Yuri (Hans Matheson) looking out from the army train (2002 Dr Zhivago)
What he sees: countryside
Dear friends and readers,
About a week ago, I finished listening to Philip Madoc read aloud the whole of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, probably as translated by Manya Harari and Max Hayward. I would like to share a few of the postings I wrote over the course of the four weeks it took me (in my car) to listen to this masterpiece. It may seem a perverse way to talk about the novel, but I’m going to see it in terms of the two movies, and suggest Davies’s Dr Zhivago is far truer to the text than David Lean’s, but that neither presents the real structure: it’s not dependent on a love story, but the chaos, senselessness and displacement of individual lives in our era. And neither shows the final retreat, nihilism and justified elitism of Pasternak-Zhivago’s perception of experience. (I do like the movies, both of them, but their visions are quite different as I suggest in an earlier blog.)
I also listened to it in terms of a group of novels and studies of political novels I read last year and this. I spent a couple of months last spring reading Victorian political novels (by Trollope, George Meredith, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry Kingsley, Benjamin Disraeli, among others), listened to all four novels of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, read aloud effectively (I read Vols 1-3 of 4 in the 1980s), and then rewatched Christopher Morahan and Ken Taylor’s film adaptation, Jewel in the Crown. This early winter on Trollope19thCStudies we said we’d try Hugo, and I did read more than half of Hugo’s Les Miserables as translated by Norman Denny. Well, Dr Zhivago as read aloud by Philiip Madoc has given me a further sense of what the political novel has become in our time. It’s a retreat, a disillusionment, a descendent to some extent of James’s Princess Casamassima (also read on Trollope19thCStudies, a few years ago now) where the political hero also dies, is thrown on an ash-heap — partly because he is so noble of soul.
It opens on two scenes: the funeral of Yuri’s mother after a life of high society all the while her husband spends their fortune on his mistresses and drink; then his suicide on a train. I now see Lean chose to begin with the first incident, and Davies with the second.
Lean’s opener (1965 Dr Zhivago)
Davies then took us to the funeral and Yuri’s adoption, while Lean skipped the suicide and went on to the next chapter (3) where we meet Lara and her mother, seamtress and their desperate world. I can see that Lara indeed has a companion, Olga, who Anne-Marie Duff played (cut by Lean).
The book at this point has no political point of view that is clear — only deeply ethical in the way of 19th century novels. By contrast, Hugo’s politics are interwoven from the moment his book opens. In the smaller scenes I am reminded of fiction by Gogol and Goncharev – not Chekhov who gives us a more quiet set of people.
In these early scenes in Moscow there’s plenty of snow, up to the incident where the Czar’s dragoons break up a demonstration and proceed ruthlessly to murder people, when a politics perforce enters the narrative, but, tellingly, here not one comment from the narrator. Not one. In comparison with Hugo, this is denuded of political commentary altogether; in comparison with Paul Scott and Trollope ditto. It has vivid characters who are leading troubled confused lives.
Mother and daughter (Celia, Anna Gromyko; Lara, Keira Knightley)
At Lara’s mother’s attempted suicide and all the reactions to it, we see the influence of Zola and the European naturalists — Germinal for example. It’s quite different though (from both Hugo and Trollope too): Hugo has simple large lines and Trollope is developing multi-plot stories. Zhivago seems to emerge like some volcano slowly erupting in bits.
The beauty so far is in the language — I don’t know what is the translated text here but Madoc reads it stunningly well. I can see that imagery is in the old-fashioned way (like poetry) is one way of holding his novel together to give it meaning beyond the characters and stories. I do love the snow and the imagery and feel of it.
So in the first section of the book, Davies is closer to the book than Lean — Lean’s movie is visionary and original out of the landscape vision (as are his Dickens’ movies and Close Encounters); not that Davies lacks landscape. The politicization in 1958 terms (anti-communist) is imposed. Yuri is profoundly sympathetic to the socialist movement at first and we are told never lost his connection with its principles. There is religion of the Dostoevsky variety (talk about Christ from the abject-slave mentality) and a send-up of Tolstoi’s absurdity in Kreutzer’s Sonata, only it’s enigmatic what Pasternak finds silly.
On the absence of commentary from the implied author: I wonder if Pasternak had faith he could get this published. Like many a woman across the centuries, his text might not see the light of day and if it did, would be criticized. Surely that would affect how he shaped and how much work towards reaching his readers he put into it. Hugo knew he was a star at the time of Les Miserables, and Trollope a successful working commercial storyteller.
