Notes on “Doctor Zhivago”

A masterpiece works on many levels.  Zhivago can be read as the romance of Yuri Zhivago and Lara Guishar;  or, an expose of the inevitable hostility between social engineering and  private lives; or, a historical snapshot of specific hostilities by the Bolshevik social  engineers;  or, a wreath of lyrical vignettes on Russia’s landscape and seasons.  Or, still yet:  the drama of Yuri Zhivago’s poetic vocation.

Well before he was celebrated in the  West at the publication of his novel, Boris Pasternak was a renowned poet in Russia.    His popular reputation outside Russia ignores his  poetry and translations, which are the bulk of his life’s work.   He certainly had the background to tackle a fictional portrait of an accomplished Russian poet, Yuri Zhivago.   A fictional poet rendered at length (Russian length!) by a real and proven poet  represents not only a rare literary specimen, but also a  window into the workings of the  poetic vocation, a window  with special claim to authenticity.

Zhivago, like many poets, is protective, even touchy, about his native language.  Words  matter; their uses fascinate him, their abuses vex him. The language of the revolution vexes him.  He thinks it even impedes his work, as in  this passage from his journal: “What is it that prevents me from being a doctor and a  writer? I think it is not our privations or our wanderings or our unsettled lives, but the  prevalent spirit of high-flown rhetoric…” (285).  As opposed to what?  The answer is in  the next paragraph (one of many artistic credos scattered through the novel):  “Only the  familiar transformed by genius is truly great.” When Yuri says “the familiar”, he is not using the term in the same sense as would an  English university don with an unvarying daily routine.  Notice,  he is not bothered by  “…our wanderings or our unsettled lives…”.  It is not change or uprootedness which is  at issue, but rather the source of change.   “The familiar”…”life”…these are Yuri’s terms for the personal domain, however much it  seethes and changes. The entire novel is suffused with resentment against the personal disruptions brought  by anything other than personal forces.  In early 20th century Russia, of course, that  means the revolution, but one suspects Pasternak would still have attacked the tyranny  of the political over the personal in another time or another place. Here is Yuri, still in his journal, appreciating Pushkin’s later poetry: “Air, light, the noise  of life, reality burst into his poetry from the street as through an open window.  The  outside world, everyday things, nouns, crowded in and took possession of his lines,  driving out the vaguer parts of speech.  Things and more things lined up in rhymed  columns on the page.” (284)


Nouns!  Things!  Or, as Yuri elsewhere describes: “…the forest of the external world…”  (86).  Not high-flown rhetoric, which represents the tyranny of the “glittering phrase”  (405).  Like all tyrants, these phrases are hard to pedigree; they don’t come from the  horse-filled streets, or from the wolves in the distant foothills.  Like all tyrants, they  are hard to pin down; they have one meaning on this year’s street poster, then the  opposite the next.  The mutations are not accidental.  They mirror the crafted chaos of  the Bolshevik program, that absolute relativism of means.


This arbitrary flux of meanings grieves the poet and opposes the poetic task.  What is  this task? It is, in a phrase from Lara’s self-described sense of purpose,  “…to call each  thing by its right name…”(75). (This edenic phrase reveals one facet of her affinity to  Zhivago.  It is surely no accident that the bulk of Yuri’s poetic work takes place when he  is isolated with Lara from the world in their own Eden, Varykino.)


To call each thing by its right name.  It is not simply that the poet likes concrete words  and dislikes abstract words, though many poets have propagated this simplification.   Rather, neither abstract words nor unreal words have one-to-one sensual referents, and  so they are often confused by superficial thinkers. Poetic diction is purged, periodically,  of usages which have lapsed into unreality. Abstractions get tossed out in the used  bathwater of unreal words.


The 20th century poet thrives in concrete language.  It is a language in which real  abstractions can still have a solid home and from which they sometimes ambush the  poet, producing the poetry where ideas lurk and play among the things.


But the rhetoric of the revolution is unreal, so it distracts from all that is real.  In  addition, the rhetoricians require real blood and real resources to realize their programs.   


 Lara, the mistress, is the woman with whom he talks, with whom he makes a  word-home.  With her, at Varykino in the winter, he exhausts himself during night-time  writing sessions which leave him highly impractical during the day.  It is at Lara’s urging  that he writes poems (437).  She is the personal face of his muse “life”, who also visits  him with the national face of Russia.           


