“Doctor Zhivago” & “The Blind Beauty”: Pasternak’s last testament

It’s been some two weeks now since I finished reading Doctor Zhivago and The Blind Beauty (the latter being the play Pasternak left unfinished when he died), and I have been delaying writing up my impressions because, despite allowing some time for these impressions to settle in my mind into some kind of coherent order, they refuse resolutely to do so: they are in as confused a state as ever, and I am frankly at a loss to know what to make of these works.

The first publication of Doctor Zhivago in the West, back in 1957 (the people of Pasternak’s own country had to wait till 1988), very sharply split critical judgement. Such eminent novelists as Vladimir Nabokov and Graham Greene were less than impressed; and yet, on the other side of the scale, such people as V.S. Pritchett, Stuart Hampshire, Isaiah Berlin – all people of incisive intellect and discerning taste – were ecstatic. Edmund Wilson, not a man given to gushing, described it as “one of the great events of man’s literary and moral history”. And yet, one can see why the likes of Nabokov and Greene remained unconvinced: Pasternak was a poet rather than a novelist, and it is perhaps not overstating the case to say that, judged purely as a novel, Doctor Zhivago is a mess. The narrative is episodic and disjointed, the pacing often badly judged, the long-term development of character at best crude, several important characters disastrously undercharacterised, the plotline all over the place, and so on. And yet – and it’s a big “yet” – I can think of very few novels I have read that have moved me quite as intensely as this. By any analysis – at least, by any analysis of which I am capable – it shouldn’t move: and yet it does. And I’m not sure why.

The whole picture becomes further confused by David Lean’s film, since, like it or not (and those who love the book probably don’t), it is this film that forms most people’s impressions of Doctor Zhivago. The film focuses on the romantic element of the novel, and sentimentalises it. It can be argued that there are elements in the book also that, at least, come close to being sentimental, but there’s nothing in the book that can justify the overdose of sugar Lean provides in the film. (And neither are matters helped by Maurice Jarre’s sickly-sweet score, or by two incredibly wooden performances at the centre from Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.) However, one aspect of the film that is, it seems to me, an accurate reflection of the novel is its visual beauty: Freddie Young’s cinematography is majestic, and extraordinarily beautiful, and this sense of the sheer beauty of nature, of the world, is also, it seems to me, an integral part of the novel. I hesitate to make this point, as it sounds like what I tend to call a “penny-in-the-slot” criticism – i.e. one of those comments that can be made without having to think too deeply: Pasternak was a poet, therefore he had poetic gifts, therefore his novel is poetic and lyrical … and so on. But the beauty of the world, reflected in the lyricism of Pasternak’s prose (which comes through strongly in the translation by Manya Harari and Max Hayward, if not necessarily, I gather, in the more recent and more literally correct translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), is not an incidental aspect of the novel: it is central to it. Pasternak was writing in a time where even the description of the beauty of a tree was a political statement, a statement against totalitarianism.

For this novel is, inevitably, a political statement. This made it rather suspect during the Cold War: of course, behind the Iron Curtain, it was banned altogether, but many in the West suspected the extent to which the ecstatic reactions to the novel were shaped by appreciation purely of its literary qualities, or merely by approval of its politics. Now that the Cold War is behind us, we may, perhaps, judge this issue more dispassionately, and, in my admittedly confused judgement, it seems to me that its aesthetic qualities and its political content cannot be separated: the lyricism of Doctor Zhivago is not merely that of a poet being poetic; rather, it constitutes the very essence of this profoundly anti-totalitarian novel. It is a celebration, or, if not a celebration as such, at least an affirmation, of everything that totalitarianism attempts to suppress – human feelings, human emotions, the human sense of beauty, human individuality, the apprehension of love, the need for companionship, for affection … indeed, the novel is an affirmation of everything that is human.

Not, of course, that Pasternak’s politics were in any way simplistic. If, after the Revolution, the Mad ruled the Lunatics, Pasternak had no illusion about the times when the Lunatics used to rule the Mad. Radical social change, Pasternak knew, had to come: indeed, it was to be welcomed. (Ironically, given that this novel was long regarded as a Cold War propaganda tool for the West, one of the reasons Nabokov disliked it was that, in his opinion, it was too sympathetic to the October Revolution!) Pasternak goes out of his way to depict the sense of joy, of hope, that attended the advent of the Revolution – “The Advent of the Inevitable”, as one chapter title has it.