Thus far it reads very like a domestic realism novel. I am wondering if in 1958 simply because it came out of Russian and seemed to be the tradition of (capitalist) European western novels, it was overread — or if Pasternak, fearful of the authorities (rightly, for his Lara, the real one, was put in camps for decades because she was his mistress), curbed any tendency for commentary that could get him in trouble.
The camera in Davies’s film of the next part (the early teenagehood of the protagonists Yuri, Lara, Tonia) keeps returning to the outside of Tonya’s parents’ house where Yuri grew up. Much attention paid to to their first Christmas party, The one they wore their first beautiful evening clothes for in Davies’s film.
Tonia and Yuri (Alexandra Maria Lara, 2002 Zhivago)
IN the book Pasternak uses the coming death of Anna, Tonya’s mother, and her memories to allow in a flooding in of her pasts, and thus previous worlds in Russia. Personating her, he provides a brilliant meditation on her refusal to involve herself in bogus litigation fights with her family members which make only lawyers rich summed up Bleak House — of course a relative protests. It reads like a nineteenth century novel thus far, a humane one by a modern consciousness.
The shooting of Komarofsky by Lara at the party. Very powerful in the book the way several points of view are kept up: we are with Yuri most of the time and only hear of Lara – this is a repeat of Lara’s mother’s suicide, again something not experienced directly but heard about and encountered by Yuri.
The trauma of Lara’s sexual life with Komarofsky is presented indirectly in the novel: we hear of her wretchedness to think of how she had been kissing his hands, how she needs to get away, and how a friend offers a position as a governess she knows of in a family. Governessing is suddenly not imprisonment but safety. Alas, it’s not enough of a life and Lara wants marriage with Pasha and needs money. So here Lean’s reticent matches the original text while Davies makes forward strides in attempting to show women’s sexuality (even if from the male, his, point of view).
Thus as far as my sense of Lara in the book, the scene where she shoots Komarofsky whose roots are so complex is slithered over in both films. So too Pasha’s own intense distress the first night of their marriage to discover she is no virgin, but a longtime mistress of Komarofsky; again the matter presented in suggestive vague words which assume you understand what is happening.
This indirection goes along with the (as I am hypothesizing) the self-censorship and really unusual silence of the narrator I know Lubbock and others have shown how so many authors of the later 19th through mid-20th century seem not to be in their fiction; at the same time, we feel them continually shaping it and know what is their stance. Not here.
Something important is going on here: this silence and indirection. The boy in front, the “front” or cover story is a curtain behind which what matters happens. The book opens with the funeral he goes to: what matters is the attempted suicide of one mother and the death of the other. This emphasis of the book is lost.
I find myself comforted by the implicit outlook strongly critical of social arrangements. Madoc has a beautiful voice. I like Lara, can feel for Pasha, and see how Yuri is a traditional hero. I did see a section where the ideas of what is art and beauty were debated.
The two marriages are elided over in the book and what is emphasized is Zhivago and Lara’s experience of war. He dragged away from his family, she having to cope with and deciding to follow Pasha when he (foolishly and poignantly) deluded, hurt, flees her for death.
Yuri (Omar Shariff) and Lara (Julie Christie) as nurse and doctor at the front
Soon we come to where Zhivago and Lara are nurse and doctor together in a great country house which has been altered to serve as a hospital. They are falling in love but resisting it — he keeping an awareness of his affection for her the center of his conscious thought and nothing else; we don’t see in her mind at this point. Both leave or attempt to in order to return to their respective “lives” (as it’s called), he with Tonya and Shasha in Moscow, she to Yuriatrin, the village where she had manage to build a life for herself by teaching, with the plan of picking up her daughter from a friend she left her with on the way.
The book has flaws. Pasternak does have these passages about the Bible and Christianity from Zhivago where Zhivago allegorizes the Bible or the Christian story to infer ideas not in the Bible. One is a long section on the Jews. From a train Zhivago sees a group of Russian cossacks and villagers humiliating an elderly Jewish man and preventing his family from getting needed supplies; it’s ugly. They tell Zhivago they are just having some harmless fun. Then he observes the Czar at a huge rally where everyone is ever so awed and applaud, all the while if you just looked at the man you saw a diffident stupid man who had such terrific power over the lives of others.
Then we get this meditation against the nonsense of accusing jews of not being patriotic (used against them) but then interesting, he goes on against nationalism, and says how pernicious this can be to have a group identity, how dangerous too. All this though is based on the Bible — it’s not there.