Tonia, the wife, is the woman with whom he makes a physical home.  She is a  nest-builder.  With her, at Varykino in the spring, he enjoys practical work with his  hands: farming and repairs.  He writes a prose journal.  (270-306)


Both of these constellations are healthy, and Zhivago experiences them so.  But  Zhivago never overcomes the tension between them — a tension rooted in a rift of  character and expressed in his vacillation between the women.  The rift is his tragic  flaw; his struggle to overcome it is part of his greatness.  But the tragedy of the novel  is that the cruel impositions of politics sweep him away, time and again, and interrupt  his overcoming.  The Revolution is the villain.  His life ends badly.


Zhivago and  Lara have a rare love which is the real interest at the forefront of the  novel’s historical events.  But their love ends badly, as well:  they are separated by the  trick of a schemer. Yuri dies of a heart attack trying to let air into a street car; Lara  disappears into the Soviet gulag.


Some writers would have cringed before such a bad end to such a lovely love story, and  written a happier ending.  But Pasternak labors for hundreds of pages to show personal  histories as casualties of  wars between political dogmas.  To end the story of Yuri and  Lara happily-ever-after would have been inconsistent with this effort.


Still other writers, such as those  modern “realists” obsessed with “documentation”,  would have ended the prose account in abject defeat and left it there, proud of their  “uncompromising” (read:  jaundiced) eye, and we would have been burdened with yet  another nihilist tract.


Pasternak embraces both horns of this dilemma:  Dr. Zhivago is a highly realistic  account (the prose) which climaxes in high art (the poems).  The art is Zhivago’s (and   Pasternak’s) rejoinder to tragic personal history.  The tragedy without the art would  issue on despair, and the art would not exist without the history.


The reader, therefore, should not finish the prose narrative and then just idly flip  through “The poems of Yuri Zhivago ” as if they were included as an optional appendix.  These poems are more than that; they are the novel’s final chapter (Davie 139).  Their  inclusion is Pasternak’s answer to the question implied and unresolved by the prose  story: what justifies this artist’s life?  (Mathewson, 275-6)


These two poles — the prose tragedy and the poetic art — support each other like great  weights far apart on a seesaw.  Remove one, and the other crashes to the ground.   Preserve both, and the existential scope of the novel is as mature as the plot is epic.


 It isn’t just that the poems are a sugar-cube of optimism against the bitters of  pessimism; poetry is not just a mood-elevator.  Rather, the poems are Zhivago’s  imposition of form against the chaos of political history and  personal tragedy.


The impulse to assert form is Zhivago’s characteristic response to the various  dissolutions of form in life and language, of which the list is long: death, forced  separations, social chaos, journalism, revolutionary terror, political rhetoric, politically  correct role-playing, even others’ despair:




He walked on alone, ahead of the others, stopping occasionally to let them catch up  with him.  In answer to desolation brought by death to the people slowly pacing after  him, he was drawn, as irresistibly as water funnelling downward, to dream, to think, to  work out new forms, to create beauty….With joyful anticipation he thought of the day  or two which he would set aside and spend alone, away from the university and from his  home, to write a poem in memory of Anna Ivanovna. (89,90; see also 121, 454-6)    


 Dr. Zhivago as the story of an artistic vocation culminates in the poems themselves;  Dr. Zhivago’s life as a poet climaxes in the Varykino winter retreat, his artistic  “…moment of triumph…” (Muchnic 391).  During the thirteen nights of this retreat  Zhivago writes the bulk of “The Poems of Yuri Zhivago”, which either stand or fall as his  victory over the wolves which howl around their dacha, personifying the revolution,  separation, and death.  The poems are the justification of his vocation and the remains  of his life.  They are his natural immortality.


If the poems are this important and this good, then the episode in the novel where  Zhivago writes most of them would be expected to yield something good and important.


It does.  It furnishes a scene invaluable for its insight into an unnecessarily obscure  subject.


 The most sober writing manuals, when broaching the subject of poetry, quail before the  composing process and give way to the language of mystery or the hopeless jargon of  subjectivity.


But Zhivago at Varykino is a portrayal of a working poet which also  demonstrates the  objectivity of poetry and a practical approach to the workings of poetry.  A particularly  important account of inspiration fills five paragraphs beginning in the middle of p.438  and continuing to the top of p. 439.  This amazing pericope will be exegeted in  sequential fashion.  (The quotes, even short ones, will be set apart for the sake of  clarity on the page.)


Careful to convey the living movement of his hand in his flowing writing, so that even  outwardly it should not lose individuality and grow numb and soulless, …


The worshipers at the altar of genius will be scandalized by Zhivago’s manner of  beginning to write.  He begins in the least “inspired” way; he copies out what he  remembers.  He attends only to his penmanship!


