In life, we are often trying to understand and then categorize other people and, in those self-reflective moments, we do this to ourselves as well. It is simple to place people in settled boxes with neat labels and ascribe to them all that goes with those mechanisms of definition. It makes life easier, more manageable. And what about when this is applied to us? How do we respond to being sorted, named, and supposedly understood without truly being understood?
In literature this often plays out through the use of type characters. People are inserted into the story to play particular roles; roles that have become all too familiar. They are dramatizations, of course, but do we in turn expect others to play similar roles in the story of our lives? One could argue that the main characters in Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize winning novel “Doctor Zhivago” are all types placed in opposition to one another. This, however, would be a mistake. Set in tumultuous Russia of the early 20th century, Pasternak’s story won worldwide acclaim, and Soviet condemnation, after being smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1957 and published in the West. It spent 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The New Yorker called it “One of the very great books of our time.”
It is a great and beautiful work of art. The legend of its writing and its author, however, should not keep us from approaching Pasternak’s creations and holding them close to our lives. Character comes through unvarnished and in full force when people are faced with adversity. Pasternak’s friend Ekaterina Krashennikova had said: “Don’t forget yourself to the point of believing that it was you who wrote this work. It was the Russian people and their sufferings who created it. Thank God for having expressed it through your pen.” Human beings living through the crucible of inhuman times can have their souls torn asunder or can rise to profound heights. They may themselves find a capacity for inhumanity that they did not know they had in them; they can also evoke our pity. It is by coming to know these complex characters that we learn more about ourselves, and others.
Doctor Zhivago is one of those men who is looked upon favorably by others, has his flaws, but remains steadfast in certain principles. There are other principles that those closest to whom may have wished that he had demonstrated but, if he had done so, then he would not have been Zhivago. Because of his convictions, he could not be free and happy in his Russian world as redesigned by the Communists. He was not a counter-revolutionary, but he could not pretend that lies were truth; he would never be at home in his homeland. Despite the song of his soul as reflected in the intensity of his poetry, he struggled in a system that could not let him be true. Much of Zhivago is reflected in the life of Pasternak both before and, remarkably, even after the book’s publication. Just as word of Zhivago’s death quietly spread and people came to pay their last respects because of his writings, so too with Pasternak. I have visited Pasternak’s defaced gravesite in Peredelkino outside of Moscow which stands in a quiet and crowded wooded graveyard not far from the Patriarch of Moscow’s residence. There is a solemn feel to the place, and rightly so.
As one would expect, Zhivago’s complex personality was reflected in his relationships with women as well. The story lines of his life wind around the security of his home and the past in his wife Tonya, and the adventures and writings of his life in Lara. Tonya, in a letter to Zhivago as she is fleeing Russia, writes of herself and Lara: “I was born into this world to simplify life and seek the right way through, and she in order to complicate and confuse it.” Tonya is attempting to simplify matters to comprehend her heartbreak at Zhivago’s infidelity and her loss of him through the complications of civil war. Her dichotomization, all too familiar a trait in human beings but nonetheless a flawed and blunt tool, lacks accuracy. It is an offense to truth when we inflict categorical labels onto people, or most anything in life. It leaves no room for nuance, perspective, or time. If one could say that Lara was born into the world simply to complicate and confuse it, then she does so with a presence that is transcendent and provided some with extraordinary clarity. Was Tonya’s sentence on Lara accurate before the lawyer, swindler, and dealer Komarovsky seduced Lara as a minor? Was her love for her husband Pavel Antipov, which was beyond that for Zhivago, made less so by the confusion and insecurity that reigned in Antipov? Antipov himself is transformed from one that we would pity to a destroyer of souls – including ultimately his own. Marina is his simple companion at the end, the only kindness he can find as the end of his life plays out as his brilliant star dims to nothing. The three “wives” of Zhivago reflect the change he experiences as he goes through his life, and as he desperately tries to hold on to the core of who he is. They change him, and he changes them. Each of these characters brought out something in the others.
Judging all of these flawed people would be both easy and wrong. Much goes into the making of a human soul, and we can never fully understand another person’s story. The calamity of the early 20th century impacted lives in a profound manner. What we can marvel at and take joy in is finding those people whose character comes alive and shines brilliantly in the face of difficulty and the unreasonableness of life. Today, we could say that we live in a world and society that is uncertain and often headed in wrong directions. So we have to find the truth in other places, and in people who are struggling to maintain their true self, while growing and changing as they must. I have great sympathy for the Zhivagos, and Laras, and Tonyas, and Pavels, and even the Komarovskys of this life, who must live out that which is happening around them and in them. I would dare not label any of them, or put them in a box. I believe Pasternak, who went through much of these struggles himself, understood that. And our lives would be much richer if we could have that same vision for others.
Timothy J. Keefer, Esq.
Many thanks to Lisa Mikitarian, author of Her Safari: Snapshots Along the Way, who read this with me and got me to finally do it.