Posts Tagged ‘pasternak’

“Virgin Soil” by Ivan Turgenev

What is to be done?

This is always a pressing question regardless of which time or place we may happen to live in, but it seemed a particularly pressing question in pre-revolutionary Russia. Chernyshevsky wrote a hugely influential polemical novel with that question as title. (Tom of the Amateur Reader blog kindly read it for us so we don’t have to*, and recorded his impressions in a series of posts starting with this one. Scott Bailey, of the Six Words for a Hat blog, also wrote about it here.)

Chernyshevsky’s perspective was that of a utopian socialist. Tolstoy wrote an essay with the same title in 1886, and his perspective was … well, Tolstoyan, I suppose: the very idiosyncratic views he developed later in his life resist categorisation with any kind of “-ism”. And in the early years of the twentieth century, Lenin too wrote a pamphlet with that title: although I haven’t read it, I think I’m on safe ground in thinking Lenin’s perspective to be Communist. And even those writers who did not use this title addressed nonetheless this vital question. However they may have disagreed with each other on the answer, on this one point they seemed to be united: something had to be done.

Russia then – and, many would argue, now too – was, up to a significant point, part of Europe, and also, up to a similarly significant point, not part of Europe. Peter the Great had forced westernisation on to the country, but had used the most barbaric of means to achieve it, and, throughout the 19th century, the intelligentsia seemed very much split on whether to look to the West for enlightenment, or to find spiritual transformation in the soul of Mother Russia itself. The social iniquities were horrendous: serfdom – essentially “slavery” by another name – was abolished only in 1861, but that act alone did little to improve the peasants’ lot. There were all sorts of social and political unrest, and the crackdowns were vicious: the sound of the lash was never too distant. Whatever one’s political stance, there seemed no two ways about it: something had to be done.

Extreme views were very common, and I suppose it may be said that Turgenev was an extreme moderate. By which I mean that he espoused moderation not out of indecisiveness or out of pusillanimity, but out of a firmly held conviction that extremism in any direction was inherently dangerous. This made him, I suppose, something of an anomaly in the intellectual climate of Russia at the time – indeed, he was severely criticised by all sides – and it is hardly surprising that he spent much of his life in Europe. And it is towards Europe he looked. As a consequence, he made himself hugely unpopular amongst the Slavophiles: Dostoyevsky, especially, took against him, although he had personal reasons as well as ideological ones. Demons, which Dostoyevsky wrote in the early 1870s, contains a particularly nasty and unfair (though, it must be admitted, very funny) caricature of Turgenev.

Demons, too, is a novel that addresses the question “What is to be done?” Dostoyevsky had long disliked the idea of turning towards Western Enlightenment: given the history and traditions of Russia, he felt, foreign ideas wouldn’t work so well. It is easy to dismiss Dostoyevsky’s hostility to western ideas as mere nationalistic pride – though no doubt there is much of that there – but what Dostoyevsky saw in Europe did not seem to him a Utopia worth striving for. In Demons, he depicted the revolutionaries either as amoral nihilists and psychopaths, or as duped followers. Once again, it is easy to dismiss all this, and say his depictions are mere reactionary hysteria, but, given the uncanny accuracy of his prediction in the same novel of the Communist totalitarianism that gripped Russia only a few decades later, perhaps we shouldn’t. Dostoyevsky’s answer to the question “What is to be done?” isn’t simple: it involved turning back to the roots of Russian spirituality, which, he felt, could save not merely Russia, but the rest of the world too. (This is, inevitably, an oversimplification of complex ideas that, I must admit, I do not claim to adequately grasp, even after several re-readings.) On what we shouldn’t do, he was clearer: we shouldn’t accept the agenda of those who sought revolution. His vision of where these agenda would lead us was remarkably far-sighted.

Turgenev wrote Virgin Soil, his final novel in the late 1870s, only a few years after the appearance of Demons, and, although he does not refer directly to that novel, it would have been surprising indeed if he had not had it in mind, especially given that he, too, was writing about revolutionaries. However, his view of revolutionaries was very different.

Not that he approved of their aims, or, indeed, of their methods: he was too committed to the path of moderation to do that. But he approved of their moral seriousness. In On the Eve, written some twenty-five years earlier, he had similarly admired the moral seriousness of the Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov, and had juxtaposed it with the moral complacency and laxity of the older generation. However, moral seriousness and good intentions are clearly not enough, and in Virgin Soil, he digs a bit deeper into these issues. In the earlier novel, Turgenev had not actually delved into what it meant to be a revolutionary, but here he does: how does one foment a revolution? What does it involve? Where does it all lead? And the conclusions he seemed to reach, while not apocalyptic as is the unforgettable closing section of Demons, are nonetheless rather pessimistic. For reasons rather different from Dostoyevsky’s, Turgenev too could not support the revolutionaries’ cause.

