5 SEPTEMBER 1958, Page 23


Pasternak's Novel

By FRANK KERMODE F this book,* which will never cease to en- gage the minds of all who care for literature, the early reviews are unlikely to say much of per- manent interest. All that is immediately clear is that Doctor Zhivago is an accession to that small group of novels by which all others are, ultimately, judged. It was already before publication a famous book, but it is to be hoped that this for- tuitous political celebrity will not predispose readers to treat it as primarily a brave piece of propaganda. Certainly it includes politics; and it also testifies to an integrity of intellect which is not only heroic but has obvious political impli- cations. Revolutionary politics, the diminution and corruption of the Revolution's gods and its slaves, are measured against natural plenitude and true human liberty; but this is only an aspect of the whole vast work, which is in itself a protest against partial interpretations.

Doctor Zhivago is an historical novel; the comparison with Tolstoi is inviting, but it will deceive as much as it illuminates. Pasternak's methods are, in fact, very original. He traces the significant passages in the lives of his characters from childhood in the early years of the century through the revolutions and wars that followed; and his control of the historical, geographical and social material, his accumulation of authentic de- tail, the feeling conveyed, quite simply, of living thus and there, invites the highest comparisons. The barricades of 1905 are hastily cemented with ice; a suspect commissar leaps bravely on to a dustbin to harangue his pursuers, falls ludicrously in and is shot by a laughing man; neglected corn- fields are horribly deluged with mice. There is an ,epic attention to detail, for example to the rail- way system which bears the characters on their appalling journeys across Russia. And the lovingly exact accounts of the physiognomy of dawn and !spring, snow and forest have extraordinary beauty. The great muddled campaigns roll on, the great muddled Revolution bears down upon every individual, throwing each into some strange posture of pain or cruelty. But it is not the great scope, the merely 'wide canvas.' that counts; it is the precision and originality of the design.

Everything in this design is controlled by the faith that 'the whole of life is symbolic because the whole of it has meaning,' a meaning conferred by the free action of individual consciousness. That freedom is corruptible; historically con- sidered, it was the gift of Christianity, and later history could destroy it. The function of the free man, even at a time when this is happening, is to call things by their proper names and perceive the relations between.them. This faith—here so baldly stated--has two immediate and inevitable consequences: the novel is a complex of quasi- occult relations; and its central character has to be an artist.

The first of these consequences explains not only the originality and power of the book, but also

* Docroit ZHIVAGO. By Boris Pasternak. Trans- lated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. (Collins and Harvill Press, 21s.)

what may be its deepest flaw. All events, all per- sonalities, from the most momentous to the most trivial, are caught up into patterns, given the density that imagination confers upon the slackly woven texture of life. The book is punctuated by moments of stasis, small narrative or emblematic centres of meaning : a candle melting the frost on a windowpane; a quick, comprehensive per- ception in a dissecting-room. There are hundreds of these, and sometimes, as with the candle em- blem, you would have to unravel the whole novel to unpick a single thread. But this device is also used for the interaction of characters; coincidence is used on a vast, un-Tolstoian, scale, both to forward the plot and—most arbitrarily—to arrange the characters in significant groups. Thus, at the outset, many important characters are placed in quite fortuitous proximity to the train in which Zhivago's father kills himself. Another group converges, without mutual recognition or benefit to the story, on a man killed in battle. Zhivago himself dies, by a fantastic chance, in a rented room formerly occupied by Strelnikov, a man with whom he has been in a strange, antithetical relationship. There is so much of this that .some strain is unavoidable; it is the price of so heroic an effort to impose upon the matter of realist fiction the form of a post-Imagist poem.

