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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Visions of Russia

Is Doctor Zhivago—more accurately, was Doctor Zhivago, when it appeared in English translation in 1958, a “new kind of novel”? So claimed Alfred Kazin in a 1959 essay entitled “Saints for Our Time,” commenting on how “peculiarly difficult” it was to judge the literary merits of a novel that was
...not anything like the great nineteenth-century Russian novels. It lacks the old-fashioned fullness of detail, the self-dramatizing “big” characters who struggle against an utterly provincial background to realize their freedom.
What [other] critics and literary intellectuals fail to realize about this novel, Kazin argues, is that Pasternak has undertaken something entirely new: describe a hero who has to make a world, to be the spirit of life itself to people fatalistically sunk in tyranny and subjection.
The realization, however, does not do away with the difficult of the task, because
...we are now so likely to be in sympathy with Pasternak, to identify ourselves with his motive in writing the book, that we can be almost too eager to praise the novel and to overlook those sides of it that are merely doctrinaire, theoretical, and sentimental.
I want to say something about Kazin’s assessment of Doctor Zhivago as “a new kind of novel,” and to then say something more about Russian generals and, finally, about novels in general.

Kazin’s working definition of a “problem” (or “problematical” or “existential”) novel is that it will make its readers see “our own world” as “entirely problematical.” Perhaps by this definition any “problem novel” of a half-century ago is bound to fail, for don’t most of us in the 21st century already feel our world to be problematical before we pick up any particular novel? And then, if Kazin is correct that Pasternak’s is a “problem novel,” must it necessarily fail any literary test of our time? In other words, must we understand and evaluate it only as an anachronism? More directly focusing on Kazin's claim, I ask myself these questions:

Ø  Does Doctor Zhivago lack fullness of detail?
Ø  Were 19th-century Russian fictional characters “big,” and are Pasternak’s “small” by comparison?

I might have taken Kazin’s word on Pasternak except that he inspired me to read the novel, and in it I found a wealth of descriptive detail, very much in the Russian style—unnecessary (to the moving forward of the plot, that is), intoxicating, overflowing. In the following example, Yurii is on a crowded train, sitting on his luggage in the corridor. I want to quote a lengthy passage, precisely because of its “fullness of detail.”
The stormy sky had cleared. In the hot, sunny fields, crickets chirped loudly, muffling the clatter of the train. 
... All around people wre shouting, bawling songs, quarrelling, and playing cards. Whenever the train stopped, the noise of the besieging crowds outside was added to the turmoil. ...  
Then, like a telegram delivered on the train, or like greetings from Meliuzeievo addressed to Yurii Andreievich, there drifted in through the windows a familiar fragrance. It came from somewhere to one side and higher than the level or either garden or wild flowers, and it quietly asserted its excellence over everything else.
Kept from the windows by the crowd, the doctor could not see the trees, but he imagined them growing somewhere very near, calmly stretching out their heavy branches to the carriage roofs, and their foliage, covered with dust from the passing trains and thick as night, was sprinkled with constellations of small, glittering waxen flowers. 
This happened time and again throughout the trip. There were roaring crowds at every station. And everywhere the linden trees were in blossom. 
This ubiquitous fragrance seemed to be preceding the train on its journey north as if it were some sort of rumor that had reached even the smallest, local stations, and which the passengers always found waiting for them on arrival, heard and confirmed by everyone.
I love this passage, and it is typical of many pages of the novel, rich and full with details that make every scene come alive, “old-fashioned” in a very good way. I might also note that this kind of passage, as well as those indicating characters’ states of mind, is precisely what film can never show. (If the fragrance of linden blossoms could be piped into the movie theatre simultaneous with the appropriate scenes, would this give the effect of the written passage? What do you think?) And so I have to disagree with Kazin on this point.

What about the “size” of characters? How do Konstantin Levin, Anna herself, and Anna’s lover, Count Vronsky, compare with Yurii Zhivago, Komarovsky, Lara et al.? Kazin writes of 19th-century Russian fiction as offering “self-dramatizing ‘big’ characters,” struggling against a provincial background to find freedom, while he says Pasternak gives us characters who must make a whole world, “to be the spirit of life itself to people fatalistically sunk in tyranny and subjection.”