While a novel based on such themes is inevitably political in nature, Turgenev’s interest was primarily in the human aspect. All ideologies stand or fall by how humans implement them, how humans respond to them, how humans, with all their manifold strengths and equally manifold shortcomings, affect them, and are affected by them. And this is where Turgenev’s interest primarily lies – not so much in the ideologies themselves, but in what we may call (to anticipate the title of a rather fine Graham Greene novel from about a century later) “the human factor”.

The principal character here is Nezhdanov, an illegitimate (and disinherited) son of an aristocrat, who is drawn to the revolutionary cause. He is employed by Sipyagin to be tutor to his son, and soon finds himself in a country estate – a standard setting in Turgenev’s work. We are introduced here to the lady of the house, the beautiful but self-centred and manipulative Valentine Mikhailovna; to Sipyagin himself, who affects liberalism, but knows, as they say, which side his bread is buttered; and to a neighbouring landowner Kallomeitsev, a brutish and unthinking reactionary. We are introduced also to Sipyagin’s ward, the young but self-assured Marianna, whose independence of thought and of action mark her out as very different from the gentle submissive ingenues of many of Turgenev’s earlier works. All are characterised expertly, with a few deft but unobtrusive strokes.

The scope here is wider than usual: Nezhdanov’s revolutionary comrades are also making the journey from town to country, in an attempt to bring the revolution to the peasantry, who seem to be little better off than they had been before the Emancipation of 1861.

Nezhdanov is serious and conscientious about his revolutionary mission, but there seems to be, quite disastrously, something missing: Nezhdanov himself realises, to his immense shame, that he lacks commitment to the cause. Why, he does not know: it is a mystery even to himself. This is a theme Turgenev had long explored – the “superfluous man”, the man who may be, and, indeed, often is, intelligent and talented and capable, but who is, nonetheless, curiously ineffective. And yes, even here, amongst people consciously dedicated to action, we find this “superfluous man”.

Nezhdanov is also a poet, and on a number of occasions, he attributes his lack of effectiveness, his lack of true commitment, to his aesthetic nature. This seems highly dubious: why should an aesthetic nature inhibit commitment? Does not sensitivity to beauty render even more ugly the brute suffering visited so iniquitously on so many humans?

Nezhdanov himself does not know the answer to this, but the thought of a connection of sorts between his lack of commitment on the one hand, and his aestheticism on the other, does, nonetheless, haunt his mind. Perhaps we need to go to a novel written after the revolution, Doctor Zhivago, to find a further exploration of this. There, Pasternak’s protagonist, Zhivago, is also a poet, an aesthete. When the revolution had come, he had cautiously welcomed it: it was the cleaning of the Augean Stables that was very much needed. But as the novel progresses, Zhivago’s aestheticism seems to become, in itself, and by itself, a statement against the totalitarian nature of the revolution: a sensitivity to the beauty of life cannot reconcile itself to an ideology that sees humans as but terms in a mathematical equation. If I may be so self-centred as to quote from my earlier post on Pasternak’s novel:

Pasternak was writing in a time where even the description of the beauty of a tree was a political statement, a statement against totalitarianism.

[D]octor Zhivago 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.

(I think I should add at this point that there is also much in that earlier post that I now find myself disagreeing with.)

Possibly, Turgenev was aware of all this; but Nezhdanov certainly isn’t. As he increasingly becomes aware of his lack of commitment, the more he sees himself as a “superfluous man”, a failure. As with Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, he cannot force himself into becoming what he is convinced he should, but knows he cannot.

The pages where Turgenev describes how these would-be revolutionaries attempt to bring the revolution to the peasants introduce a most uncharacteristic strain of humour (Turgenev, for all his many gifts, was not really the funniest of writers): these people may mean well, but they do not have the first clue, as they distribute pamphlets to largely illiterate and mainly indifferent (and sometimes hostile) peasants. Eventually, in one case, the peasants themselves turn the revolutionaries in to the authorities; and the authorities are merciless.

So what should be done? It is of course not the novelist’s duty to give answers, but an answer of sorts is suggested by the character Solomin, whose name sounds too close to that of the wise king Solomon to be ignored. Solomin is also part of the revolutionary movement, but, apart from providing the odd bit of assistance, he doesn’t seem too heavily involved in revolutionary activity. He is the manager of a factory, and has a reputation of running the factory well: as a consequence, he is much respected by factory owners in the region, and is much in demand. However, we hear disappointingly little of what Solomin thinks is the answer to the question “What is to be done?” Perhaps he does not have much of an answer. We do hear towards the end of the novel that he goes on to run his own factory on a co-operative basis, but we do not see any of that: what we do see of him, he is running a factory as, effectively, his own kingdom. He may refer to the other workers as “brothers”, but he is in charge, and everyone, including both the workers and the grateful factory owners, knows it. He seems, to be frank, an unlikely revolutionary.

