense. Where could you find room for all these hordes of people collected over thousands of years? The universe isn’t big enough, God and good and meaning would be crowded out. They’d be crushed by all that greedy animal jostling.
But all the time life, always one and the same, always incomprehensibly keeping its identity, fills the universe and is renewed at every moment in innumerable combinations and metamorphoses. You are anxious whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you have risen already — you rose from the dead when you were born and you didn’t notice it. Will you feel pain? Do the tissues feel their disintegration? In other words, what will happen to your consciousness? But what is consciousness? Let’s see. To try consciously to go to sleep is a sure way to have insomnia, to try to be conscious of one’s own digestion is a sure way to upset the stomach. Consciousness is a poison when we apply it to ourselves. Consciousness is a beam of light directed outwards, it lights up the way ahead of us so that we don’t trip up. It’s like the head-lamps on a railway engine — if you turned the beam inwards there would be a catastrophe.
So what will happen to your consciousness? Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else’s. Well, what are you? That’s the crux of the matter. Let’s try to find out. What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself? Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels? — No. However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity — in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now look. You in others are yourself, your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life. — Your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on it is called your memory? This will be you — the you that enters the future and becomes a part of it.
And now one last point. There is nothing to worry about. There is no death. Death is not our department. But you mentioned talent — that’s different, that’s ours, that’s at our disposal. And to be gifted in the widest and highest sense is to be gifted for life.
There will be no death, says St. John, and just look at the simplicity of his argument. There will be no death because the past is over; that’s almost like saying there will be no death because death is already done with, it’s old and we are tired of it. What we need is something new, and that new thing is life eternal.
(Page 70-1, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Collins and Harvill Press, London – 1958)
Pasternak has also thought a great deal about the nature of dreams.
It is usually taken for granted that you dream of something which has made a particularly strong impression on you during the day, but it seems to me it’s just the contrary.
Often it’s something you paid no attention to at the time — a vague thought that you didn’t bother to think out to the end, words spoken without feeling and which passed unnoticed — these are the things which return at night, clothed in flesh and blood as characters in dreams, as if to force you to make up for having neglected them in your waking hours.
(Page 257 – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – Collins and Harvill Press, London – 1958)
The Lara Love Story
According to those who knew Pasternak’s personal life, a new chapter in his life opened up when he met and fell in love with Olga Ivinskaya. Since this novel wasn’t completed until 1965, I think Pasternak went back over his manuscript and inserted chapters about Lara to fill in the emotional hole at the centre of the story.
David Lean, when he filmed the story, decided to focus on their relationship because it was obvious that how we view this love affair will be the ‘making or breaking’ of its popularity.
When I read the discussions between Yury and Lara in the book, I was struck at how self-less and banal their love for each other was. I guess that’s to be expected if the writer is going through a similar process in real life. But does it make it the ‘love story of the 20th Century’? Some might disagree.
Russia is the largest land mass on earth. It also is a country made up of many ethnic peoples. What struck me as strange was how many times Boris Pasternak relied on coincidence to further his story lines. Surely, in real life, we don’t get to revisit old friends and acquaintances in the flesh. (The social media has a lot to answer for, these days.)
Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge had a similar way of reintroducing characters into his story. Call me old-fashioned, but that just doesn’t ring true.
Admittedly, there are a lot of players in this story. And it cannot just be about Yury and Lara, if we are to get any understanding of what a revolution is like. But, after awhile, you can spot where Pasternak is setting you up for another ‘reveal’.
This story is a tragic one. Most true love stories are. Zhivago’s love for Lara is enduring, and our memory of their relationship will be, too. Viva la revolution!