Doctor Zhivago.

I was only six when Doctor Zhivago came out in late 1957, but I vaguely remember it, just as I remember the launch of Sputnik 1 around the same time — they were both huge news stories. Of course I saw the 1965 movie (everybody did), but all I remember of it is the fated love of Yuri and Lara and that damn balalaika theme (after more than half a century it’s still an ineradicable earworm). I’ve been wanting to read the novel for a long time, especially once I got an early (1989) Soviet edition in December 1993 (for two bucks at a Mid-Manhattan Library sale). About a month ago, having reached that point in Bykov’s brilliant biography of Pasternak, I finally started it, and now I’ve read it. And I regret to have to say that I didn’t think it was much good. Below the cut there is a long review with pros, cons, quotes, and probably some mild spoilers. Proceed at your own risk. (If you need a refresher on the plot, the Wikipedia article goes into impressive detail.)

Opinion has been strongly divided since the novel was published. Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker said “Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history.” Nabokov, on the other hand, called it “melodramatic, vilely written,” and Isaac Deutscher wrote a lengthy, harsh essay in Partisan Review in early 1959 that happily has been put online by marxists.org, so I don’t have to quote at length — I’ll cite some juicy bits and you can go to the link for the full barrage:

Unintentionally, Pasternak portrays his hero, the sensitive poet and moralist, as the epitome of callousness and egotism – unintentionally, because otherwise he could hardly have so insistently identified himself with Zhivago and lavished on him all the lachrymose love with which the novel overflows. […]

This accounts for the incongruity between the various elements that make up Doctor Zhivago: on the one side lyrical passages, noble, richly imaginative, refined and fastidiously polished; and on the other the core of the novel itself, flat, clumsy, laboured and embarrassingly crude. It is as if the book had been written by two hands: the virtuoso-poet of 65 and a beginning novelist of 16. […]

Even Zhivago is little more than a blurred shadow. The psychological motivation of his behaviour is incoherent. The author substitutes for it exalted lyrical and symbolic allusions[…] The superlatives which the author heaps on his hero and the subtle poetic aura by which he surrounds him cannot give reality or depth to the figure. Zhivago’s attitudes towards his wife and mistress, and towards his many children born of three women, are strained or never assume verisimilitude: not for a single moment does the father come alive in him (and none of his children has any individuality). Not only the author sings his hero’s praises – nearly all the characters do the same. Nearly all are in love with Yuri, adore him, approve his ideas, echo his deep reflections, and nod their heads at whatever he says.

I nodded my head in hearty agreement with all of this. (There are many embarrassing examples of the love-and-adore phenomenon, e.g. Lara’s “Юрочка! Юрочка! Какой ты умный. Ты всё знаешь, обо всем догадываешься” [Yurochka! Yurochka! How smart you are. You know everything, you intuit everything].) Deutscher also has silly complaints that arise from his being a Marxist who of course disliked the novel’s attitude toward revolution and history (the penultimate sentence of the essay says “Slowly yet rapidly, painfully yet hopefully, the Soviet Union has moved into a new epoch, in which the mass of its people is seizing anew the sense of socialism” [!!]), but his sense of the literary failings of the book is, to my mind, spot-on. Even Ronald Hingley, in his fine biography of Pasternak, although he admires the novel tremendously, admits the “thinness of the characterization” and calls the narrative technique “uneven and at its worst irritating, with its habit of treating the reader as if he were already informed of what he cannot possibly know, its inept handling of exposition and its parading of gratuitous obscurities without the compensations with which the obscurities of Pasternak’s verse so often reward the patient student.” And I love this passage:

The early pages of Pasternak’s narrative suffer abominably from the introduction of far more characters, identified by little more than their names, than most readers could either wish or expect to assimilate in the course of a dozen novels. […] He brings in an average of one new named character per page in the opening chapters[…] Some of this material reads like an inept parody of a Russian novel. ‘Nikolay Nikolayevich … brought Yury to Moscow and the family circle of the Vedenyapins, the Ostromyslenskys, the Selyavins, the Mikhaelises, the Sventitskys and the Gromekos. At first Yury was installed with the slovenly old windbag Ostromyslensky, dubbed “Fedka” by his clan. Fedka lived in sin with his ward Motya.’ A few pages later the reader learns of guests assembling for a party. ‘There arrived: Adelaida Filippovna, Gints, the Fufkovs, Mr and Mrs Basurman, the Verzhitskys, Colonel Kavkaztsev.’ True, the sequence has a certain ring to it in Russian, not unlike the ‘Uncle Tom Cobbleigh’ catalogue in the song ‘Widdicombe Fair’. But Pasternak’s English translators cannot have thought much of the sentence, since they chose to omit it in toto. It is an understandable decision.

