Doctor Zhivago and Modern Sensibility

Doctor Zhivago and Modern Sensibility

Dear Lionel,

I think that Doctor Zhivago is one of the most beautiful novels written since Proust, if not the most beautiful. I don’t see, in fact, what other contemporary novelist, with the possible exception of Faulkner, can be compared to Pasternak in both the scope and accomplishment of his narration.

The scope of Doctor Zhivago is measured by the story it tells, in terms of individual vicissitudes, of the last fifty years of Russian history. And may I point out that Russian history of the last forty years is also, in more than one sense, our history? All the questions that have been facing us in the West since 1914 are present on a truly tragic scale—the conflict between common ideals and collective necessity; the resurgence of naked force in a world that is supposedly committed to progress; the individual’s helplessness in the face of it; the fate of human values; the meaning or lack of meaning of such a world; the existence or nonexistence of a simple truth by which the individual can abide and preserve his identity while remaining in accord with his fellow men and with the rhythm of universal life. These questions are all present in a concrete as well as in an intellectual form in Pasternak’s novel.

As for Doctor Zhivago’s accomplishment, I measure it from the fact that, uneven as the novel is, and stumbling as it does against the many difficulties of the task, it does not fall short of the mark. Pasternak does give us a picture of those great events, as suffered, observed, and judged by human beings, which is by no means inferior to the magnitude of the events themselves; he has created a character, Zhivago, by doing something no novelist had done before, namely, making of consciousness—not the psychological consciousness of the traditional novel, but the very dimension of consciousness—the hero of the book; and he tells a love story which is one of the most beautiful creations in modern literature. Finally, in my opinion, Pasternak deals adequately with the moral and intellectual questions raised by the events. This he does, not so much by his answers as by pointing out over and over again where the questions lie. In fact, he drives home consistently only one point: we should not betray the question for the sake of the answer. May I add that Pasternak shows he is a truly modern artist precisely in his refusal to give us an overall picture of events and to formulate a global answer to them? The truth that he has found, however, he communicates most scrupulously.