His book could be used to be anti-communist when it is rather a Voltairian vision of the political world shot through Russian art themes (references to say Pushkin, Tolstoi) and specific obsessions of Pasternak’s own as a poet and man troubled about the existence of God — Lara won’t look at this or that lest it disturb her belief in God. Nothing of Chekhov or Turgenev or Gogol.
I’m drawn by old-fashioned in depth characterization and effective scenes — and what some might call misanthropy. One group of power hungry people replace another is Boshevism is shown to feel like whatever may be the ideals pronounced (which Yuri like someone at the beginning of the French revolution supports).
The book is peculiar; it shows the kinds of jumps and starts and sudden gaps and turns I’ve seen in books where the author is not sure of him or herself, not sure it will be published, or what will be the public’s response. As I’ve said, there is an odd absence of some commentary from the narrator where you might expect it. If it is to be interpreted politically, I’d say it’s in these sudden zigzags within and between chapters and the feeling of intense constraint. Here is an implied author who doesn’t believe his book will reach an audience quite, who has no confidence in what the response of his audience will be, and who is afraid of someone powerful reading his book taking offence.
Angela Livingstone’s Pasternak argues these gaps are deliberate, artistic, a way of making the book 20th century, but this may be the special pleading of the academic determined to turn flaws into strengths of the author she has chosen to spend time on. She argues the zigzags and lack of coherence and curious repressions of the narrator are deliberate. So I’m not wrong: they are there. She says they are there because this is not a late European 19th century novel, but a 20th century one: about dislocations of lives amid anonymous non-there societies. Remember Mrs Thatcher: there is no society, only individuals and families. The vision in Zhivago is one I saw in Haneke’s White Ribbon: little groups of people turn into themselves and connections more tenuous, not there than ever; within identities in public at a great distance from realities.
Hugos Les Miserables has this terrific belief that all the people in it are united and that personality is not shattered and fragmentary, though Marius is Hugo himself. As I toted my groceries home amid the left-over and filthy snow, after having listened to another bout of Dr Zhivago, I thought to myself how modern the novel really is, and its distance from Les Miserables.
While both Lean and Davies “read” into the book, I’d say Davies is much closer. One thing does come across by the dramatic scenes. A horror and hatred of warwhich is in the book. Pasternak insists we look at what modern machinery does to male bodies, how hideously people are deformed, the terrible horrific pains they endure. This is a war using weapons no human body can withstand.
The same sense of deep pain is registered in Tonia’s childbirth — for once and maybe since then more times the excruciating experience is put down. It should be said Tonia gets no pain medication, but women didn’t until there was some effective stuff so not until the 1930s for middle class women and up in modern places. Pain physical and emotional, these realities of life we can’t escape are Pasternak’s subjects.
He insists on the irrationality of human beings carrying on such wars on. Now he can get away with this by not having politics, since for the wealthy and powerful the war will eventually or for now (they hope) protect their status, property. Davies in his movie adds statement for the soldiers to say they should go home because to fight for the Czar is to fight for people they ought to be fighting. That is not Pasternak but Davies.
The characters are believable up to a point. Like most novels, they also fall into types too. As I often like the good characters with decent morality and hearts, I like Lara and Yuri very much. She is presented as altruistic, unambitious, susceptible to bullying and temptation (as in the Komarofsky incident), Yuri as someone with high ideals in culture, art, and humanity. I am expected to think Pasha is dead, but having seen the movie I know better. I wonder if Pasternak originally intended to kill Pasha off, but changed his mind.
The descriptions are superb, the landscapes, and atmosphere of places, but there is not enough of it. See my above paragraph.
The book may have been exploited and used by the continual counter-revolutionary groups of our society, but in itself it’s really just another great novel in the European tradition, owing much to the English and German traditions, more in the quiet realistic psychology Trollope-Gaskell-Eliot-Mann vein than to the fantastical and highly mannnered type of Dickens or Thackeray. Pasternak would not be the first author to censor himself not believe in his book quite.
I like the narrator’s tone but this may be a function of Madoc’s resonant kindly voice.
Yuri makes it back to the train
The book comes into his own when the family leaves Moscow and goes on that train ride deep into the countryside. It’s here neither film can do justice to the text. (I never did figure how when watching either movie what was the point of bringing the family to the countryside except that now Yuri can bump into Lara and the affair really begin.) The text is filled with long inward meditations by Yuri said to be what he put in his diary, sketches of remarkable characters who reveal what revolutions do to people — dislocation, the freeing of fierce animosities, the chance, rare, for some that someone can rise and fulfill his gifts, but for others total destruction of the life they had with none to take its place; poetic meditations on the countryside, private domestic life; how people make do.