As others have pointed out, Zhivago isn’t a convincing doctor; he hardly ever does any doctoring, and all we really hear about it is that everyone calls him a brilliant diagnostician — another of the “Mary Sue” elements Deutscher mentions (“Nearly all are in love with Yuri, adore him, approve his ideas, echo his deep reflections, and nod their heads at whatever he says”), along with the fact that even though he’s utterly unknown, having published only a few pamphlets, when he dies people pack the room where his body is laid out, and there’s a large crowd of mourners at his funeral. Compare and contrast Patrick O’Brian’s treatment of Stephen Maturin or George Eliot’s of Dr. Lydgate in Middlemarch (or, in Russian literature, Chekhov’s Dr. Ragin in Ward 6, Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, or Vasily Aksyonov’s Коллеги). Even aside from the lack of apparent medical work, doctors are generally a pragmatic lot, not known for weeping and fainting at the slightest pretext (as Zhivago so frequently does). And although he’s more believable as a poet, we don’t hear much about that either except in the sequence in the Urals after Lara has left and he stays up all night writing poems. For a great novel about a convincing poet, read Nabokov’s The Gift.

So what are the good points? Well, the opening sentence is very nice (incidentally, this site has a very useful parallel English-Russian text):

Шли и шли и пели «Вечную память», и, когда останавливались, казалось, что ее по-залаженному продолжают петь ноги, лошади, дуновения ветра.

They walked and walked and sang “Memory Eternal,” and whenever they stopped, the singing seemed to be carried on by their feet, the horses, the gusts of wind.

Note the interpenetration of nature and the human world that is perhaps Pasternak’s deepest inspiration (I quoted another example in this post); the best bits in the novel all reflect it, and my copy is studded with marginal lines calling attention to such passages, where the book suddenly comes to life after staggering along for pages of cardboard prose. (He goes on and on about the details of trivial activity, reminding me of a critic’s complaint about movies that show someone getting out of a car, walking across the sidewalk, climbing the front steps, opening the door, and going in; I kept muttering “Why are you telling me this?” as I read. But I digress.) Even the novel’s severest critics admire its descriptions of nature, and Pasternak became quite bitter about people praising them. He knew he was good at that sort of thing; he wanted people to admire his historico-theological genius, his propaganda for the value of life versus death, free thought and writing versus dull official boilerplate!

And that historico-theological stuff is where I part company with the admirers. I don’t need to be told the value of life and free thought; that’s not what I go to novels for. I want prose that makes me want to read it aloud, characters that draw me in and make me feel what life does to them, elegant arrangements of plot that keep opening new perspectives on events. Zhivago offers none of that. Bykov, who thinks very highly of the novel, rightly dismisses criticism of its frequent and unbelievable coincidences, saying that’s the structure Pasternak based his novel on — without it, it’s just a collection of nature scenes and aphorisms — and universally acknowledged classics like War and Peace are also full of characters implausibly intersecting. Fair enough. But Bykov’s calling it a symbolist rather than realist novel, and saying it was a rejection of the traditional Russian psychological novel, doesn’t work as a justification as far as I’m concerned. His chapter on the novel ends with this passage:

Only a musical, and in some sense mystical, approach to history, a complete refusal of traditional psychologism, of the fixed perception of the image and theme of the “superfluous man,” made possible the writing of a poem-novel, a fairy-tale novel, in which there is no point looking for authenticity in terms of daily life. Doctor Zhivago is a book about how the logic of fate, the private logic of a poet’s biography organizes reality so that a masterpiece might appear in the world — the only justification for the age. The whole Russian revolution was undertaken in order that (or, if you like, for the reason that) Yuri Zhivago would be brought together with Lara, that the miracle of their isolated love in Varykino might be fulfilled, that “Winter Night,” “Meeting,” and “Star of the Nativity” might be written. It is not the man that serves the age but the age that unfolds itself so that the man might realize himself with the greatest expressiveness and freedom; the hero is not a victim of circumstances but their master, the more omnipotent because he knows nothing about it and acts purely by instinct, as an instrument of the power that controls him.

