Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Oh, what a love it was, utterly free, unique, like nothing else on earth! Their thoughts were like other people's songs.

Dr. Zhivago is usually remembered as a love story. And it is that, to be sure, but so much more: It is an epic in the Russian style, with a massive cast of characters (who all seem to be running into each other improbably over the course of their lives, as if it were no big deal to stumble across your childhood friend from Moscow in the desolation of Siberia). It is a war novel, about the upheaval in Russia created by the Russian Revolution. Much like Parade's End, it is about the way that the world changed fundamentally in the early part of the 20th century, ravaged by war and forced to find its footing again.

And it is a love story. The titular Yuri Zhivago grows up in Moscow, only occasionally entering the orbit of Lara Guishar, who he will meet later as a field nurse and then will become his lover. By then both are married and have children, but war has separated them from their spouses: Zhivago having been captured and impressed into medical service by a roving band of Bolsheviks; Lara's husband having become the renowned Bolshevik commander Strelnikov. The war brings them together, but ultimately it must also drive them apart.

The ultimate verdict on the Revolution is decidedly mixed. It drives lovers apart; it drives them together. It does away with the poisonous old system, but what does it have to offer but violence and instability instead? Yuri regards it with something near awe:

He realized that he was a pygmy before the monstrous machine of the future; he was anxious about this future, and loved it and was secretly proud of it, and as though for the last time, as if in farewell, he avidly looked at the trees and clouds and the people walking in the streets, the great Russian city struggling through misfortune--and was ready to sacrifice himself for the general good, and could do nothing.

And yet, in the individual moment of human lives, the Revolution proves horrific:

They stood around a bleeding stump of a man lying on the ground. His right arm and left leg had been chopped off. It was inconceivable how, with his remaining arm and leg, he had crawled to the camp. The chopped-off arm and leg were tied in terrible bleeding chunks onto his back with a small wooden board attached to them; a long inscription on it said, with many words of abuse, that the atrocity was in reprisal for similar atrocities perpetrated by such and such a Red unit--a unit that has no connection with the Forest Brotherhood.

No wonder the book was suppressed by the Soviet Union; Dr. Zhivago is a vile account of its national mythology. Yuri and Lara's love prospers in spite of their terror and their grief, and perhaps is even enhanced by it. Yet they live a doomed love, with no future, because they live in a futureless world. The Russia that emerges is utterly foreign to Yuri, and though he is wise, kind, and upright he is unable to deal with the totality of her changes.

There is a moment when Yuri is in the Bolsheviks' service that he sees a young boy with a head wound trying dutifully to keep his hat on straight and exacerbating his wound meanwhile. His comrades try to help him, through their misbegotten and shallow vision of goodness; the only one who has the power to see the deeper goodness is the doctor, Zhivago. He plays this same role as a poet--a sort of physician of the soul--and tries desperately to preserve sanity in an increasingly maddened world. Like Tietjens, he is too good for it. Pasternak himself lived daily with the heritage of that madness, and Dr. Zhivago--like Yuri with his poems--is the record of that struggle.