Getting away is what counts
This upper class family is taken by the servants on the estate of Tonia’s grandfather; Tonia is warned to be careful or she’ll be attacked as she is a target for resentment now. The servants don’t know what to do with them and give them a hut. All the people living on the estate are breaking various laws set up by the new powerful people and they get food and other things through network coteries just as in the old way.
Tonya not knowing Yuri has begun an affair with Lara in the nearby town
Both film makers try and perhaps Lean is actually more successful here in a few silent scenes of Shariff meditating. The films could do justice to this section, but they don’t. Michael Haneke could (do see The White Ribbon); Bergman and Rohmer get as much depth as any book. Both Davies and Lean are hampered by their unwillingness to go for fully unusual filmic techniques; no voice-overs, no narrators, and keeping to naturalism in both films. It’s lacks in the film-makers not the inadequacy of the filmic medium.
In a way the book lacks the deep political understanding of Scott’s Raj Quartet, or maybe it’s not so hopeful there’s something to be explained. Scott also derives his narratives strongly out of totally thoroughly conceived characters; his book is beautifully put together and he has many women speakers, marginalized people. He also really goes into politics, quite explicitly. If Paul Scott’s masterwork is not enough valued, it’s prejudice against a white man daring to talk of India, and that he presents the British point of view equally. The complaints remind me of those against Styron’s Nat Turner.
I find myself frustrated when suddenly Zhivago switches to wholly unknown characters, gives a full sketch or feel and then moves on to another and the first never heard of again, frustrated by the lack of political analysis. As I suggestd above, Livingstone says the zigzags and gaps are deliberate, a sign of20th century disorder, disorientation, loss.
There is also hardly anything from women. Only a few long meditations from their consciousness. We go into Lara’s subjectivity only as she is understood by Yuri or presented at a distance by the narrator or other male. Hardly anything at all inward from Tonia. Is she supposed to be not that intelligent? Her last letter is so heart-wrenching but it’s all outward. This is a real loss.
The greatness and power is when we are in Yuri’s mind, feeling and thinking with him. The great sardonic ironies of warfare are brought before us, the terrible tragedies. Pasternak is clearly interested in Jews, but as it as an outsider, assimilated Jew (and not so secular either as I had thought) and he discusses “their situation” (as disempowered, mocked, rejected and yet exclusive themselves is partly how he sees it (also complains they didn’t Christianize themselves — this is not ironic). Then I am very moved and feel implicated in a way I never quite do in any of the Raj novels. They do seem historical in comparison. The way Yuri sees the world I recognize — especially it’s meaninglessness in the fleeting events and how he turns from all politicians (you see Scott does not, he studies them with earnestness).
I’m thinking partly that Zhivago is somewhat overrated because it was 1) suppressed; 2) was useful to the establishment and appealed to Lean for the same reasons. On the latter it’s being published in Italy is important only I don’t know enough: I know the Italians succumbed to US pressure to take all power from leftist groups and that the publishers of the time went for books like Il Gattopardo (very great, a masterpiece, but reactionary deeply when it comes to social and political arrangements). More also needs to be known about the first Italian translation and how it spread and turns up in English and under whose auspices. By contrast, Paul Scott’s cycle only gradually gained recognition and the film adaptation of Staying On was important in the marketing of them, and ditto the BBC mini-series.
The novel IS NOT a love story; the love stories are very much tertiary material. Both movies are centrally about sex, love and personal corruption, with Davies adding some sensible politics and Lean landscape.
Sometimes this novel just soars. When Komarofsky comes to “rescue” Lara from Yuri (as he, Komarofsky sees it), and we hear Lara and Yuri’s reaction, we are into its typically supreme moments. All Komaroksky’s “wise” realpolitick talk is turned into irrelevant nonsense by the attitude of mind of these two: Lara who is wholly unambitious, and won’t recognize all that ambition seeks as important or even quite real; Yuri who looks upon this talk as general labels hiding the particular people who are after their interests, and it’s that we see in Komarofsky’s sudden warnings and how he got a job, that matters.
Their going off to the homestead he lived in with Tonia and his father-in-law is a kind of Tristan and Isolde tryst in reverse. The medieval icons were fleeing for love and for a hidden life; these two flee death for as long as they can hold out from it. The medieval couple went to a garden of paradise; these two go to a wasteland and broken down destroyed houses, one filled with wretched memories for Yuri. Yuri does love Tonia (her letter is heart-breaking as she bids adieu to him, not knowing it will reach him), and Lara is faithful to Pasha.
