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Labour Review, December 1958

Alan MacDonald

The Pasternak Affair

From Labour Review, Volume 3, No. 5, December 1958, pages 137-139.
Transcribed & marked up by Ted Crawford & D. Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2009.

The most powerful State in the world has achieved another triumph. It conquered Hungary; it is on the eve of conquering space; and now it has forced Boris Pasternak to his knees. It is true that the hands which did this were those of the 800 members of the Soviet Writers’ Union. But they were guided by the bureaucratic State machine with which, at times like this, their organization merges.

It is a disgusting spectacle, this public humiliation of a lonely, sensitive man. Yet a good deal of hypocrisy is intermingled with the protests that have appeared here. The plain fact is that Pasternak would have found it difficult to make a living in any of the countries whose self-appointed guardians of freedom have been so eloquent on his behalf.

Poems do not pay the rent. Stories of the kind Pasternak used to write are printed only in magazines that cannot pay for them. And even Dr Zhivago would not, I believe, have reached the best-seller class on its purely literary merits. It was news. It became unfashionable not to have read it. One had to have something to talk about over cocktails—or over coffee in the Partisan .

The book itself has none of the ingredients that usually sell well. Few readers will be able to identify themselves with its leading character. Nor does it embody what the American economist Galbraith has sarcastically called the ‘conventional wisdom’ of the times in which it was written. This term refers to those fallacies, propagated by the Press, television and other media, which become the unexpressed major assumptions in conventional ‘thinking’.

Herman Wouk’s Caine Mutiny , for example, is a book which extols conformity. It sold in thousands among the American business executives who fit the patterns established for them by their corporations so well that they look, talk and think as though they had been made on an assembly line. Wouk’s book gave them what their imaginations needed, the feeling that conformity not only paid well but was right . This is conventional wisdom.

Pasternak’s view of life offers little comfort of this kind for anyone. It is confused, for one thing; and all of us; Marxists included, read novels to escape from, not to enter imaginatively into, the confusion of life. Even if we are too sophisticated to expect novel-heroes to overcome their difficulties, we want them at least to understand them. Zhivago does not. He never struggles through to a coherent view of what has gone wrong with the Revolution. He is pushed around by events.

The other essential ingredient in a best-seller is usually called sex. I prefer to call it described copulation. Nearly all successful novels have at least one striptease episode. The seduction of Lara, the heroine, by a middle-aged rouĂ©, which a lesser writer would have spun out to chapter-length, takes place off-stage in Zhivago. Pasternak does not describe the seduction: he describes Lara’s agitated reactions to it, for these are important to the development of the story.

All this underlines the essential thing about Pasternak. He is an uncompromising writer who would have had a rough journey through life at the best of times; and these, in the east and west alike, are not the best of times for those who cannot compromise. Yet, in spite of his wholly admirable refusal to turn hack, Pasternak never retreated into a private ivory tower, as those now yapping at his heels in Moscow maintain. It is true that he wrote little for many years, preferring to translate Shakespeare rather than do original work of his own. But what a man does not write can be as much to his credit as what he does. Pasternak refused to join in the frenzied denunciations of the Bolshevik old guard who perished at Stalin’s hands. It was the unspeakable Zaslaysky, who now uses gutter-oaths against Pasternak, who led the literary lynch mobs in the thirties. Pasternak’s translations of Shakespeare are works of art in their own right. And even his choice of plays was an oblique comment on the insanity raging around him. As he said of Lear and Macbeth , ‘there are the gatherings in the echoing palace hall, shouts, orders and afterwards curses and sobs of despair … the people, huddled in the tent and terrified, speak to one another in whispers … and so the crimes follow in quick succession—many crimes over a long time …’ Unable to say what he felt himself, he let Shakespeare do it for him.

What of Pasternak’s attitude towards the Revolution? Is it true, as has been suggested many times, that he is ‘a poet’s poet’ (the phrase is Mayakovsky’s), a kind of Russian T.S. Eliot? And has he now ‘succumbed to the flattery of the siren of foreign propaganda’ and shown ‘open hatred for the Russian people’? Literaturnaya Gazeta thinks so. Perhaps Ilya Ehrenburg thinks so too. There was a time, however, when he wrote of Pasternak: ‘It was he alone who laid the true foundation for contemporary Soviet literature. That is why his creative power has caused, and is causing, such embittered dispute.’ It was a just appraisal. Although Pasternak did not throw himself into the Revolution like Mayakovsky it was not because he was hostile to it: it was because he felt:

It’s vain in days when councils great convene,
When highest passion runs in flooding tide,
To seek a place for poets on the scene.

He was quite right. In times of revolution the ability to shoot straight is of more value to the revolutionaries than the poetic capacity to feel acutely. Pasternak, reticent and humble in the face of the gigantic social upheaval, did not feel hostile: like Zhivago, he felt helpless. His reticence and humility were revealed in much of his subsequent work. Jack Lindsay’s remarks in his foreword to Russian Poetry 1917-1955 (1957) are worth quoting in full in this connexion. They give the lie to charges that Pasternak is an arrogant, self-centred writer.

The weakness in Pasternak, which has prevented him from playing a much bigger part in Soviet culture, is to be read in his poem ‘The Caucasus’ (1921), where he says how good it would be to look at the challenging mountainous beauty with the eyes of ‘the brigades whose task it is to grapple with the region’; then the poetic programme would have ‘solid stuff’ in it and would move people so fast that it would keep ‘treading on the heels of my own prophecies’; and he would in fact give up writing verse; he’d live poetry instead of ‘a poet’s life’.