…he set down, gradually improving them and moving further and further away from the  original as he made copy after copy, …


This is the first comment related to the content of the work, and it reveals his initial  method: multiple copies of a poem, each representing a gradual improvement over the  last.


His carefulness to copy well was apparently sufficient to open to him advances in the  poems themselves.


…the poems that he remembered best and that had taken the most definite shape in  his mind…


 Here is no stretching for anything new or profound.  The poems most easily, clearly  remembered are good enough to start on.


From these old, completed poems, he went on to others that he had begun and left  unfinished, getting into their spirit and sketching their sequels, though without the  slightest hope of finishing them now. 


He has progressed a stage in his work, by an intuitive sense or shift of interest.  Again,  he is not trying to start anything new or even finish something old.  His progression is  in slight increments.  He is patient. 


Finally getting into his stride and carried away, he started on a new poem.


He enters another stage.  He knows the moment to shift to new work —  not at the  beginning when the new poem would have been beyond him, but when the work itself  signals. 


After two or three stanzas and several images by which he himself was struck, his work  took possession of him and he felt the approach of what is called inspiration.


Another stage, “inspiration”.


Whatever exact, idiosyncratic meanings these various phrases have for Zhivago, they  are phases of experience he clearly differentiates.  And, incidentally,  he clearly  differentiates all the previous phases from inspiration, including the production of  images which seem to surprise even himself.




 At such moments the relation of the forces that determine artistic creation is, as it  were, reversed.  The dominant thing is no longer the state of mind the artist seeks to  express but the language in which he wants to express it.


This transition is the most dramatic yet — a “reversal”, producing the dominance of a  creative force perceived as extrinsic to the artist and independent, and described as an  object, not as mode of subjective experience.          




 Language, the home and receptacle of beauty and meaning, itself begins to think and  speak for man and turns wholly into music, not in terms of sonority but in terms of the  impetuousness and power of its inward flow.  Then, like the current of a mighty river  polishing stones and turning wheels by its very movement, the flow of speech creates in  passing, by virtue of its own laws,  meter and rhythm and countless other forms and  formations, which are even more important, but which are as yet unexplored,  insufficiently recognized, and unnamed.


This passage — almost an encomium to language and its work — cannot be improved.   The claims made here for language are immense.  Their implications will be sketched  later.


At such moments Yuri Andreievich felt that the main part of the work was being done  not by him by a superior power  which was above him and directed him, namely the  movement of universal thought and poetry in its present historical stage and the one to  come.  And he felt himself to be only the occasion, the fulcrum, needed to make this  movement possible.


The writer is the instrument of a superior and creative power, who is above and  directing, and who acts on a universal as well as on a personal scale.


This feeling relieved him for a time of self-reproach, of his dissatisfaction with himself,  of the sense of his own insignificance. 


The effect of inspiration is not a heightened self-expression, nor even a  direct  correction of inadequacy, but rather a state in which the issues of the self are  swallowed up and cease.




He looked up, he looked around him.


He, literally, comes to himself. 


This account offers practical help.  Let us suppose a writer, a poet, who is, as they say,  blocked.  This may mean anything from an extended period of aridity to the common  intimidation from the blank page.


Now, the picture of writer’s block is a stereotype, and stereotypes are constructed of  revealing cliches.  One of these cliches of a writer blocked is a physical trait: restless  hands.  


She sharpens pencils.  She rearranges the articles on the desk, finding now this, now  that place for the coffee-cup.  She  smooths the edges  of the stacks of paper.


This restless tidying is usually viewed as an evasion of work.  There are all sorts of  methods for evading the evasion, none of them very helpful.  That is because the  restless hands are not an evasion.


In Zhivago’s universe the hands are wiser; they should be honored, not ignored.  The  hands, who cannot be denied, are “…making small improvements…” and the writer  doesn’t even recognize it.  They are imposing form on chaos.  There is form, or poetry,  in the hands, dripping out on the pencils, the cup, and the paper.  Our writer should  comply with the sense for order which is leaking out the hands.  To tidy the desk is not  an evasion but is, rather, an evocation.


Tidy the desk, by all means.  Sharpen the pencils.  The simple realization that this is a  prelude to writing will clarify the tidying: what to do, when to stop.  The hands will  become satisfied and be ready to write.  The orderliness of the surroundings will evoke  clear writing.


But writing is a physical activity and in Zhivago’s universe the powers of creative  language honor those who honor simple literalisms.  For Zhivago, at least in the  clearest account we have, profundity follows the choice to write, not vice-versa.  So  beginning is easy.


