Book of the Month: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Doctor Zhivago is the ultimate commentary on the romance of revolution. It takes you through the hopes and the expectations, through the act itself, and then through the aftermath. What is important about this novel is that it is not the voice of a skeptic from the outside who says “I-told-you-so”, but that of an insider who has seen those dreams and who mourns their demise, but can’t unsee the demise any more than the child in the first chapter can undo the death of his mother. This insider is not the perpetrator. What happens to him is just a side-effect. However, the side-effect is what happens to most of the people. And that’s why the story is poignant.
What you experience is not the heady rush of the idealists, so sure of themselves that the wrongs done to the individuals and chaos created in the society not only feels acceptable, but even desirable to them, but the helplessness of those who are swept away in the heady rush. They may be simple people either unable to comprehend the nuances of the changing world and hence losing, or seeing, at least, the short-term opportunities, however unprincipled, presented to them, and turning it to their advantage. They may be intellectuals, losing because their intellect revolts against the defilement of high ideals, or winning because they turn their intellect to making the best of the changed circumstances. Our protagonist is the former kind of intellectual, presumably, representing the author himself. But you encounter all sorts of people through his journey and you find it easy to forget that behind all this was some high ideal trying to undo the earlier wrongs.
This is also the personal story of Zhivago right from his childhood, his coming of age, his family and romantic ties and his relationship with people, including multiple women. None of it is unaffected by the political and social upheavals, though. You have to wonder if the love story of the novel, the relationship of Lara and Zhivago would have aroused the tender feelings it did if the circumstances were normal.
Cato the Reader’s Favorite Excerpts
The philosophy of the book charmed Cato the Reader and here are some his favorite excerpts.
But what is consciousness? Let’s see. To try consciously to go to sleep is is a sure way to have insomnia, to try to be conscious of one’s own digestion is a sure way to upset the stomach. Consciousness is a poison when we apply it to ourselves. Consciousness is a beam of light directed outwards, it lights the way ahead of us so that we don’t trip up. It’s like the head lamps on a railway engine – if you turn the beam inwards, there would be a catastrophe.
It’s only in a family quarrel that there is a beginning — and after people have pulled each other’s hair and smashed the crockery they try to think who it was that started it. What is truly great is without beginning, like the universe. It confronts us suddenly as if it had always been there or as if it had dropped out of the sky.
But such things keep their original purity only in the minds of those who have conceived them, and then only on the day they are first published. By the day after, the casuistry of politics has turned them inside out.
It’s only in bad novels that people are divided into two camps and have nothing to do with each other. In real life everything gets mixed up! Don’t you think you’d have to be a hopeless nonentity to play only one role all your life, to have only one place in society, always to stand for the same thing?
Reshaping life! People who can say that have never understood a thing about life — they have never felt its breath, its heart — however much they have seen or done. They look on it as a lump of raw material which needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be moulded. If you want to know life, life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my theories about it.
History is not made by anyone. You cannot make history; nor can you see history, any more than you can watch the grass growing. Wars and revolutions, kinds and Robespierres, are history’s organic agents, its yeast. But revolutions are made by fanatical men of action with one-track minds, men who are narrow-minded to the point of genius. The overturn the old order in a few hours or days; the whole upheaval takes a few weeks or at most years, but for decades thereafter, for centuries, the spirit of narrowness which led to the upheaval is worshipped as holy.
Below is the book description from the publisher’s website. (I read a different translation and edition.)