‘But life is never a material, a substance to be moulded’: Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’

Doctor Zhivago is one of those canonical novels that has been so thoroughly written about over the decades, that there is probably nothing you can say about it that hasn’t already been said, and in a similar manner. It’s plot is simple enough: the eponymous protagonist, Doctor Zhivago (Yury), is caught up in the throes of the First World War, and then the Russian Revolution; sent to the front, thence to Moscow, then fleeing the revolution into the countryside before being conscripted into the Red army during the Civil War, he (involuntarily) traverses the length and breadth of conflict-ridden Russia, simultaneously ridden by that most intense of personal conflicts: being in love with two people at the same time. Zhivago begins by being broadly sympathetic to the ideals of the Revolution; by the time the Revolution triumphs, however, he has turned deeply hostile. As much as Doctor Zhivago is about a churning Russia and about its churning protagonist, it is equally about a clash between an institution that, by its own logic, must subordinate everything to a uniform will, and an individual whose intellect will not accept that logic.

For me, the greatness of the book – and its great success – lies in its subtle, moving, and evocative portrayal of this clash. Of course, this is a theme that has been well-explored in literature (most of it, of course, after Pasternak wrote Zhivago): in the writings of Milan Kundera, or Danilo Kis, or George Orwell, to name just three writers who are stylistically very different, but are dealing with the same question. What’s different about Doctor Zhivago, however, is that it is about a pre-totalitarian regime – that is, the fate of the revolution has not yet hardened into (what would ultimately become) Stalinism, and there is a sense that in some way, the possibilities are still open:

“Everything had changed suddenly – the tone, the moral climate; you didn’t know what to think, who to listen to. As if all your life you had been led by the hand like a small child and suddenly you were on your own, you had to learn to walk by yourself. There was no one around, neither family nor people whose judgment you respected. At such a time you felt the need to entrust yourself to something absolute – life or truth or beauty – of being ruled by it now that man-made rules had been discarded. You needed to surrender to some such ultimate purpose more fully, more unreservedly than you had ever done in the old familiar, peaceful days, in the old life which was now abolished and gone for good.” 

As this passage suggests, the situation, therefore, is considerably more morally ambiguous than the stark scenarios painted by the writers of totalitarianism. This is a historical moment in which to give way to that ‘oceanic feeling’ seems not only understandable, but almost inevitable. Of course, the character of Doctor Zhivago shows us that it is now. As the moral certainty of the purveyors of the revolution increases, he begins to grow more and more ambivalent about it. The contrast shows up most clearly during a moment when, mistaken for a counter-revolutionary, he is briefly apprehended and brought before the local commander (who is also the husband of one of his lovers), Strelnikov. Here is Strelnikov’s description:

“For some unknown reason, it was clear at once that this man was a finished product of the will. So completely was he himself, the self he chose to be, that everything about him struck one immediately as a model of its kind – his well-proportioned, handsomely set head, his eager step, his long legs, his knee-boots, which may well have been muddy but which looked clean, and his grey serge tunic which may have been creased but looked as if it were made of the best linen and had just been pressed.”

This account – and in particular, the almost chilling phrase “a finished product of the will” (bringing to mind, of course, ‘the triumph of the will‘), is set at odds with Zhivago’s own character, described back to him in a letter from his lover, Lara:

“As for me, I love you. If only you knew how much I love you. I love all that is unusual in you, the inconvenient as well as the convenient, and all the ordinary things which, in you, are made precious to me by being combined in an extraordinary way; your face which is made beautiful by your expression, though perhaps it would be plain without it, your intelligence and your talent which replace your will – for you have no will.” 

This distinction – between being a finished product of the will (and thereby being able to subordinate oneself to the cause), and having no will, is mirrored in a parallel distinction that runs through the book – between the abstract and the particular. What Strelnikov needs to have (but doesn’t) “besides the principles which filled his mind, [was] an unprincipled heart, – the kind of heart that knows of no general cases, but only of particular ones, and has the greatness of small actions.” At another point, Zhivago notes that “it was as if there was something abstract in his expression – it made him colourless. As if a living human face had become an embodiment of a principle, the image of an idea.” Here, the juxtaposition of ‘principle’, ‘abstract’ and ‘idea’ on the one hand, and ‘colourless’ on the other, suggests that there is something unnatural, almost inhuman, about the pure revolutionary imagination. At other places, Pasternak refers to ‘the power of the glittering phrase‘, people ‘grim as idols‘, and ‘shrill textbook admirations… forced enthusiasm, and the deadly dullness...’ to suggest that the necessary conclusion to abstraction is the death of all that is human. In fact, Zhivago and Lara fall in love because there is “something intangible, marginal, that we both understand and feel in the same way”, and that something is the sense that “the riddle of life, the riddle of death, the beauty of genius, the beauty of loving – that, yes, that we understood. As for such petty trifles as re-shaping the world – these things, no thank you, they are not for us.”

In some ways, Doctor Zhivago reminds me of Elias Khoury’s latest novel, Sinalcol, set during the Lebanese Civil War. Stylistically, of course, they are very different. Pasternak’s novel contains a sprawling ensemble of characters, epic in scale, highly realist in its description, linear from beginning to an end; Khoury’s is scattered, impressionistic, feverishly moving between past and present. But in both novels, the protagonist is caught up in a war that he is fundamentally unequipped to deal with, because of his fundamental inability to paint over a half-cynical, half-doubting mental landscape with the brush of revolutionary fervour. This leads to paralysis. In Sinalcol, the protagonist has a conversation with a Palestinian revolutionary, where he exhorts her not to subordinate herself to the vision of the revolution; her answer is that it is only through that that she is able to act at all. The understanding that alternative is paralysis in a world where standing by is itself a morally fraught choice is something ever-present in both Sinalcol and Doctor Zhivago, and prevents hasty judgment upon those who have chosen the path of subordination and action. So towards the end of the book, when Lara says this to Zhivago, it is powerful and moving – and yet, and yet, not altogether convincing:

“‘The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the bare, shivering human soul, stripped to the last shred, the naked force of the human psyche for which nothing has changed because it was always cold and shivering and reaching out to its nearest neighbour, as cold and lonely as itself. You and I are like the first two people on earth who at the beginning of the world had nothing to cover themselves with – at the end of it, you and I are just as stripped and homeless. And you and I are the last remembrance of all that immeasurable greatness which has been created in the world in all the thousands of years between their time and ours, and it is in memory of all that vanished splendour that we live and love and weep and cling to one another.”

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