Лишь музыкальный, а в некотором смысле и мистический подход к истории, полный отказ от традиционного психологизма, от устоявшегося восприятия образа и темы «лишнего человека» позволили написать роман-поэму, роман-сказку, в котором не стоит искать бытовую достоверность. «Доктор Живаго» – книга о том, как логика судьбы, частная логика биографии поэта организует реальность ради того, чтобы на свет появились шедевры – единственное оправдание эпохи. Вся русская революция затеялась для того (или, если угодно, потому), что Юрия Живаго надо было свести с Ларой, чтобы осуществилось чудо их уединенной любви в Барыкине, чтобы написаны были «Зимняя ночь», «Свидание» и «Рождественская звезда». Не человек служит эпохе – эпоха развертывается так, чтобы человек осуществил себя с наибольшей выразительностью и свободой; герой – не жертва обстоятельств, а их хозяин, тем более полновластный, что ничего не знает об этом и действует исключительно по наитию, как инструмент владеющей им силы.

That’s very eloquent, and probably represents Pasternak’s own view, but it’s also completely nuts. It’s a solipsistic attitude that is natural to small children and megalomaniacs but is at the very least unseemly for a normal adult, even one who happens to be a great poet. My sense (and I apologize for the psychologizing) is that Pasternak never really did grow up, never broke out of the self-centered magic circle of “me and poetry and nature” to understand that other people existed in their own right and not just as complements to his life. That’s the only way I can make sense of his attitude to infidelity — lots of men steal other men’s wives, but only Pasternak genuinely expected all parties to be thrilled about it: if my wife loves me, surely she wants me to be happy, and if Zinaida’s husband loves her, surely he wants the same for her? And then when she stopped being his lovely, perfect, ideal woman and he fell in love with a younger, more attractive one, he had no sense of irony about Olga now being his lovely, perfect, ideal woman — the present moment is all. (And then after Olga spent years in the Gulag for his sake, he was reluctant to meet her when she was released — according to her — because he was afraid she had become an ugly hag. But I digress again.)

It’s also the only way I can deal with one of the elements that most angered me as I was reading, though I don’t think I’ve seen it mentioned by critics. Not once but twice, sympathetic characters — first (end of 4:12) Yuri’s friend Misha Gordon (a Jew — Gordón is a Jewish surname in Russian) and then (9:15) the ideal woman Lara have very similar monologues attacking Jews for rejecting the universalism brought by Christ, petulantly insisting on their separateness, and complaining about the oppression they suffer by their own choice. This classic anti-Semitic trope would be bad enough if it had been written before WWII, but for a Jewish writer to put it in the mouth of a Jew in a novel written after the Holocaust is incomprehensible to me. I realize Pasternak had complicated feelings about being Jewish (though he never denied or apologized for it), and he was clearly totally absorbed by his own version of Christianity when he wrote the novel, but still, those passages are vile. Of course, as Vladislav Zubok wrote in his brilliant Zhivago’s Children (see this post), “Pasternak seemed to ignore the nationalist and racist hatred around him, including rampant anti-Semitism.” He simply didn’t notice or think about anything outside his self-centered magic circle. That’s a fine way to write lyric poetry, but it’s no way to write a novel.

Comments

  1. Prompted by reading this, I was trying to find an essay I read online a while back about Pasternak’s relation to Judaism. However, Google found me the Jew or Not Jew site instead. The site manages to have a lot interesting information, while also being frequently cringe worthy.

  2. Gordón is a Jewish surname in Russian

    With a final stress? I’ve heard of several famous Jewish Gordons (I went to an elementary school named after one of them, and lived near a street named after another), and always heard the name pronounced with a penulltimate stress. Supposedly the surname goes back to the town of Grodno.

  3. I had a very similar reaction – loved some of the lyrical passages, but overall, it is a bad book. I’m not sure I agree with Bykov about Tolstoy’s coincidences vs. Pasternak’s. This is what I wrote when I re-read the book in 2015:

    “Although Pasternak saw himself as being influenced primarily by Chekhov–a recent book about Zhivago recounts the story of Pasternak’s joy at Jacqueline de Proyart, his French translator, guessing this correctly–the book inevitably invites comparisons with Tolstoy, especially his War and Peace. Yet there is no comparison to be made in terms of literary quality or enduring value: Tolstoy’s coincidences, while striking, are believable and integral to the story, and his ideological chapters are of a piece with the overall arguments War and Peace makes about human nature through plot and characterization. Even when he is rewriting history, Tolstoy’s prose sings. Zhivago, by contrast, begins to fall apart by halfway through. The characters stop being sympathetic. The prose sags. Actions come out of nowhere, and characters rediscover motivations that were suggested hundreds of pages before and then promptly forgotten. It is not a good book.”

