Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Forest Brotherhood

Much of the second half of the novel plays out during the civil war that ravaged Russia from 1918 to 1922.  Yury found himself a captive of Liberius Mikulitsin's Red Army faction, which was fighting against Kolchak's White Army.  Life was pretty miserable for Yury during this time, as Liberius' faction pretty much housed themselves in earth huts in the great Russian taiga, hoping to hold out against the advances of the White Army until reinforcements came.  Yury tended to the wounded as best he could given the limited supplies.  He had support from a Czech paramedic who had joined the Communists and a couple of other interns.

Pasternak uses these chapters to highlight the ravages of the civil war, noting the towns that were under siege, in particular Holycross.  All these towns along "The Highway" found themselves torn between the Red and White Armies, with split allegiances.  Many had been burned by one faction or the other, and morale among the armies was low as they came across the burnt-out remnants of their former villages.

Yet Liberius remained hopelessly optimistic.  The young commander, son of Mikulitsin who guarded the state, had chosen Yury to confide in.  Yury was unconvinced that any good will come out of this war, but as long as he found himself captive he had to pay deference to the commander.

Yury had twice tried to escape, only to be run down each time.  He had become ever more fatalistic in his views.  He was asked at one point to counsel an ailing soldier, one of Liberius' subordinate officers, who was suffering from "the creeps," a sense of morbid doom, which ultimately led him to butcher his family rather than have them fall victim to Kolchak's forces.

Yury was also forced to witness an execution of soldiers who had operated an illicit distillery, only to have the distillery rebuilt as to have alcohol for medicinal purposes.  Liberius himself had become addicted to cocaine, depleting Yury's much needed supply.

One can see how the Soviet censors wouldn't have been pleased at all with these passages, as Pasternak painted the revolutionary army in anything but heroic terms.  Instead, he painted a bleak portrait of chaos, confusion and ever diminishing morale until Kolchak's army is finally defeated and these red factions finally emerged from their forest hideouts.


Varykino proved to be an all too short retreat for the Zhivagos.  They seemed to settle into a relatively comfortable domesticity at the old Krueger estate that once belonged to the Gromeko family.  Now it was state property, guarded by Mikulitsin and his second wife.  Yury seemed to envy the cozy house Mikulitsin lived in for its study, as he imagined himself returning to his writing after all the travails he had been through.   He and his family made due with one of the other outbuildings on the estate as Mikulitsin wouldn't allow them to live in the main house, much to Alexander Alexandrovich's chagrin.

The time seemed idyllic.  The setting seemed more or less modeled upon Pasternak's home at Peredelkino, not the fabulous "Ice Palace," David Lean created in his version of the movie.  Yury grew closer to Tonya and Sasha.  Tonya became pregnant with another child.  He seemed to enjoy working the land, taking on the role almost that of a gentleman farmer.  His reputation as a doctor proceeded him and he finds patients coming to him almost on a daily basis, bartering food and services for his help.   Pasternak provides some interesting character sketches of Mikulitsin, his wife and four sisters who once lived on the estate, one of whom had been Mikulitsin's first wife.  Samdevyatov keeps them connected with the outside world, dropping in from time to time.

Still you get the sense that Yury is restless.  He eventually starts going into town to continue his reading at the library.  As fate would have it, he comes across Lara one day at the library and soon their passions boil over into an affair.  Lara's daughter seems to accept the wayward doctor.  Yury learns that Antipov is Strelnikov and he tells Lara of their encounter.  She still harbors great love for him, but knows that they will never see each other again.  Guilt eventually overwhelms Yury and while riding back to the estate he vows to tell Tonya, who to this point is oblivious of Yury's affair.  But, again fate intercedes and Yury finds himself captured by the Forest Brothers and conscripted into their Red Army as a doctor.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Journey to Varykino

Pasternak lavishes a long chapter on the train ride to Varykino with Yury, Tonya and Gromeko seeking the isolation of the old Krueger estate to ride out the rest of the civil war.  Along the way, Pasternak offers grim notes of the strife that has ripped Russia in half.  At one small burned out station, everyone has to get off and help shovel the snow off the railway line as the dreaded Strelnikov had shelled the town recently, crushing one of the many rebellious provinces in Russia.  But, Yury seems to relish the bleakness.  It fits into the nihilism he has developed.

