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Pain, Betrayal and Love in Old Russia

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Pain, Betrayal and Love in Old Russia

Pain, Betrayal and Love in Old Russia

Pain, Betrayal and Love in Old Russia

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  • Transcript

Ursula Le Guin is not quite certain how many books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry she has published, and hopes nobody is counting. Her most recent is a novel, Lavinia, riffing on Vergil's Aeneid. Le Guin lives in Oregon and does very little besides write, look out the window and try not to offend the cat. Dan Tuffs hide caption

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Dan Tuffs

More About Ursula Le Guin

Fifty years ago this September, Boris Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago, which was banned in the Soviet Union, was published in America, and that October, I received it as a gift for my 28th birthday. It bowled me over.

We had no perspective on Soviet Russia then — the Cold War muddied everybody's mind— and I didn't really grasp the political stance of the book. But even so, it's a book you can — and must — understand emotionally.

Pasternak was a mystical realist, able to tell us about a strange and tremendous time in human history. His book offers a day-by-day portrait of the lives of ordinary Russians through the great Revolution of 1917. It's a huge chaos of ideas and ideals: everything changed; the familiar in ruins; a new order brutality established and suddenly knocked apart again; endless factional war; murder; destruction; and, throughout it all, the endless spiritual resilience of common people somehow getting through it.

What joy to come again to Pasternak's great passages, unforgettable images and terrifying sentences. We accompany Yuri Zhivago on his long train trip with his wife and child from Moscow to the Urals, crammed with other refugees in a freight car. We see the trains stretching on the tracks in the snow in Siberia, black and empty. And, as Yuri makes his way back from the Urals to Moscow, on foot and alone, we witness ripe grain fields heaving and rustling, not with wind, but with mice, because the villagers are dead, the grain is uncut and the mice are breeding in it by the millions.

It's all journeys, partings and meetings. Dozens of characters disappear and reappear. They bond together in passionate love but can't hold on to one another. Passionate hatred unites them as close as love. They meet and part and weep, then meet again and don't know it. It's not disorder, so much as a wild complexity of interconnection, like the tracks in a great train station — all these crisscrossing destinies, all these souls full of earnest intention, all of them helpless as dust blown on the great wind of the Revolution.

Only now do I realize how much I learned about writing a novel from Pasternak — the way a writer can leap across miles and years, so long as you land in the right place; the way accuracy of detail embodies emotion; the way that leaving more out allows you to get more in.

This beautiful, noble document from a terrible century may be the last of the great Russian novels. It's a huge and vast book, but 500 pages isn't long to contain all of Russia, 40 years of history and a man's life and dreams. Like a human soul, it holds immensities of pain, betrayal and love.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Doctor Zhivago'

Doctor Zhivago

The Five O'Clock Express

On they went, singing 'Eternal Memory', and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing.

Passers-by made way for the procession, counted the wreaths and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked: 'Who is being buried? - 'Zhivago,' they were told.

- 'Oh, I see. That explains it.' - 'It isn't him. It's his wife.' - 'Well, it comes to the same thing. May she rest in peace. It's a fine funeral.'

The last moments flashed past, counted, irrevocable. 'The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the earth and everything that dwells therein.' The priest scattered earth in the form of a cross over the body of Marya Nikolayevna. They sang 'The souls of the just'. Then a fearful bustle began. The coffin was closed, nailed and lowered into the ground. Clods of earth drummed on the lid like rain as the grave was filled hurriedly by four spades. A mound grew up on it and a ten-year-old boy climbed on top.

Only the numb and unfeeling condition which comes to people at the end of a big funeral could account for some of the mourners' thinking that he wished to make an address over his mother's gave.

He raised his head and, from his vantage point, absently surveyed the bare autumn landscape and the domes of the monastery. His snub-nosed face was contorted. He stretched out his neck. If a wolf cub had done this it would have been obvious that it was about to howl. The boy covered his face with his hands and burst into sobs. The wind bearing down on him lashed his hands and face with cold gusts of rain. A man in black with tightly-fitting sleeves went up to the grave. This was Nikolay Niolayevich Vedenyapin, the dead woman's brother and the uncle of the weeping boy; he was a priest who had been unfrocked at his own request.

He went up to the boy and led him out of the graveyard.

2

They spent the night at the monastery where Uncle Kolya was given a room for old times' sake. It was the eve of the Feast of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin. The next day they were supposed to travel south to a provincial town on the Volga where Uncle Kolya worked for a publisher who produced the local progressive newspaper. They had already bought their tickets and their things stood packed in the cell. The plaintive hooting of engines shunting in the distance was carried by the wind from the neighboring railway.

It got very cold in the evening. The two windows of the cell were at ground level and looked out on a comer of the neglected Etchen garden, a stretch of the main road with frozen puddles on it and the part of the churchyard where Marya Nikolayevna had been buried earlier in the day. There was nothing in the kitchen garden except acacia bushes round the walls and a few beds of cabbages, wrinkled and blue with cold. With each blast of wind the leafless acacias danced as if possessed and flattened themselves against the path.

During the night the boy, Yura, was woken up by a knocking at the window. The dark cell was mysteriously lit up by a flickering whiteness. With nothing on but his shirt, he ran to the window and pressed his face against the cold glass.

Outside there was no trace of the road, the graveyard or the kitchen garden, nothing but the blizzard, the air smoking with snow. It was almost as if the snowstorm had 'caught sight of Yura and, conscious of its power to terrify, roared, howled and did everything possible to attract his attention, revelling in the effect it had on him. Turning over and over in the sky, length after length of whiteness unwound over the earth and shrouded it. The blizzard was alone on earth and knew no rival.