    That said, на вкус и цвет… I can accept that others find some of the same problems in War and Peace; for me, one is ultimately a classic, and the other a relic of its time.

  4. With a final stress?

    Yes, it seems to be a usual stress for Russian words ending in -on. But it’s just my impression, no research was marshaled in its support.

  5. When I read Doctor Zhivago many-many years ago, I thought it was an attempt to carve a private space in the overall madness of life in the first half of the 20th century. It was, thought I, a contrast to collectivist ethos and focus of Soviet literature. I didn’t like or dislike the novel and it seems misunderstood it for a good part.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Huh. I knew psychopaths/sociopaths (misleading names both) could become CEOs and presidents. Evidently here’s one who was a poet.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    Glad it’s not just me. I was repelled by the cardboard prose and characterisation and the fact that Yuri is such an awful pillock … to the point where I asked a Russian-speaking friend and great Pasternakophile why everyone seemed to think P was so good. He told me it was the poetry.

  8. When I read Doctor Zhivago many-many years ago, I thought it was an attempt to carve a private space in the overall madness of life in the first half of the 20th century. It was, thought I, a contrast to collectivist ethos and focus of Soviet literature.

    Yes, that’s exactly right, and that’s why it so enraged the Soviets and why so many westerners seized it and clutched it to their bosoms. Alas, that admirable intent does not make it a good book.

    He told me it was the poetry.

    Yup, he’s indisputably a great poet (and people were memorizing and sharing his poems decades before the novel was written); he had the good sense to include a bunch of fine poems along with the novel so that even if you didn’t appreciate the genius of the latter you’d be sure to like the former. (There is, by the way, a silly debate over whether the poems are “really” Zhivago’s or Pasternak’s. Come on, people, get serious.)

  9. Well, it’s not absurd to discuss whether “Pale Fire” is “really” Nabokov’s or Shade’s. I hold that it’s Shade’s, and Nabokov wrote a bad poem on purpose to satisfy the requirements of his novel. There is similarly a distinction between Tolkien’s own poetry and his Hobbit and Elvish poetry, even when the latter is written in English.

  10. Bill W. says:

    The Gordons (gospodin i gospozha) were among my teachers at the Defense Language Institute in 1969. Both were Soviet Jewish émigrés, and they pronounced their surname Gordón (or rather Gardón, with vowel reduction).

  11. Trond Engen says:

    It’s also the only way I can deal with one of the elements that most angered me as I was reading, though I don’t think I’ve seen it mentioned by critics. Not once but twice, sympathetic characters — first (end of 4:12) Yuri’s friend Misha Gordon (a Jew — Gordón is a Jewish surname in Russian) and then (9:15) the ideal woman Lara have very similar monologues attacking Jews for rejecting the universalism brought by Christ, petulantly insisting on their separateness, and complaining about the oppression they suffer by their own choice

    I read the novel in Norwegian almost 30 years ago, and — except for the sheer number of names — this is the only thing I really remember, though I wasn’t aware at the time that it was a common trope and not Pasternak’s own contrarian justification for maintaining old anti-Jewish sentiments in spite of his self-image.

    I have a faint recollection of the doctor as a failed hero. one who because of his shortcomings in the hour of destiny never could deliver on the promises that people nevertheless keep admiring him for.

  12. Rodger C says:

    I don’t suppose I was right, then, in my immediate conjecture that Gordón might be the Spanish, and I assume Ladino, word for “big fat guy.”

  13. No, I’m afraid not. (Apart from anything else, the Ladino word for ‘fat’ is godro, and the corresponding noun is godron.) But Unbegaun, in his Russian Surnames, uncharacteristically and frustratingly says simply that it is “of Jewish origin.” Thanks a lot.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    One can find on the internet persistent stories that a few Scots surnamed Gordon ended up in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the name somehow spread to the local Ashkenazim from there. Don’t know if that’s too good to check.

  15. Alexander Beider’s Dictionary of the Jewish Surnames of the Russian Empire lists Gordon as an anagram for Grodno. Its hotspot is outside of the Grand Duchy, in Courland, but it is also spread around Vilnius and Kaunas regions. It’s one of the very few Ashkenazic family names which predate the forced assignment of the surnames to the Jews after 1804. Some unverified accounts list one Doctor Gordon as early as in the XVII c., and in XVIII c. , a physician and cabbalist, Yekusiel ben Leyb Gordon traveled from his native Wilno to Italy and back.