Yury Zhivago is appearing more and more like a Turgenev character, a throwback to 19th century "revolutionaries" rather than a Bolshevik or a Menshevik.  While his wife and father-in-law see the estate as their only chance for survival, Yury seems to view it as a means to rediscover the Russian heartland.

He and Alexander Alexandrovich discuss the fate of Russia while Tonya looks after little Sasha.  Aboard are a gang of conscripted labor which Pasternak provides a few character sketches, including that of a boy who finds himself pleading with the foreman for his release as he committed no crime other than to be held as collateral for the return of his uncle.  These scenes seem to show the randomness of events and how everyone is subject to the ever-changing laws of the state, which can be seen pinned up to walls of railway stations.

Eventually the train rolls up to Yuryatin, apparently modeled after the former industrial town of Perm, which was an area much under contention during the civil war.  He meets a man who is a jack of all trades, but primarily a lawyer, who fills him in on the state of things and warns him that he is in for a tougher time at Varykino than he imagines.  Yury also comes across Strelnikov, which is an alias Pasha Antipov has taken for himself after escaping the clutches of the Germans.

Strelnikov, which means "the shooter," is a ruthless general who now commands an entire theater and has the rebels under control for the most part.  He makes no mention of his wife or daughter, but menacingly notes that he has heard of Zhivago before.  The mini-series made this scene more tense than the novel, or I was just prepared for it.  Zhivago is eventually returned to his family, where they prepare for the final leg to Varykino.

Tolstoy: A Russian Life

Rosamund Bartlett weighs in on Tolstoy in a new biography that has garnered mixed reviews.  Rather than offering fresh insights,  Christopher Tayler writes that she plays this one by the numbers.  Of course, it is hard to top the previous biographies by Troyat and Wilson.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Coming Home

 After serving on the front line for over a year, Yury returns to Moscow to find a city reduced to groveling for firewood to keep warm against the oncoming winter.  He finds his home among the ruins of the city only to be forced to wait until finally Tonya comes down to greet him.  It is an awkward homecoming as Yury finds his son a toddler who runs for cover when he enters.  As best he can he tries to resume the life he formerly had with no mention and apparently not even any thoughts of Lara.   

Pasternak has a wonderful eye for detail in this chapter and those that follow, capturing the sense of a city and a country at its lowest point, unsure which direction the revolution will take.  He paints a portrait of the fledgling house administrations and the chaos that surrounds the city as the provisional government struggles for control. 

Yury seems to have adopted a fatalistic view, taking each day as it comes. In these chapters, we are finally introduced to the Gromekos.  He accepts the harshness of the conditions, almost relishing the reduced status of their former household, as they now have to make due with three rooms in the former city villa.  His father-in-law fills him in on the details, and eventually he reunites with Misha and a few other of his old friends.  He renews his relationship with Tonya and seems quite happy to be part of the family again.

He goes back to work at his former hospital, noting the changes that have taken place.  He can neither bring himself to fully align himself with the Bolsheviks or accept the defeatism of the old guard.  Yury is very much his own man, taking time out to write poems in between managing the supplies of the hospital.

There are some odd encounters, such as a young man in the vestibule of an old building, which Yury had ducked into to escape the cold.  The young man in his heavy fur coat drifts in and out of his dreams as he battles typhus.  Afterward, Tonya tells him that the boy was a distant relation of his and provided badly needed food and supplies during this time. 

But, just as things seems to have finaly fallen into a pattern, his father-in-law and Tonya decide to flee to their old estate in the Urals.  Yury is against the move, but the Gromekos feel this is their only chance to survive what promises to be another harsh year as the Soviet government has yet to restore any order to the country.  They get by mostly on favors and at the tale end of a long miserable winter decide to leave for Varykino.

Lara gets only passing mention at the end of the chapter as Yury encounters the mother of a soldier who helped Lara and him out at the hospital on the front.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Farewell to the Old

Seems the first three chapters serve as little more than introduction.  Pasternak chooses to sketch these chapters, culminating in Lara's attempt to strike back at her tormentor Komarovsky at the Sventitsky's Christmas Party.  Again, Yury is there to witness the event and finds himself once again drawn to this mysterious woman who would come to dominate his thoughts and emotions.

Pasternak then thrusts his protagonists into the war.  Yury is consigned to a field hospital in which the ravages of war quickly dispense of his innocence.  He meets with Misha again and a much more cynical world view emerges.  Lara had signed on as a nurse in search of her husband Pasha Antipov, leaving her daughter with a close friend in Moscow.  Yury has also left his family behind, witnessing the birth of his son to Tonya shortly before being sent to the front.  Essentially, here begins the story.