I pluck a copy of Anna Karenina from my bookstore shelves. It is the Penguin Classics Deluxe paperback edition of 2002, with an introduction by one of the translators, Richard Pevear, and there in his introduction comes the first surprise, for according to Pevear
...none of the great Russian prose writers of the nineteenth century, with the possible exception of Turgenev, was on easy terms with the novel as a genre. Gogol called Dead Souls, his only novel-length work [my note: and unfinished, at that], a poem.
The traditional form of the Russian novel, you see, was “the form for portraying ordinary domestic life,” according to Pevear, and Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy all had other and bigger fish to fry. So, “great” as these writers were, they hardly saw themselves as “old-fashioned” novelists. With Anna Karenina, Tolstoy claimed for the first time in his career to be writing a traditional Russian novel, focusing precisely on domestic life, but also turning the “old-fashioned” genre on its head, by giving readers a “heroine” who was a fallen woman, one deserving of—and here the author seemed conflicted within himself—pity if not outright censure. I am not going to argue for or against Anna’s suicide as a judgment against her. My question here is on the stature of the main characters and how Pasternak’s characters, especially Lara and Doctor Zhivago, measure up against them.

(There are so many minor and incidental characters in Doctor Zhivago, some of them appearing only for a page, a brief passage, others reappearing at different points in the story, that their sheer number alone contributes to the “fullness of detail” in this work of fiction. The movie cannot begin to do justice to the cast of characters. No film-goer would be able to keep them straight. Reading, however, is more like life: we don’t expect that everyone we meet will become a permanent part of our lives.)

In both novels, the lives of the characters play out against the backdrop of a huge, sprawling country, in a time of social change, with pressures on individuals to make critical decisions and to choose among radically different possible lives. For Kitty and for Anna, marriage and family were givens, women’s goals as handed down by tradition, but even within this prescribed domain there were social changes afoot and thus uncertainty. How was Kitty to find a husband, with arranged marriages now considered “old-fashioned”? As for flirtation and infidelity, society was prepared to smile and look the other way so as not to see a married woman engaging in an affair, but the price of this was that the woman not take the affair seriously. Both in the case of marriage and in that of adultery, love, the wild card, presented problems. The same cause of personal anguish and contravention of social norms comes into the life of Yurii Andreievich when he falls in love with Lara. Revolutionary Russian life had no place for the concerns of Yurii and Lara’s love affair--but the earlier Russia had not been able to make a place for Anna and Vronsky’s love, either.

Of course there is more at stake than love, and the stature of the main characters must be considered against larger issues, social and historical. For Levin, the question of how he should live is paramount. How to regulate his family life, how to manage his farm, what relationship he is to have with the peasants who work his land—all these questions torment Levin, and he must find his own answers as an individual, whatever tradition or the church or his neighbors have decided for themselves. Zhivago’s questions have more to do with art—primarily, his own creative work as a poet and his place as a poet in the society of his time--but again, no one else can give him answers.

I may not be coming at Kazin’s question from the perspective of his concerns, and perhaps I am missing something essential, but for me a red flag went up when I encountered this phrase: “his motive in writing the book.” A single motive? Could either Tolstoy or Pasternak give one all-embracing reason? Could Tolstoy say, “I wrote Anna Karenina to show x” or Pasternak say, “I wrote Doctor Zhivago to illustrate y”? 

When I think about it like this, the whole idea of a “problem novel” becomes problematic to me. There may be mediocre (or better) novels written to highlight a particular social problem at a particular time, but they will not have the breadth or depth or richness or staying power of either Anna Karenina or Doctor Zhivago. We come back to these novels not because we necessarily have the same personal questions or social problems but because these characters live for us on the pages of their respective books. We enter their lives. We live with them. No, more--while reading, we become the characters and live their lives.

Every novel raises problems for its characters. Without conflict, there is no story. There are different problems at different times in history, but always, in every age, there are individuals looking for their own answers, and any serious novel is an exploration of specific individuals doing just that. In my opinion--what do you think?


dmarks said...

I've had the good Dr on my mind lately, as I recently discovered this brilliant suite based on the music from the film: click here. No, I've not seen the movie yet. And I had forgotten there's a book. Maybe it is time to immerse myself in it.