    (On the main topic, I think that in the 1960s, the personal, intimate and poetic nature of the novel was like a breath of fresh air; it was the era of poetry and of getting away from the formal narratives of Stalinism, and Pasternak’s prose fit the bill)

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    Are there other toponym-derived Ashkenazic surnames based on an anagram of a toponym, rather than just the toponym itself (perhaps in various spellings given the multilingual and multiscriptal nature of that part of the world) or the toponym itself plus a suffix or two? Because the anagram thing seems like a weird step in the process. It’s not like Grodno is so weird a name by local phonotactic standards that one would have naturally blundered into an anagram via metathesis, is it?

  17. Yeah, it’s not totally unbelievable but I’d want to see some documentation.

  18. It’s not like Grodno is so weird a name by local phonotactic standards that one would have naturally blundered into an anagram via metathesis, is it?
    Cabbalists were famous for their love of anagrams and correspondingly loaded meanings. The instructions for transposing letters, called temurah, are an obligatory parts of Kabbalah treatises. This said, pre-1804 surnames of the Ashkenazim are exceedingly rare, and without exception all allude to famous thinkers and authors who made their descendants proud. So if someone wrote a treatise and signed it with an anagram, then the descendants would be very likely to keep it. Acronyms as surnames of this sort were definitely more common, but there just may not be enough of the pre-1805 surnames to get good statistics on the use of anagrams.

  19. “the oppression they suffer by their own choice” — yes, when I was studying medieval history I came across this transparently totalitarian argument. “The Jews would be so happy if they just became Christians like everybody else.” Interesting that Pasternak, while protesting Soviet “universalism” was urging everyone to adopt the same belief system as him.

    Years ago I read a book on shyness making the same argument. “If shy people learned to be extroverted, they’d be so much happier.” Beware arguments that seek to limit human diversity.

  20. Notice also that the “anagram” is just a change of vowels. The consonant skeleton GRDN is the same. I have no idea how much Jewish writing of the time populated this skeleton with alephs, vavs, and ayns (Modern Yiddish has one aleph and one ayn and modern Hebrew puts in 2 vavs, as far as i was able to ascertain).

  21. “the oppression they suffer by their own choice” is a not-so-subtle lament that where before, persecution could have been avoided by assimilation, in Pasternak’s own, more recent times (be it the Holocaust or Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns) the victims have become targets of persecution solely because of their ancestry, and were powerless to avoid becoming targets, no matter what choices they were willing to make.

    It is incredible to see that the distinction between the Czarist oppression and the mid-XX c. genocide-by-blood fails to register 🙁

    Alexander Beider replied that Gordon is the only known surname in this unusual category, but that the (few) “early” family names are all unique and unusual, so it isn’t unexpected.

    The stressed syllable is the last one, likely from the influence of Slavic surnames ending with -on / -an which all have final-syllable stress.

  22. The use of anagrams overlaps with, or is a special case of, gematria, which means hashing words as numbers (using any of various methods based on the Hebrew letter-numeral equivalence) and replacing words with other words having an equivalent hash.

    I have never been clear on to what extent the replacements were conventionalized (like in rhyming slang). Nor is it clear whether there was ever a widespread gematriac cant. Thanks to the remarkable preservation of Hebrew, one gets in the habit of expecting all sorts of Judaic esoterica to have been studied and preserved up through the twenty-first century.

  23. “the oppression they suffer by their own choice” is a not-so-subtle lament that where before, persecution could have been avoided by assimilation, in Pasternak’s own, more recent times (be it the Holocaust or Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns) the victims have become targets of persecution solely because of their ancestry, and were powerless to avoid becoming targets, no matter what choices they opted to make.

    That’s a generous interpretation, but I’d need some evidence. I refer you to Zubok’s quote “Pasternak seemed to ignore the nationalist and racist hatred around him, including rampant anti-Semitism.” My interpretation is not only the obvious one but is consistent with his complete absorption in Russian Orthodox Christianity and his parading of the virtues of the Russian narod, as represented by Sima, who gives a similar speech/sermon to Lara (which Yuri overhears) about the change of epoch represented by Christ (though she doesn’t mention the Jews). That entire culture complex is imbued with traditional anti-Semitism.