A bit of unrealism: two small children are said to be there, but hardly make their presences felt. They would be a real continual burden in life.
But it’s this angle of askance on politics I think that makes the book more contemporary than say Paul Scott’s and certainly the Victorians and Hugo.
Dr Zhivago: The conclusion in which nothing appears to be concluded
I’m into the antepenultimate (third from the last) CD of Philip Madoc reading Dr Zhivago and I’ve found something unexpected here too; This last third of the novel, not short (there are 18 disks, so 3 out of 18) is _wholly left ouf of both movies_. A stunner. We move in both movies from Yuri’s decision to let Lara go with Komarofsky to Moscow and within five minutes of being told they both suffered (and this indicated), in Davies’s move Yuri’s death, Lara’s flght from Komarosky and being arrested, and the flight of Lara’s child to a seamstress friend; in Lean’s back to Alec Guiness as Yuri’s brother interviewing Lara’s daughter and then allowing her to return to the lines of workers walking in the streets to a new job.
Yuri arriving in Moscow
Looking for Tonya; Meredith might be said to be kind to his hero by killing him off before he reaches this nadir
This part of the book is strongly significant, its the climax, the final round, and it is utterly unheroic. Yuri deteriorates some would say: he goes to pieces for a while; just sits in the cold house and writes; Long disquistions about writing, really about words; but he feels he is dying and gets himself to try for Moscow, and we hear of him joining with a friend. He meets Pasha who tells of his damned existence and kills himself (before he is killed). Arrives as a beggar. To make a long story short, Yuri can keep no job; he is let go; he is not doing what’s wanted. His talents, are you kidding? who can they help rise? They are laughed at, eventually he becomes a sort of beggar in an attic and marries (still personally liked, and a male attractive) the girl downstairs; they have children; he cleans houses for a meagre living. He grows very irritable but hurts no one, though he gives his wife a hard time (who is in danger of losing her place at the post office — what an irony there when i think of modern US life). In James’s words, a “perfectly equipped failure” to the world — and derided and mocked — which is why it all grates..
Meredith kills his hero swiftly after a sudden success (Beauchamp’s Career); Trollope gives them decent ends outwardly (Phineas Redux); Disraeli makes them huge successes. James has his Hyacinth Robinson offer himself up as a replacement body. (“What are we going to do with all those corpses, old man?” asks Gatsby at the close of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.) Paul Scott – well here in the last part of the fourth volume (Raj Quartet) we have Hari Kumar but he carries on as a journalist if minor, anonymous, poor, with his dignity and usefulness somewhat intact (if hopeless), Merrick murdered by a sword up his anus; Guy, well he takes notes on it all (!), Barbie died mad, Sarah fades away …
So Zhivago is closest to Scott’s Raj Quartet, only Raj Quartet only gives us a glimpse of Hari Kumar, does not stay with him for the long haul.
Zhivago is pure gem now, a masterpiece to see this New Economic Policy from below as experienced. As to romance, that wild tender love of Yuri and Lara (what did make existence worth if for a time, they held to it): he marries again, more children. His love for Tonia and family thwarted (broken up), and she unaware, thinking herself unloved. Just a passing moment in the book. No message that can be melodramatic, or uplift or high grief (Hamlet like).
Yuri never did rape anyone nor kill unless to protect himself and in the misery and heat of the battles he is pushed into.
I finished this book last night: it ends in bleak devastation, insistent on the horrors of war, and Yuri’s death is a gift to him — rather like Hamlet except dying on that tram is so horrific (given what I’ve read about Pasternak’s experience on trams). When the two academics read into Yuri’s writing “signs of intense hope,” we are to remember how Yuri regarded them as hopelessly fatuous.
Lean comes nowhere near this; erases it for order. Davies approaches but doesn’t want to put off audiences to this extent, have them look steadily at what counterrevolution and power-mad in effect imbeciles have done.
To conclude, most unlike Trollope, Disraeli, Paul Scott, but like George Meredith (by the end of his novel), this is an apparently apolitical novel. The hero must retreat because the forceful people and groups of the world are so corrupt, conscienceless, and/or stupid, decent action is impossible. His death made me remember Hyacinth Robinson’s in Princess Cassamassima.
Pasternak’s hero ends in the position of many today.
Journalizing 7/10/10: I’ve since this written a blog on how the two films speak to one another through parallel opening and closing and other kinds in intertextuality: how intertexuality in films works.
And I think it a good idea to link in my first blog comparing the two films: Dr Zhivago improved: the boldness of Andrew Davies.
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