The sense of inferiority, we see, before the world of action, cuts his poetry off; he fails to see the poetic act as equal to, and part of, the triumphant ascent and the actual transformation of nature.

So much for Pasternak’s background. It is not a dishonourable one. While the Revolution was still a revolution he did it no disservice, and while the Russian people were making it he expressed no contempt for them. And as bureaucracy congealed into tyranny he kept an eloquent silence. It is as a poet that he has lived and it is as a poet that he will be assessed by future generations of Russians. His politics will not matter. It is only because the literary lynchers are abroad again that it becomes necessary to assert that his political record is clean.

But what of Dr Zhivago ? The editors of Novy Mir sent Pasternak a lengthy letter giving their reasons for refusing to publish the novel. It contains some fair criticism and is written in terms of sorrow rather than anger (‘To those who had earlier read your poems … poetry which we, at any rate, thought was imbued with a different spirit, a different tenor—your novel has been a distressing experience.’) Their quarrel is with ‘the spirit of the novel, its general tenor’. This, they said, was one of ‘non-acceptance of the socialist revolution’. The view of the author ‘is that the October Revolution was a mistake, that the participation in it of sympathizers from among the intelligentsia was an irreparable disaster, and that everything which happened afterwards was evil’.

Mervyn Jones, a discerning critic who is not taken as seriously as he should be because he writes in too readable a style (an unforgivable sin to culture-skimmers, who prefer the French-studded obscurity of New Statesman reviews) took an entirely different view of the book when it appeared in English.[1] He pointed out for a start that Yury Zhivago is an artist’s creation. ‘He has a full share of human weakness, of indecision, of the feeling of guilt that, except in official Soviet literature, is the recurrent theme of the modern novel … At any time or place in history, this man would have had his problems …’ But the time happens to be 1917, the place Russia; and the novel describes the decline and fall of a well-meaning, highly talented physician who was born of the old propertied classes, has vague ideas about socialism, is susceptible to Christian mysticism and whose world blows itself up in war and revolution.

The novel embodies strong views about all this. But they are the views of Yury Zhivago and entirely consistent with his character as Pasternak traces its development. True, they are inadequate views.

Zhivago, politically and in other ways, is an inadequate man. If he himself were in the dock I would not dissent from much of what the editors of Novy Mir wrote. Pasternak of course makes his characters voice his own feeling. What the editors of Novy Mir do not realize, however, is that when a writer with a really powerful imagination begins to work he divides himself and distributes the parts among all his characters. When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth’s lines he was, for a time, Macbeth himself. Yet he was also Macbeth’s executioner, Macduff. There is a good deal of Pasternak in Yury Zhivago. But there is part of him in Lara, and part also—that part of every writer which yearns to play a more active role in big events—in Antipov, the revolutionary commander.

Zhivago himself is a divided man. He wants, at the beginning of the revolution, to embrace it. He sees socialism as ‘the sea of life, of rife in its own right’ and wants to ‘be lost in other people’s lives without leaving a trace’. But, like his creator, he is a poet; and his poetic sensibilities are revolted by the bloodshed, the slogans and the hatreds released by revolution (which, like the drastic surgery to which Marx compared it, is never an agreeable business). Pasternak, as always, underlines his meaning by using symbols. He makes Zhivago both a doctor and a poet to emphasize the ultimately disastrous inner division in him. He also makes him fall deeply in love with two women: his wife Tonya and Lara. What novelist would not, it might be asked. Few, of course; the difference is that Pasternak shows Zhivago deeply in love with both but with a different side of his nature involved with each.

Dr Zhivago, fact, is a dramatization of Pasternak’s own struggle to find some thread of meaning running through the social convulsions that have torn his country since he started to write in 1912. It is not an analysis of the degeneration of the Revolution. Pasternak is not equipped for that and he knows it. It is significant that one of the poems which appear at the end is called Hamlet . Pasternak, denied the optimism which, as Trotsky once pointed out, ‘saturates’ Marxism, faces the rottenness which crept into the Revolution with the same anguished inacapacity for either understanding or correcting it which makes the Prince of Denmark so tragic a figure. Zhivago , like Hamlet , is not a Ph.D. thesis on politics: it is a work of art and can only be judged as such.

With its stature as a novel I am not concerned. I certainly do not agree with those critics who have enthusiastically hailed it as another War and Peace . Pasternak’s excessive use of coincidence is one weakness, the wholly inadequate motivation of some characters is another. Antipov, for instance, is a highly competent military commander in the civil war. He is thrown aside after it (as many were) but we are not shown why or how. It is just ‘the Revolution’ which destroys him. Tolstoy would never have left loose ends like that. In War and Peace the effects of the 1812 invasion on all his characters are carefully delineated But Zhivago , for all its imperfections, is in the great tradition of Russian literature. It is not about trivial problems. It has none of the walking slogans who so often pass for characters in Soviet novels. It is the confused but impressive testament of a genius who is trying to come to terms with himself, his past life and the political tragedies that punctuated it.

The Soviet Union is on the threshold of unprecedented advances in both science and industry. The bureaucracy is strong enough to challenge the world. Yet it is not strong enough to face the challenge of one man’s unfettered imagination. That is the meaning of the Pasternak affair.

[1] Collins and Harvill Press, 21s.

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