  24. Pasternak seemed to ignore the nationalist and racist hatred around him

    This is a complicated a nuanced question and we risk falling into the eternal, and eternally unresolved, question of who is a Jew, and what constitutes a betrayal of one’s people.

    Yes, Pasternak was an assimilationist – like most of his fellow Soviet Jews in Zhivago’s times.

    No, it would be unfair to consider him a traitor, despite all the caustic hissing from Nabokov’s wife and subsequent criticism by Zubok and others. Yes, it was a common feeling that in the Imperial times, as unfair as they were, it was at the very least possible to become equal simply by becoming Christian. In contrast, in Pasternak’s times Christianity was more of badge of rejection of Communism and of a belief in the future good hopes of all peoples of Russia. The dividing line of Jewishness has become blood rather than culture or religion, but people continued to marry within the fold (as Pasternak tried too) and … oh well, as I predicted, it’s getting to long.

    And emphatically no, Pasternak was for assimilation not because he hated his fellow tribal members or their culture, but because it pained him to see so much talent and so much work being expended unproductively. His heart ached for all these talented people and he dreamed of how great artists, poets, etc. society members they could have become. A stance made much easier by his non-conservative upbringing, but shared by many Jewish people of all walks of life. I can’t help remembering my great grand uncle’s lament how he spent his youth years memorizing the Holy Books, and has become fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic yet only semi-literate in Russian while his future wife, growing up in a less traditional family, was reading her Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Uncle Charles, rich on talent, discovered natural sciences books in the municipal library, and got crazy about Chekhov, and became an opera fan only much later – but never caught up on algebra, which derailed his hopes of becoming a great physicist instead of a great rabbi his parents hoped he would become. He never blamed his parents, knowing too well that they knew of no other way of life, and that they loved him dearly despite all his shifting away from the traditions. But this wish that the treasures of the World Knowledge would have opened for him sooner … enough said.

  25. And emphatically no, Pasternak was for assimilation not because he hated his fellow tribal members or their culture, but because it pained him to see so much talent and so much work being expended unproductively. His heart ached for all these talented people and he dreamed of how great artists, poets, etc. society members they could have become.

    Oh, sure, that’s definitely how he felt, and I hope I didn’t come across as accusing him of personal anti-Semitism (let alone being a “traitor”!). But the trope is historically anti-Semitic, and I’m sorry, but it’s simply impossible to use it without the taint of anti-Semitism that adheres to it, especially after the Holocaust (and did Pasternak ever mention that core event of modern Jewish history?). I wish I could agree with you, but I just can’t. I wish Pasternak had awakened from his dream of assimilation and seen the world around him, but he didn’t. He could only see the inside of his own head.

  26. I must be a dismal communicator. My whole point was that this historically anti-Semitic trope had a markedly different ring in Pasternak’s generation, as both the henchmen and the persecuted shifted from “culture” to “blood”. As linguists know too well, the words which sound so unambiguously good or bad in a certain place and time may have substantially different connotation in different times and cultures. In America, most certainly, Jewishness gravitates towards religion, but I thought that the researchers of Russia wouldn’t be blindsided by a dramatically different situation there. Oh well.

    (And the Nabokovs’ righteous indignation was at the root of all this Pasternak-bashing – perhaps due to a cultural chasm of misunderstanding, but I suspect, not without a few ulterior motives 🙁 )

  27. J.W. Brewer says:

    As to which vowels may go with GRDN, wikipedia claims that the Yiddish for the city known in English (and, relevantly, Polish) as Grodno is גראָדנע, i.e. Grodne.

    Did the controversial musings about assimilation and anti-Semitism get cut out of the movie version? Either because of sensitivities to audience reaction or a general Hollywood sense that the lengthy-philosophical-blathering bits of Russian novels should be left out of screenplay adaptations?

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW people interested in the phenomenon of Jews (in the ethnic sense and, if you ask them, perhaps more than that) becoming Christians in the USSR during the latter decades of the Bolshevik Yoke (when you might not get sent to the Gulag but it was still very much the opposite of a good career move) may be interested in this book, which I have heard good things about but have not personally gotten around to reading yet. https://www.amazon.com/Doubly-Chosen-Identity-Intelligentsia-Orthodox/dp/0299194841

  29. I do not remember any of the philosophical-theological-poetical stuff making it into the film, except possibly as half-hearted justifications for why Yuri and Lara were such a divinely perfect pairing.

