Summer 2011

Doctor Zhivago (1957) by Boris Pasternak

Joshua Cohen


During the Second War, poet Boris Pasternak wrote prose about the First—about the Russian Revolution. Doctor Zhivago concerns Pasternak’s alter ego, physician-poet Yuri Zhivago: his youth and early marriage, abduction by the Red Partisans, and enduring love for “Lara,” Larissa Feodorovna. The novel, an Orthodox censer’s blend of mysticism and erotic kitsch, was a censor’s feast: It espoused no politics but that of the individual, which stance provoked the suspicion of the Soviet authorities. Their 1956 suppression turned the book into a legend, while in 1965 Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, with hesitant accents, did its author a notable service: They made a mediocre but popular film. Five million of said individuals, on six continents, purchased copies within two decades of the novel’s release.

Best-sellerdom, in this case, was as much a response to the novel’s murky charms as to the circumstances surrounding its appearance outside the USSR. In 1958, a limited edition of Zhivago was presented to the Swedish Academy, which went on to award Pasternak the literature Nobel, a prize he initially accepted, but four days later was forced by Khrushchev to decline: “Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not take offense at my voluntary rejection.” This contretemps meant that a novel that existed in Russia only in samizdat was now in demand worldwide; it was paradoxically both a confirmation and a denial of Seltenheitswert—“scarcity value”—that economic principle so ridiculously dismissed by Marx, as if it were a religious superstition.

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Marx believed there was no reason to esteem one substance—gold, diamonds, Gutenberg Bibles—over another only because its quantity was limited. To him, an object’s value derived from the labor that went into preparing it for market. Marx had good reason to reject the concept: He was a worker, too, a one-man prose proletariat who wrote for long hours in utter poverty, and so he may have found it difficult to admit that intellectual value has only a limited relationship to expended effort. But as it turned out, books by authors subsequently banned by the Soviets—Platonov, Sinyavsky, Solzhenitsyn—did acquire a sacrosanct value, and the very nature of their scarcity (repressive and murderous regimes) helped them become published in nontotalitarian markets as classics.

Zhivago was certainly helped by a Western audience’s fetishism for the forbidden. According to The Laundered Novel, a 2007 monograph by Ivan Tolstoy, Pasternak’s Nobel win was also the result of a CIA complot. Apparently, Langley was aware that Nobel bylaws require books under consideration to have been published in the language of their writing (the reason being to ensure that the words are the author’s, not a translator’s). Tolstoy maintains that the CIA intercepted the airplane smuggling the manuscript to Italy, forcing it to land in Malta. With passengers waiting on the tarmac, agents photographed the novel, then had that small run published exclusively for presentation to the Nobel committee. No one else has so well explained how Russian-language Zhivagi surfaced in America and Europe simultaneously, and how a handful found expeditious refuge in the hands of the eighteen most influential Swedes. Tolstoy’s investigation is suspenseful—it could be adapted into an airport novel set largely in airports. Even if that were done, however, its skullduggery would never outsell the romance of Zhivago. Today we suffer from a scarcity not of scandal or conspiracy, but of myth—that unique twentieth-century marketing tool that helped turn Pasternak’s Soviet-banned book into an international publishing phenomenon.

Joshua Cohen will publish a book of novellas next year with Graywolf Press.

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