The Dreaded C Word

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Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago (Vintage)

A great thing has happened, many of the educated young are left-wing again. Not only that, they are unafraid of the word ‘communist’.

This comes with dangers though. I sense that in the rush to embrace a c-word even more offensive to the polite middle classes than the original, some old lessons have been forgotten. Or rather, some material has been edited out of the script, as always.

It is timely then, that Vintage have just re-issued a slew of Russian classics, including The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. They are beautifully designed, sumptuously sleeved and reasonably-priced.

Doctor Zhivago is of course better known for its film version. But it is well worth rewinding and reading the original. Here, the romantic aesthetics and soundscapes were yet to be imposed on the narrative. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and the film could not be shot there, so it was made in Spain, in 1965, where Francoism was only just beginning to thaw.

There are things to be read in this, for sure. David Lean’s film returns us to ‘the human story’ under the Bolshevik ideology, the ‘universal’ of love that is so often co-opted as a story to deflate revolutionary requirements. We should definitely be wary of these things, but not just because they limit action, for this is the same romantic bloom that obscured the fascist sympathies of Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward.

Doctor Zhivago contains other things to be wary of. Things that are perhaps being missed by some of the New Left people I meet. In a scene in the middle of the novel, among seeders and threshers, an old lady pulls the switch to shunt trains. In between this, she knits to supplement her meagre wages with other activities, something known to most people in those times, and now these. The lines of telegraph poles stretch off in all directions…

A conversation begins between the Doctor and Samdevyatov. Samdevyatov objects to the assertion that a ‘Marxist has to be a mush-minded driveller’, arguing that Marxism is a hard science with an objective view.

The Doctor is pensive. ‘Marxism has too little control of itself to be a science’ he replies. ‘I don’t know of a movement more isolated within itself and further from the facts than Marxism.’ These remarks are treated by Samdevyatov as ‘the whimsicalities of a witty eccentric’. He chuckles and does not bother to reply. The silence in his mouth contains millions of unmarked graves.

These things are not highlighted here to ask for a turn away from Marxism. They are pinpointed to ask for a version of it in the spirit of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and actually, a dialectics which properly understands how Hegel really figures in all of this.

The theoretically-inclined might get Henri Lefebvre’s little book Dialectical Materialism, republished by Minnesota University Press in 2009.

But the less theoretically minded could do much worse than return to this grand, stylish novel, and others in the series, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman particularly.

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