Yury doesn't actually meet Lara until the fifth chapter, Farewell to the Old,  at an estate that has been converted into a hospital, where unrest ferments in the village and a group of secessionists led by a blind prophet, Blazheiko, hide out in the forest.  Pasternak chooses to build his romance slowly.  Lara finds herself drawn to the wounded Yury because of his intelligence and Yury finds himself drawn to Lara for her foreign beauty.

As the war winds down, the two find themselves ever more in contact with each other, with Yury happy to have someone he can freely share his thoughts with.  He confides his relationship in a letter to Tonya, who takes it all the "wrong" way with Yury reaffirming his love for his wife in a subsequent letter.  But, the seed has been planted, and everyone around them sees the love the two have for each other.  However, in the chaos that followed both return to their separate homes.  Lara deep in the heart of the Urals and Yury to Moscow.

You might call this a philosophical tale of love in the tradition of Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, set against the rapidly changing face of Russia.  Pasternak does not delve too deeply into the war.  Instead he focuses on the relationship between Yury and Lara, a democratic love which he feels defies both tradition and the false promise of the revolution.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Five O'Clock Express and A Girl From a Different Circle

Interesting how Pasternak tells his tale of Yury and Lara in parallel episodes, keeping Yury pretty much above the seismic shifts taking place in Russia, while Lara finds herself at street level.  Pasternak opens with a boyhood tale of Yury that was a lot like Chekhov's The Steppe, with young Yury being taken through the countryside on a troika with his uncle and a local priest, after the young boy lost his mother.  This idyllic reverie is broken by the fateful news that someone has committed suicide by throwing himself off a train.  Unknown to Yury this is his father.  Pasternak also uses the scene to introduce the young Misha Gordon, who would become Yury's lifelong friend, and the contemptible Komarovsky, a lawyer who had apparently aided Yury's father in making his jump.

Komarovsky is portrayed essentially as a snake in the grass, tangentially bringing ruin on Yury, although the young boy had no contact with his father, and despoiling young Lara in the succeeding chapter.  The man entangles himself into many lives, but with Yury and Lara he proves to be an intractable part of their lives.  Pasternak gives Lara much more attention.  She too comes from a broken family.  Left with her mother and brother to struggle in the seamy streets of Moscow.   Unlike Yury who has a soft landing in the Gromeko household, Lara is forced to make due with her overbearing mother and a conniving Komarovsky who takes full advantage of her lowly position.  At the close of the chapter, Yury and Lara first cast eyes upon each other in the Montenegro Hotel during the 1905 strikes, which resulted in Lara's mother trying to kill herself by swallowing iodine after seeking refuge in the hotel.

There is a serialized feeling to the first two parts, which continues into the third part. Pasternak seems content to play out his parallel stories through a series of episodes.  Lara meets Pasha Antipov through whom we get a street level view of the strikes.  Yury's uncle becomes a successful writer, trying to give the events some sense of perspective.

There is a clunky feeling to the narrative, made even moreso by what appears to be an awkward translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky.  I found myself going back to the 1958 translation by Hayward and Harari, which is indeed much easier to read.  I suppose the PV edition is closer to the original but at times it reads like a word for word "google translation" with jumbled syntax.  The HH edition is more polished, even if it may compromise some of the translation, and left out some passages due to publishing time constraints, as Ann Pasternak Slater noted in her review.

More impressive to me is how Richard Bolt (1965) and Yuri Arabov (2006) managed to turn this novel into a screenplay.  There really isn't much in the way of dialog in the early going.  Yet, Arabov in the 2006 Russian mini-series gave a much fuller sense of those early chapters by filling out the characters of Alexandr Gromeko and his daughter Tonya, as well as create a very compelling villain in Komarovsky in his relationship with Lara and her mother.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Yuriy's Labor of Love

In a cinematic world increasingly dominated by CGI it is great that there are still animators like Yuriy Norshteyn who painstakingly pore over every detail of their work, taking 30 years if necessary to bring a story dear to his heart to life.  This is the case with The Overcoat, an animated feature Yuriy started back in the late 70s, of which he has only provided glimpses to the public like this one.  He says he has some 25 minutes of this feature completed to date.  He planned to show the film in 2007, but it remains unfinished.  Here's more on the long overdue Overcoat.