Take an old piece of work, preferably about a page long, and copy it onto a new sheet  of paper.  (If there is nothing old, write something new — but quickly.  It will be bad.  It  is only material for copying.)


Write as well as you can; write patiently and carefully, thinking gently about each word  but not struggling long over any.  Make the new page look good to you.


The simple focus to write as beautifully as possible aligns the filters of the personality,  so to speak, to see beauty, which is, for Zhivago, …”delight in form…” (456).  Before  the page is copied several small improvements in the content will emerge. 


The work will gradually shift from small improvements to newer, probably faster insights  which will necessitate faster, more careless penmanship. Each writer should eventually  become as familiar with the stages of advance towards actual inspiration as  Zhivago/Pasternak was.  When inspiration approaches and the roles reverse, you are an  occasion for universal thought and poetry.  You have no need of instruction.


But you might see the next day, as Zhivago did (442),  that the expressions which  seemed masterful can appear trite a day later.  This is a normal disappointment.   Simply alter those phrases — then, when the changes on the page begin to appear  disorderly, copy it over in your best handwriting.  The process begins again.    


It is startling to realize the wisdom in language:  a “block” is literally a block, which is  broken when the impulse for form has any humble outlet; and “poetry” is literally a  “making”, as the etymology says.  (Making implies hand-work.)  Perhaps language  literally is a receptacle, even a storehouse, of meaning.  Perhaps literal language is an  approach to the storehouse of meaning. 


The value in the discipline of hand-copying lies in the connection it assumes between  the storehouse of beauty and meaning and the making of beautiful words on the page.   The assumption is that the simple act opens the storehouse. 


It assumes, therefore, a wholistic person who is a microcosm of the larger cosmos.  This  is a pre-modern assumption which has cabalistic implications and which degenerates  into magic.


The connection, as illustrated by Zhivago, argues that extended internal cogitation is an  irrelevancy — at best, a bad writing habit, a species of subjective wheel-spinning.  But  writing, at its best, occurs literally on the page, in moments when the writer is not  passive (automatic writing would be a parody of inspiration) but active, working, wholly  transfixed as the agent of language doing its own work.


These distinctions seem niggling and fanciful unless Zhivago’s description of the state  of inspiration is taken literally, not explained away, and given the authority it deserves  as the testimony of the closest witness.


The closer Zhivago moves to a state he calls inspiration, the more conscious he  becomes of language as a power which is not only outside him but above him and  directing him.  It resides, not in the subjective murk, but out there in the universe, as  crisp and clear as a Russian winter night.


It is therefore cynicism masquerading as sophistication which smirks at the invocations  of the ancient poets and prophets.  It is childish reductionism, dressed up as critical  thought, which regards their muses as personifications of subpersonal forces, or as  projections of subjective forces — as if that sort of thinking explains rather than  obscures.  As if there is anything to explain.  The forces encountered by poets and  seers, by their own testimony, are objective. The discussion of the nature of those  forces is a philosophical one, and ultimately a religious one.


Zhivago’s poetic force is not only objective, but personal, universal, intelligent, creative,  superior, and, to repeat once again that amazing phrase, the receptacle of beauty and  meaning.  And it honors the flesh.


In the history of thought only one entity satisfies all these characteristics:  the divine  Word-made-flesh, the second person of the Christian Trinity, Jesus Christ.                 










Davie, Donald.  Slavic Excursions: Essays on Russian and Polish Literature.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1990.




Dyck, J.W.  Boris Pasternak.  Twayne’s World Author Series. New York: Twayne  Publishers, 1972.




Gifford, Henry.  Pasternak: A Critical Study.  Major European Authors.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1977.




Hughes, Olga.  The Poetic World of Boris Pasternak.  Princeton, N.J.:  Princeton  University Press, 1974.




Muchnic, Helen.  From Gorky To Pasternak: Six Writers In Soviet Russia. New York:  Random House, 1961.




Mathewson, Rufus W.,Jr.  The Positive Hero In Russian Literature. (2nd Ed.) Stanford:   Stanford University Press, 1975.  




Pasternak, Boris.  Doctor Zhivago.  Trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 1981.




Donald Davie has pointed out the unique challenge Pasternak set for himself by creating  a character who happens to be a great poet:  if the character is to be entirely credible,   he must be supplied with great poems (142).  These are at least good poems, and if  poetry is what is lost in translation they must be great poems — but the final verdict is  left to those who can read them in their own language.

  (Pasternak himself enjoyed finding the accurate names of things in encyclopedias

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