When he climbed down from the window-sill Yura's first impulse was to dress, run outside and start doing something. He was afraid that the cabbage patch would be buried so that no one could dig it up, and that his mother, buried in the open field, would helplessly sink deeper and deeper away from him into the ground.

Once more it ended in tears. His uncle woke up, spoke to him of Christ and tried to comfort him, then yawned and stood thoughtfully by the window. They started to dress. It was getting light.

3

While his mother was alive Yura did not know that his father had abandoned them long ago and spent his time wenching and carousing in Siberia and abroad, nor that he had blown the family millions to the four winds. He was always told that his father was away on business in Petersburg or at one of the big fairs, usually at Irbit.

When his mother, who had never been strong, developed consumption, she took to going to southern France and northern Italy for treatment. Yura went with her on two of these journeys. He was often left with strangers and often passed on from one to another. He became accustomed to all these changes and against this untidy background, surrounded with continual mysteries, he was not surprised at his father's absence.

He could remember a time in his early childhood when an infinite variety of objects were still known by his surname. There were Zhivago factories, a Zhivago bank, Zhivago buildings, a Zhivago tie-pin, even a cake rather like a baba au rhum known as a Zhivago bun, and at one time you only had to say to your sleigh driver in Moscow: 'Zhivago's!' and, rather as if you had said: 'Take me to Tibuctoo!', he carried you off in his sleigh to an enchanted kingdom at the end of the world. The park closed round you as quiet as a countryside; crows scattered the hoar-frost as they settled on the heavy branches of the firs; their cawing echoed like cracking wood; pedigree dogs came running across the road out of the clearing where building was going on and where lights shone in the gathering dusk.

Suddenly it all vanished. They became poor.

4

One day in summer 1903, two years after his mother's death, Yura was driving across fields in a two-horse open carriage with his Uncle Kolya. They were on their way to see Ivan Ivanovich Voskoboynikov, a teacher and a writer of popular textbooks, who lived at Duplyanka, the estate of Kologrivov, a silk manufacturer and a great patron of the arts.

It was the Feast of the Virgin of Kazan. The harvest was in full swing but, whether because of the feast or because of the midday break, there was not a soul in sight. The half-reaped fields scorched in the sun like the half-shorn heads of convicts.

Birds circled overhead. The ripe wheat stood straight up in the perfect stillness. At a distance &om the road, stooks rose above the stubble, and, if you stared at them long enough, seemed to move, like land surveyors walking about on the skyline taking notes.

'Are these landlords' or peasants' fields? Nikolay Nikolayevich asked Pavel, the publisher's odd-job man who sat sideways on the box, shoulders hunched and legs crossed to show that driving was not his regular job.

'These are the masters'.' Pavel lit his pipe, drew on it and after a long silence jabbed with the end of his whip in another direction: 'And those are ours! -Get on with you,' he shouted at the hones, whose tails and haunches he watched like an engine driver's instrument panel. But the hones were like horses all the world over, the shaft horse pulling with the innate honesty of a simple soul while the off horse arched its neck like a swan and seemed to the uninitiated to be an inveterate idler who thought of nothing but prancing in time to the jangling of its bell.

Nikolay Nikolayevich had with him the proof of Voskoboynikov's book on the land question; the publisher had asked I the author to revise it in view of the increasingly strict censorship.

'People are getting pretty rough here,' he told Pavel. 'A merchant has had his throat slit and the stud farm of the zemsky has been burned down. What do you think of it all? What are they saying in your village?'

But evidently Pavel took an even gloomier view than the censor, who wished Voskoboynikov to moderate the passionate strength of his views on the agrarian problem.

'What do you expect them to say? The peasants have got out of hand. They've been treated too well. That's no good for the likes of us. Give the peasants rope and God knows we'll all be at each other's throats in no time. - Get a move on there!'

This was Yura's second trip with his uncle to Duplyanka. He thought he knew the way and, every time that the fields ran out on either side with a thin line of forest in front and behind, he, expected the road to turn right and give a fleeting view of the Kologrivov place with its ten-mile stretch of open country, the river gleaming in the distance and the railway beyond it. But each time he was mistaken. Field followed field and was in turn swallowed by forests. The succession of huge views aroused in the travellers a feeling of spaciousness and made them think and dream of the future.

The books which later made Nikolay Nikolayevich famous were still unwritten, but his ideas had already taken shape. Yet he did not know that his hour was close at hand.

Soon he was to take his place among the writers of his time university professors and philosophers of the revolutionary movement as one who, though he shared their preoccupations, had nothing in common with their way of thinking except its terminology. AU of them, without exception, clung to this or that dogma, and were satisfied with words and outward appearances, but he, Father Nikolay, a priest, had been both a Tolstoyan and a revolutionary idealist and was still travelling on. He craved for an idea, inspired yet concrete, that would show a clear path and change the world for the better, an idea as unmistakable even to a child or an ignorant fool as lightning or a roll of thunder. He craved for something new.

Yura liked being with his uncle. He reminded him of his mother. Like hers, his mind moved with freedom and welcomed the unfamiliar. He had the same aristocratic sense of equality with all living things and the same gift of taking in everything at a glance and of expressing his thoughts as they first came to him and before they had lost their meaning and vitality.

Yura was glad that his uncle was taking him to Duplyanka. It was a beautiful place and this too reminded him of his mother, who had been fond of nature and had often taken him for country walks.

He also looked forward to seeing Nicky Dudorov again, though Nicky, being two years older, probably despised him. Nicky was a schoolboy who lived at the Voskoboynikovs' and who, when he shook hands with Yura, jerked his arm downwards with all his might and bowed his head so low that his hair flopped over his forehead and hid is face.

Excerpted from Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

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