  30. A relevant tidbit may be the way the Law of Return applies to the former USSR. Baptism in the Czarist time is a disqualifier, but in the Soviet times, irrelevant

  31. The LoR is very broad: it would grant me Israeli citizenship as the spouse of someone whose father was a halakhic Jew. It’s hard to believe that conversion from Judaism to Christianity under the Tsars was considered voluntary, though, especially since under the Soviets it was considered involuntary (voluntary converts are excluded from the LoR unless they meet some other provision).

    Note that the LoR has never excluded antisemites.

  32. I must be a dismal communicator. My whole point was that this historically anti-Semitic trope had a markedly different ring in Pasternak’s generation, as both the henchmen and the persecuted shifted from “culture” to “blood”.

    I think you’re a fine communicator; I understand your point perfectly, I just disagree. Have you any evidence that a significant majority of Soviet Jews of Pasternak’s generation felt that way — not just that Jews were better off assimilating, which of course was a common choice, but that if they didn’t, they deserved whatever they got? I would also refer you to a far better novel, Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, who dealt directly with the Holocaust and blamed both Nazis and Communists for their anti-Semitism. It was written at the same time, though not published for a couple more decades; I can’t help but wish that it had come out in the ’50s, when it would have made a difference, and gotten the publicity (and maybe the Nobel) that Pasternak did.

  33. not just that Jews were better off assimilating, which of course was a common choice, but that if they didn’t, they deserved whatever they got?
    actually a lot of them did that, and worse – like people blamed their own relatives for giving up their tradition too slowly, and by the virtue of this, causing trouble for their families. Typically when someone skipped work or school on Saturday or during holidays, many others would grumble about being exposed to punishment. When someone kept separate meat and cheese cutting boards, some others might grumble how so-and-so teahes one’s children a dangerous example. And if someone corresponded with relatives abroad, or, heaven forbid, decided to go to Israel? Oh my.

    It was a scary place and time, if you understand. The nail which stuck out, got hammered. But people also genuinely believed that the times of ethnic strife will soon be over, through assimilation and intermarriage of all and everyone.

    And by the way it isn’t all that relevant for Lara’s words. The novel is a snapshot of times, beliefs, and feelings, then and there. It isn’t a political or religious manifest. If anything, politics and beliefs fail there.

  34. Assimilation is a broad concept. Of course, Jews of Russia secularized just as all people of “the West”. Spending your life studying Talmud would be as much a relic of the past as, say, monasticism. But Russian Jews were pressured to loose also their cultural identity. Something many a secularized people very much resented. I am not sure how this all is relevant to Pasternak and his novel, but I sort of agree with X that his moral universe never moved past 1910s.

  35. One can find on the internet persistent stories that a few Scots surnamed Gordon ended up in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the name somehow spread to the local Ashkenazim from there. Don’t know if that’s too good to check.

    A lot of Scots certainly turned up in the Russian empire from the 17th century onwards – as well as Peter the Great’s generals Patrick and Alexander Gordon (!), Paul Menzies and Alexander Livingston, Lermontov is the Russian version of the Scottish surname Learmount, and a General Barclay commanded Russian armies against Napoleon (though he never as far as I know came up against Napoleon’s Marshal Macdonald). Even Peter the Great’s court physician was a Scot, a Dr Ogilvy. So there’s nothing improbable about that part of it.

    Meanwhile, “Grodno” becoming “Gordon” rather than, say, “Grodnovets” or “Grodnov” or “Grodner” sounds more difficult. Yes, gematria, anagrams and so on, but are there any other examples of Jewish surnames being anagrams of a placename? Any, I don’t know, Kevis from Kiev or Lulbins from Lublin?

    The online history of the Jewish community of Grodno doesn’t seem to include any Gordons at all (though I suppose you could argue that Grodno is the one place you wouldn’t expect to find anyone with a surname meaning “man from Grodno”!)

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    I am intrigued to note multiple online obits (probably all from some common wire-service source) summarizing the just-deceased Philip Roth as having been a “fearless narrator of sex, death, assimilation and fate.” So I guess that’s some evidence that “assimilation” is one of those Important Subjects that Controversial Novelists are expected to pontificate about? Which doesn’t necessarily mean that Pasternak did so in an aesthetically and or historico-theologically satisfying way, of course.

  37. I sort of agree with X that his moral universe never moved past 1910s.

    Oh, I certainly agree with that. But it’s one thing to retain the moral universe you inhabited before you were 30 (which is so common as to be more of a rule than an exception) and another to simply ignore the greatest moral horror of your lifetime.