In their different ways, both Yuri Zhivago and Pasha Antipov – the two men Lara loves – epitomise that sense of hope. On the surface, it would appear that Zhivago is the poet and dreamer, while Pasha is the practical man, but the surface is deceptive: Zhivago, as well as being a poet, is, as the title of the novel emphasises, a doctor. It is Pasha who is the wide-eyed idealist, and Pasternak knew as well as did Ibsen how dangerous such idealists are. But Lara continues to love Pasha just as much as she loves Yuri. This is so even when Pasha metamorphoses into General Strelnikov in the brutal Civil War – the brutality of which, incidentally, Pasternak does not underplay: some passages were so horrendous, I could barely force myself to read them.  Pasternak seems to emphasise that Pasha does not become Strelnikov because he has been corrupted: rather, he merely does what has to be done to keep his ideals alive. Later, of course, after the Civil War, Pasha himself falls out of favour: there is no room for idealism in this Brave New World, any more than there had been in the Brave Old one. And, in one of the most moving scenes I think I have read in fiction, Yuri and Pasha, the two men who had loved and have lost Lara – two men, indeed, who have lost everything, even any reason for continuing to live – meet and speak to each other. It is true that at certain points in the novel, there has been a naivety touching on the sentimental: but there’s no naivety or sentimentality in that passage where Pasha tries desperately to picture Lara as a living, physical presence, and questions Yuri on exactly how she used to shake the rug.

But the enigma remains: if there is so much wrong with the novel – and there undoubtedly is – then why did it affect me so profoundly? It could just be that I’m merely sentimental, and I’d be happy to accept that answer were it not that other people very far from being sentimental have been similarly affected by it. This is where I find myself at a loss to explain myself. I could offer the usual “penny-in-the-slot” observations – Pasternak’s lyricism; his ability to evoke precisely states of mind, of pain, of loneliness; his use of imagery, and so on – but these are but banal observations, and I find it very difficult to delve deeper. Take, for instance, that image of the rowanberries: this image is first introduced in a folk song Zhivago hears, in which the rowanberries are associated with a longing for one who is absent; it reappears in different contexts, and, the last time it appears, it describes the drops of blood of a suicide on the snow: these drops of blood, Pasternak tells us, looked like “iced rowanberries”. For reasons I cannot quite explain, my heart seemed to give a leap at this point, and I found myself temporarily unable to read on further. How many better constructed novels, I wonder, could affect me in quite such a manner?


Despite being primarily a poet, Pasternak had intended Doctor Zhivago, a novel, and The Blind Beauty, a play, to be his final artistic testament. Of course Doctor Zhivago ends with a sequence of poems purportedly written by Zhivago himself, and, despite the modest claims of translators Harari and Hayward of having provided merely literal translations of these verses, without any attempt at being “poetic”, the translated versions do give at least some impression of the poetic quality of the originals. But for all that, Doctor Zhivago is a novel, and, in the non-Russian speaking world, at least, it is the prose narrative rather than the collection of poems at the end that is most highly valued.

But The Blind Beauty is a work that is barely known at all. I myself had not heard of it until I found it, purely by chance, while browsing through that lovely little bookshop in Clitheroe. Perhaps it is little known because it is unfinished: only about half of its projected length was completed, and in its current state, it is, I’d imagine, unperformable. But more than that, I suspect it is little known simply because Pasternak was even less of a playwright than he was a novelist.

The opening two scenes forms what Pasternak calls a “Prologue”. The first of these scenes is a very long one, and is set on a Russian estate during the days of “serfdom” – or, not to mince words, “slavery”. The master and the mistress are away, because they can’t bear the wailing and the howling that occur when serfs are forcibly impressed into the army. And there are memories of even crueller times, when a former mistress of the estate used to murder serfs – hundreds of them – just for fun. (Apparently, this was no mere invention on Pasternak’s part: a certain real-life person called Saltykova who lived in the latter part of the 18th century did actually murder an estimated 140 or so of her serfs just for the sheer pleasure of it.)

But things are not well with the Master and Mistress either. In the midst of all the cruelty, the suffering, the birchings, the starving, in this country estate surrounded by forests filled with cut-throat robbers, Master has been mismanaging his finances, and, much to the Mistress’ chagrin, wants to sell off her jewels. And the Mistress isn’t going to stand for this. So they fiddle along while all around them seems to be in flames. The first scene develops nicely enough into a series of big climaxes with attempted murder, robbers breaking in, shooting, the blinding of a serf housemaid, and so on, but it is often dramatically crude, and one wonders where it can all be leading to.

The first act proper is set on the eve of the emancipation of the serfs. We find ourselves in a posting station in which a traveller is stranded. This traveller hears from the locals about what has been going on in the neighbourhood: he hears of the events we had witnessed in the prologue, and of their terrible aftermath, as an entirely innocent man was found guilty and whipped till all his skin hung loose, his flesh all mushed and bloody.

It is, of course, quite a common dramatic device: to bring in a stranger, and to let the audience pick up the back-story from what the stranger is told. The only odd thing about it here is that this stranger, for no obvious reason that I could discern, happens to be Alexandre Dumas. Yes, it is true that  Dumas did travel across Russia at this time, but exactly what point is served by bringing him into the play I really can’t imagine.

And that is how Pasternak left it at the time of his death. He had made it clear in his correspondence that he intended this play, along with the epic Doctor Zhivago, to be his final  artistic testament; and that he intended the play to have a scope comparable to that of the novel. But, to judge purely on the unfinished text left behind, it is best described, I think, as an “enigma”. In other words, I don’t have the first idea what to make of it, and any thoughts anyone has on this matter would be much appreciated.

One response to this post.

  1. […] lastly, Himadri, that argumentative old git, is discussing Pasternak this […]


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