The second consequence of Pasternak's sym- bolist faith is that Zhivago, at the centre of the book, must be an artist. By profession he is a docfor; his interest in the physiology of sight is related to his concern for the relation between imagery in art and the logical structure of ideas, and he excels in diagnosis precisely because health and disease in significant formations of matter are also his business as a poet. He is healer, magician, contemplative; he is a philo- sopher of such a kind that he might, like Paster- nak, have been taught at Marburg by Hermann Cohen, whose other famous pupil Cassirer be- came the philosopher of symbolic forms; above all, he is a poet in love with life and minute par- ticulars and with the accuracy of the common speech. He sees art as another nature, whole and organic, and is quick to detect the corruption that destroys it. The Revolution at first deceives him, appearing as a natural force, violent as spring, clean as a good poem; but--and there is an ob- vious parallel with The Prelude—he comes to see it as a process of relentless abstraction, corrupt- ing nature, language and personality, distorting life and making art impossible under the imposi- tion of its mechanical patterns. The 'textbook admirations' and 'forced enthusiasms' of the Revolution 'are propagated by countless workers in the field of art and science in order that genius should remain extremely rare.' It is typical of Pasternak that immediately after the early symp- toms of this disease have been described his text suddenly flowers with natural images as exquisite as they are abundant.

Although we see the Revolution through the eyes of a poet-outsider, there is no dishonest in- direction in its treatment. The .Revolution cor- rupts life by making it illustrate a partial, political thesis. Of intellectuals who speak sanctimoniously about their 'political re-education' it is observed that 'men who are not free always idealise their bondage.' The gods of the Revolution are men 'in whom everything alive and human has been driven out by political conceit.' Zhivago moves on to disaster, believing in the 'compatibility of the whole,' the subordination of man to nature; seeing the anthropocentrism of the regime as pointlessly cruel and stupid; and making poems to affirm the supremacy of what cannot be tamed by rule or jargon. For a complementary image of revolutionary virtue there is the remarkable figure of Strelnikov, the husband of Zhivago's mistress, who from some motive strangely com- pounded of love and learning deserts her in order to fight, and becomes a Red Army general. He is a great man, devoted to large ideas of order; but with power he grows a little abstract and colourless, 'as if a living face had become the embodiment of a principle, the image of an idea . . . he was marked with a sign.' The novel, with all its passionate, inexplicable, tragic com- plexities, asserts Zhivago's wholeness against the partiality of even Strelnikov.

In this novel of a hundred memorable charac- ters there is a third whose significance is central, a woman named Lara Guishar. Among the figures who converge in the opening pages are Pasha Antipov and Lara. When still a schoolgirl she is seduced by a rich lawyer, Komarovsky, a man who was also, by a coincidence, partly responsible for the death of Zhivago's father. It is difficult to speak of Lara without vulgarising the concep- tion. She evades Komarovsky, tries to shoot him at a party where Zhivago (who doesn't yet know her) is also present, and marries Antipov, who later changes his name to Strelnikov. A union between Zhivago and Lara is written into the pattern from the start, and their life together is all hunger, illegality and anonymity, a sort of holist Resistance against revolutionary abstrae- tion. For Lara assumes a vast burden of meaning. She is life, the principle Zhivago worships, and thence she is Russia, betrayed in different ways by the Komarovskys and the Strelnikovs; she has a simple, direct relationship with reality or God, and is capable of a beautiful repentance when her demon is exorcised. Pasternak lovingly enlarges the Magdalen theme. None of this is as crude as I have to make it sound; there is here and elsewhere art element of parable, and Pasternak believes that a story becomes valid only when it acquires the qualities of . myth. The wholeness he tries to achieve must carry its own explana- tions; and he succeeds so far that the terrible history his book contains becomes, like death in tragedy, a part of the complex and irreducible beauty of the whole image.

Those of us without Russian (how great is our debt to the modest but excellent translators of this book !) have known Pasternak darkly as a poet of originality and power, with a philo- sopher's mind and a painter's eye; looking back at the poems, one now sees them as models, preparations for this work. Doctor Zhivago earns the epithet 'heroic' in several different ways, and one of them is that its author has remained un- touched by the abomination he describes. His book is written with so great a confidence in life that it is entirely without hatred, and with a com- passion great enough to include the demon that must be exorcised. Its rejection in Russia is melan- choly proof not only of his courage but of the correctness of his diagnosis; far more surprising than the rejection, and in an obscure way en- couraging too, is the fact that at one moment the book came so near to publication. Thee is no falsc.dawn without the possibility of a true one.