    So I guess that’s some evidence that “assimilation” is one of those Important Subjects that Controversial Novelists are expected to pontificate about?

    It’s certainly one of the basic topics of American Jews, but the situation is so different I’m not sure it has any relevance to Soviet Russia. It’s not “one of those Important Subjects that Controversial Novelists are expected to pontificate about,” it’s just an important part of life for some people, and of course novelists for whom that’s true write about it. And I’m pretty damn pissed at the Nobel committee for throwing away awards on “edgy” choices like Dario Fo and Dylan and leaving Roth unrewarded (though of course that puts him in excellent company, from Tolstoy to Nabokov).

  38. Lermontov etc.
    @ajay, it was discussed in some detail above, but it’s a great additional point about Russian surnames coined after immigrant ancestors. There’re many more cool examples.

    The phenomenon plays no rule in the Ashkenazi onomastics, though, for two reasons. Christians were barred from conversion to Judaism, under a penalty of of death. And Ashkenazi Jews didn’t have surnames until XIX c. So there are no Ashkenazi surnames derived from any immigrant Christian ancestors.

    There is a rare specific exception from the no-surname rule. In a few families, the members shared a hereditary semi-formal honorific if their ancestor was a famous Jewish scholar. Unlike true surnames, it wasnt always passed to all children, and sometimes it would pass to a son-in-law. Think a succession of learned men. Often, the honorific would be derived from the famous ancestors nom de plume.

    When the Jews had to take official surnames, mandated by the governments of Eastern Europe to tax and draft them more efficiently, then a few of them repurposed their traditional honorifics into legal surnames. It is a really uncommon thing, and Gordon is one of them.

    Since the famous scholar in question was a Cabbalist, and since an important part of their wisdom was making anagrams, one shouldn’t be surprised that he used an anagram as his nom de plume.

  39. J.W. Brewer says:

    If the surname originally arose among people seeking to claim a family connection with the famous-in-relevant-circles Yekutiel Gordon, then it really doesn’t matter how Yekutiel originally happened to come by the name, does it? But if (as wikipedia says) he was born and raised in Vilna and then spent considerable time in Italy before returning east, why would anagram-of-Grodno have appealed to him even if he had a cabbalistic love of anagrams in general? Why not an anagram of Padua instead? Is it known at what point in his life he started going by that name, or even whether it was self-bestowed versus bestowed on him by another?

  40. As D.O. said, it’s not really an anagram: it’s just a different vocalization of the same consonant skeleton, which is what counts.

  41. why would anagram-of-Grodno have appealed to him even if he had a cabbalistic love of anagrams in general? Why not an anagram of Padua instead? Is it known at what point in his life he started going by that name, or even whether it was self-bestowed versus bestowed on him by another?

    One of these is surprisingly easy to answer. “Padua” has been already taken, it is an alternative honorific title of the Katzenelenbogen rabbinical dynasty (some of them go by the Russified surname Padva) whose founder is Meyer ben Isaac Katzenellenbogen (Meïr of Padua.) Note the two geographic notations in the latter names: references to both the town from where the rabbi’s family hailed, and to the town where his wisdom shone.

    In the absence of surnames, the community members were distinguished by patronymics, or, when the patronymics were also shared (as it was common due to the traditional re-use of deceased ancestors’ names), then by the use of various diminutives, by referring to occupations, to street nicknames, even by referring to in-laws. And of course by the “X from the family from Y” construct.

    As you can imagine, learned rabbis wouldn’t use informal diminutives or things like “son of a baker” or “fat little man”. So the toponymic notations to the family origins were used quite commonly (followed by the titles of their most acclaimed work).

    The contemporaries likely knew what was the specific Grodno connection; but we don’t know for sure.

  42. Katzenelenbogen is one of my favorite names of all time.

  43. marie-lucie says:

    Cat’s elbow (or plural?) : Lovely name, but how would anyone get this name?

  44. J.W. Brewer says:

    From a toponym whose own etymology seems speculative/disputed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katzenelnbogen#Etymology.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks JWB!

  46. David Marjanović says:

    or plural?

    Indeterminate! 🙂

    (Today Ellbogen or Ellenbogen, from Elle “ulna”.)

  47. David Marjanović says:

    …Actually, Bogen pluralizes to Bögen, but that’s probably an analogical innovation (very common) that hasn’t spread to Ell(en)bogen.

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