But if we do not get much of an answer to the question “What is to be done?”, this is not really Turgenev’s focus of interest: he was interested in how humans feel, and how they behave, when faced with this question, and when they try to propound answers, and then live up to them.

Reading through Turgenev’s work (and with this, I think I have now read all of Turgenev’s major work – all that has been translated into English, at least) I often get the impression that he was writing on political matters much against his will; that he was writing on such themes because, as an intelligent man living in deeply troubled times, and as a man who believed passionately in a moderate liberalism, he had no choice but to address such matters; but that, if he had his way, he would turn his back on all the politics and write melancholy love stories instead – the sort of thing that had my younger self dismissing his work as “soppy”. (Turgenev did sometimes do just this, even late in his career, as in that exquisite novella The Torrents of Spring.) In Virgin Soil, he has much scope for “soppiness”: there’s the country setting for a start, and few writers if any could match Turgenev when it came to lyrical descriptions of nature; and there’s also a love story. But, despite this novel being by some distance considerably longer than his other works, he shuns all these temptations: the focus here is neither on the beauties of nature, nor on the lyricism of romantic love; there’s a sort of single-mindedness in his determination here not to be deflected from his principal themes. This refusal to indulge his lyrical inclinations results in what is, by his standards, almost an austere novel: there is a single-mindedness of purpose that presents with the utmost clarity and starkness the tragic course of the “superfluous man” – of a man who, though not lacking either in intelligence or in ability, becomes aware of how utterly dispensible he is in the wider scheme of things.

So whose depiction of revolutionaries, I wonder, was closer to the mark – Dostoyevsky’s in Demons, or Turgenev’s in Virgin Soil? I’d hazard a guess that both types of revolutionaries existed, and that, after the revolution, the kind of revolutionaries Turgenev depicts were liquidated by the kind Dostoyevsky depicts. Until they, too, were liquidated in turn. Possibly Turgenev did not foresee the liquidations; but Dostoyevsky did. It’s a paradoxical case of the writer who appears hysterical piercing deeper than the writer who seems more balanced and clear-sighted. But Turgenev’s depiction remains important for all that: there were revolutionaries who went in there with serious moral purpose, and with the best of intentions. They may have been misguided, they may have been wrong; they may not have consciously realised that what they were aiming for was nothing less that totalitarianism itself. They may, in the final analysis, have been superfluous. But Turgenev’s vision was humane and gentle, and for this alone, if nothing else, I find him among the most companionable of writers.


[The translation of “Virgin Soil” I read was by Michael Pursglove, published by Alma Classics.]

* Please Note: the gag about Tom reading Chernyshevsky so the rest of us don’t have to is shamelessly nicked from this post in Di Nguyen’s blog “The Little White Attic”.



“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.

Time for a Russian novel

There are times when you need a Russian novel. It has to be Russian: nothing less will do. You need an artistic vision that is effortlessly epic; and you need a writer who will, without any embarrassment or circumlocution or even preamble, address with a disconcerting directness all the big themes of life: God, morality, the immortality of the soul – you know, all that sort of thing. So, I started on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. I last read it many years ago, and, although it impressed me at the time, my memories of it are surprisingly vague. So it’s definitely time for a re-read.

Of course, the very mention of Doctor Zhivago brings to mind that mushy David Lean film that has given the novel the rather unfair reputation as a sort of standard-bearer of that popular middlebrow subgenre “Love-Story-Set-In-Turbulent-Times”. And it is difficult separating the book from the film: despite the many inadequacies of the latter (not the least of which are the extraordinarily wooden performances from the two romantic leads), the film is, in visual terms, perhaps the most stunningly beautiful I think I have seen, and it is hard to keep those startlingly vivid images from one’s mind as one reads. And while cinematographer Freddie Young deserves the highest praise for this, some of the credit must go to Lean as well: after all, Young has been cinematographer on many other films as well, and while he has never been less than superb, none of these others is as visually stunning as the ones he made with Lean. If only the rest of Lean’s film version of Doctor Zhivago had been on a par with the cinematography!

But back to the novel. It starts: “On they went, singing Eternal Memory.” And immediately, I know I am reading a Russian novel. I think I’m going to enjoy this!