Like a lot of Cold-War-era writing, Zhivago was overhyped in the West when we found it useful for anti-Soviet propaganda. Back in 1957, when it was published in translation in the US and Europe, our own cultural commissars blew their whole hyperbole-budget coming up with praise for the novel. Here, for example, is Sir Isaiah Berlin's careful, balanced evaluation: "Not since Shakespeare has love been so fully, vividly, scrupulously and directly communicated."
Ah, good old Isaiah Berlin! Like Hugh Kenner, he can be counted on to be completely wrong about everything in the world. It restores your faith in stupidity. Impressed by ridiculous hype like Berlin's, the Swedes obliged by giving Pasternak the Nobel in 1958.
It's been a while since anyone in the West called Zhivago a great book. The reason's pretty obvious: we don't need it any more. Pasternak has joined Bukovsky, Kundera, and several dozen Poles on the list of those "great dissident writers" whose greatness vanished when their propaganda value lapsed. (Been to any Andrej Wajda film festivals lately?)
Not that Zhivago is a bad book. I reread it last week, and I'd rate it higher than Limonov does (see his column); but it's hardly the best romance since Shakespeare. It's something you don't get in the English-speaking world -- a highbrow potboiler. As such, it's fine: a cast of millions, lots of excellent detail...but wasted in the service of a sickly, masochistic Christianity. As the novel reaches a climax, all the brilliant detail vanishes and a maudlin, self-indulgent martyr-rhetoric takes over.
What's so scary is that it's the same sort of mystical nonsense which consumed Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy -- whose failings can't be blamed on Stalin -- and turned them into bad writers.
Yes, bad writers. Nobody loves Dostoevsky more than I do. I worship every word in Notes from Underground. But somebody needs to say it: Brothers Karamazov, his last and supposedly greatest work, composed after piety had wholly consumed his brain, is one of the worst novels ever written. It's laughable. Crude. Silly. And very, very long. The characters are childish Sunday-School puppets. Brother Zossima is a pompous ass, Alyosha a simpering twit, his brothers lifeless cutouts. The only decent bits, like the Inquisitor, are totally extraneous to the novel.
The Tempter, Christ, ate Dostoevsky's talent and left him to die. As He did to Gogol. The only reason Tolstoy held Him at bay a bit longer is that his own ego was so monstrously ravenous that it shouldered creeping Jesus away for a while -- but Tolstoy, too, died a prating, pious fool.There's a strange demographic asymmetry here. In the US, where Christianity has turned 90% of the population into imbeciles, the good 20th-c, writers have generally managed to avoid infection with the Christ bacillus, while in 20th-c. Russia, Christianity, abandoned by ordinary people, consumed most of the great writers. Perhaps, left to itself, the Christ virus will seep downward and outward as it's been doing for five centuries, down to where it belongs, at the base of the demographic pyramid -- the idiots. But if prevented from reaching them, it builds up and percolates higher, toward the intelligent people, infecting them, stunting their work and their thoughts. That's what happened to the brave writers of Soviet Russia: forced to use up their immune systems resisting the State, they were as helpless as Hurons before the God-infection. They shouldered the cross and destroyed their talents.
A few escaped Christ-contagion; Babel is the obvious example, and it's tempting to attribute his immunity to the fact that he was a Jew. After all, Russian Jews had been turning the other cheek far too long to romanticize that sort of chronic, humiliating martyrdom. But the merely ethnic explanation doesn't account for Pasternak or Mandelstam -- who poured lots of Christ into his intricate martyrdom.
What actually saved Babel was too obvious for high-culture critics to see: he was a nerd, damn it! A king among nerds, a very Prince of Dorkness, with the nerd's intense admiration for violence in a good cause. And in a pinch he could do without the good cause. (If you'd like to see a squeamish Western academic squirm around this question, see Peter Stine's article "Isaac Babel and Violence" in Modern Fiction Studies, 30:2. To be fair, Stine is handicapped by a discourse which can't acknowledge simple, obvious facts, i.e. all healthy young men who aren't getting to fuck the cheerleaders love, seek and worship violence.)