Peredelkino it was a magic feeling looking out from Boris Pasternak’s tall windows into the red and golden woods on that autumn day and to know he saw the same thing when he looked up from his small desk as he wrote “Doctor Zhivago.” It is a village of dachas and dogs, and fat cats that sit in the middle of a snowy road. It is old Russian churches with burning candles and much kissed icons. It is woods with broken benches and small streams and old bridges. It is silence.
Boris Pasternak who only wrote one novel, Doctor Zhivago, which was translated into 18 languages and for which he won the Noble Prize for Literature. I remember the bookcase behind his desk, which still contained some of the books that he loved to read. There was T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Emily Dickinson, W.H Auden, and I was happy to find my favorites, Rainer Maria Rilke and Robert Frost.
My paperback copy of Doctor Zhivago is torn, its dog-eared pages yellowing, and the cover floating free from the pages. Of course to Americans and to me then it was Julie Christy and Omar Sharif, Alex Guinness and Rod Steiger and the unforgettable music of Maurice Jarre. I only read the novel after a lunchtime conversation with girls in my Moscow office. Anya was a beautiful and talented stage actress and who was playing Lara, the lead, in a Moscow staging of “Zhivago, the Musical.” She said Lara was not real, but a ghost, a specter of what every man wanted in a woman and couldn’t have. I re-read Zhivago even today, often to remind me what good writing is all about. He was a genius.
His description of a Siberian winter is matchless, even in translation: “Torn, seemingly disconnected sounds and shapes rose out of the icy mist, stood still, moved, and vanished. The sun was not the sun to which the earth was used, it was a changeling. Its crimson ball hung in the forest and from it, stiffly and slowly as in a dream or in a fairy tale, amber-yellow rays of light as thick as honey spread and, catching in the trees, froze to them in midair.”
But his greatest contribution is his insightful and courageous characterization of the Russian mind during the times of the Revolution and the following Russian Civil War. Returning from the front, hearing many were fleeing to the Caucasus, watching the Russian countryside click by through his train window Zhivago said, “…what is there in the whole world worth more than a peaceful family life and work? The rest is not in our hands.” Again, that sense of Russian fatalism.
Important to me, and to many of my same thought, would be this lengthy speculation of Dr. Zhivago on a common cause of death at that time, sclerosis of the heart. He says, “I think its causes are of a moral order. The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune. I found it painful to listen to you, Innokentii, when you told us how you were re-educated and became mature in jail. It was like listening to a circus horse describing how it broke itself in.”
Pasternak is a hero.
Read it here “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia”. Your comments are welcome.