P. J. Grath said...

I'll have to click to hear the music when I get to a high-speed connection in town. Wouldn't work for me from home.

I think you would really appreciate the book, dmarks. And, digressing slightly, condolences are probably in order on the death of Ray Bradbury.

Gerry said...

I think that in order to be Alfred Kazin a person must feel certain that he or she is able to understand what is in an artist's mind, even if the artist might have thought that, well, the chair was just a chair. Reading Alfred Kazin can be an interesting intellectual exercise. Reading a fine novel can be an intimate voyage of discovery. Reading an excellent blog post can be a perfect delight. Now I have to go listen to d's music link.

Anonymous said...

Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov are favorites of mine. Though I've seen the Dr Z movie, I've never read the book. I'll have to check it out. It's been too many summers since I've immersed myself in a good Russian novel for refreshment.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, you always get to the heart of the matter very succinctly. Are you a secret poet? The music video (I finally followed the link that dmarks sent) is lovely. Thank you both.

P. J. Grath said...

Amy-Lynn, I think you'll love being immersed in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. The book looks long and dense, but the story carries you along like a racing troika in the snow.

dmarks said...

I would fail badly as a secret poet. Right of the bat, I can't think of a word that rhymes with "secret".

Egret, maybe? Sucret (singular throat lozenge) ?

P. J. Grath said...

You don't need to rhyme in haiku. See previous post!

Helen said...

I think that, perhaps, you're reading more into Kazin's comment than it warrants. When he says that "19th-century Russian fiction...[offers] 'self-dramatizing big characters,' struggling against a provincial background to find freedom," he may be talking about the main characters primarily being wealthy, titled folk: they did not have to create their world; they were born to it. That Anna Karenina finds her world stifling and provincial, is an irony, but not a departure.

By contrast, "Pasternak gives us characters who must make a whole world, 'to be the spirit of life itself to people fatalistically sunk in tyranny and subjection” in that he builds his story primarily around self-made men who can be an inspiration to those subjugated people.

Pasternak was a Jew; although his family was exempt from most of the restrictions placed on the Jews of his day, Pasternak may have felt the need to write about people who, for better or worse, strive to rise above their station; and as such, Zhivago, showed more concern for the welfare of individual characters than for that of society.

It is precisely that which makes it a "new" and modern novel. For all that we sympathize with Anna Karenina, nothing that happened to her made any difference to the world from which she'd come. Hers is mainly a cautionary tale.

Pasternak novel makes the individual matter in the most modern of ways: in a "new" way.

P. J. Grath said...

Helen, your interpretation of Kazin's question makes a lot of sense. As I wrote here, it's very likely I came at his question from my own point of view rather than his. But to me it is Levin's concern to remake society from the agricultural ground up that makes him a "big" character. He is able to put his theories into practice because of his title and wealth, but his title and wealth alone do not make him "big," on my terms--which, as you say, may not be Kazin's terms. I agree that Zhivago is more concerned with individuals and with personal life, and that is more like novels in our own time. But Zhivago was also an artist, creating for all time, transcending his own, and in my eyes that gives him stature beyond his social position. I do, however, see what you're saying. What about detail, though? Pasternak did not stint on detail! You must give me that! said...

In terms of detail, it's really a matter of degree. Pasternak uses details that primarily help us understand the individual's experience of the event or place; while Tolstoy, for example, is interested in description that has little to do with individuals.

If you'd look again at my post called "Would You Believe War and Peace," you'll find that I bemoan the fact tat the people in the "novel" are simply there to expouse lessons: they are not real people; these are not real lives. Chapter after chapter describes one battle, and then you [may] be given a short chapter telling you how the characters are doing; and often enough, they don't even know of that battle -- let alone of it's details....

P. J. Grath said...

Are Tolstoy's details even "descriptive" at all? I guess he describes events rather than the natural environment, which is why I prefer Pasternak's descriptions. In ANNA KARENINA my favorite passage was the mowing. Yes! Outdoors! But you see, this is not literary criticism on my part, only subjective preference.

I will go back and read your post on Tolstoy....

P. J. Grath said...

Here is the link to Helen's post on Tolstoy: