The Wisest Book I Ever Read

from The Raleigh News & Observer

In the late summer of 1960 I was preparing to enter the eleventh grade in Henderson County, North Carolina. My sister was getting ready to enter college, and my parents drove us down to Greenville, South Carolina in the pickup truck one day to buy school clothes. I had saved money from selling pole beans, and in the air conditioned stores I bought new pants with buckles in the back, new shirts, a pair of white buck loafers, and a belt as thin as a shoelace. Before driving back to the mountains, we stopped in a drugstore near the parking lot for cold drinks. Near the marble fountain counter was a rack of paperback books.

While sipping my Coke, I turned the rack, reading titles. One black and red Mentor caught my attention: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a book that had been much in the news during the past year. There had been a scandal about Pasternak being forced to refuse the Nobel Prize. I had heard the book was a love story, critical of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet regime. Before leaving the drugstore I paid ninety-five cents for the volume, the first book I ever bought.

I had already fallen in love with Tolstoy’s fiction, devouring a copy of War and Peace borrowed from the Henderson County bookmobile. And I had read Crime and Punishment in a tattered paperback sent to a friend by his brother in college. I had also written my first paper the year before on Quo Vadis. I was in awe of Russian fiction, of Slavic romance. I could hardly wait to get home with the inky smelling paperback.

I was not disappointed by Pasternak’s novel. I read it at odd moments between field work and homework, milking the cow and helping to make molasses. I thought it was the wisest story I’d ever read. It was a love story, and the poetic prose, the sweeping scenes of the countryside and city, train rides and devastated towns, were so real it hurt to read them. The feeling for field and forest, river and ravine, decaying house and ruined back street, seemed a revelation. Even as I wrestled with the chopped up narrative sections, the awkwardly joined chapters, and the literary allusions beyond my understanding, I was thrilled by the details of muddy roads, snowy vistas, clothing shops, ballrooms and smoldering battlefields.

And over the chaos of the revolution, the threatened lives of Yuri the poet and Tonia his wife, Lara his muse and lover, there hung a spell of sacredness, of destiny. I couldn’t have described the sense of luminous presence in the story then, but I recognized it and was thrilled by it. The details of the novel, the pain of the story, the entwined lives of the heroes, had a special meaning, beyond anything I could have defined. I understood something about the political history the book revealed and implied. But it was the lives and loves of the individuals projected against that cataclysmic history that enthralled me. History was a beast that devoured those precious lives. I missed the references to Baudelaire and Mayakovsky, but I understood the celebration of poetry as simplicity, the immanence of the everyday, the complex textures of modern life illuminated by goodness, simple purity of heart.

More than any book I had ever read, Doctor Zhivago made me feel I was touching real life. I saw that the true subject of fiction, and poetry, was the dignity and spirituality of human life in harsh circumstances. Other writers had said the same thing, but it was Pasternak who drove home the lesson to me, in his uneven and somewhat disjointed masterpiece.

Doctor Zhivago was my first encounter with that special genre, the flawed master work. Later I would come to know Huckleberry Finn, The Charterhouse of Parma, and Tender is the Night. But then I believed what a teacher had told me, that great art was about perfection of form. Doctor Zhivago showed me that great writing can succeed in spite of its imperfections. No other work would touch me in quite the same way. I read Pasternak at just the right time.

One of the special messages Doctor Zhivago sent to me was that poetry and prose fiction were complementary, not antithetical. In American writing the two genres are almost always separate. Of the classic American prose writers, only Melville and Poe wrote notable poetry But the hero of Pasternak’s novel is a poet, like the author, and a great poet, and many of the discussions in the story are about poetry, and the place of poetry in modern life. The novel may be the first work of literary criticism I ever read. It is still one of the best discussions of poetry I know. More important, the book ended with a selection of Zhivago’s poems. I will never forget reading “Hamlet,” “Bad Roads in Spring,” and “Hopbines” there. The concluding poem, “Garden of Gethsemane,” taught me something about the possibilities of poetry, just when I was most impressionable. The poem ends:

Seest thou, the passing of the ages is like a parable
And in its passing it may burst to flame.
In the name, then, of its awesome majesty
I shall, in voluntary torments, descend into my grave.

I shall descend into my grave. And on the third day rise again.
And, even as rafts float down a river,
So shall the centuries drift, trailing like a caravan,
Coming for judgment, out of the dark, to me.

I may have missed many of the literary allusions, but I certainly got the Biblical references. I had been raised by Fundamentalists who read the Bible to my sister and me every day. I understood that the poems were an homage to a church and belief that had been virtually wiped out by the Soviet regime. The novel was a monument, in part, to a world now lost, to the church, to artists and thinkers purged and lost, to the poet/Christ figure of Zhivago.

I realized that Pasternak had written, not only to honor those lost, but to celebrate sanity and health, the human potential, against the devastation of totalitarianism and ideology. It was only later, as I studied Russian poetry and history, that I saw what an elegy Pasternak had written for particular Russian futurists and symbolists, such as Blok and Mayakovsky. I also came to see the book as a lament for the legacy of the church, the culture that had been preserved and handed down by so many generations until 1918. Pasternak’s feeling for the meaning of tradition moved me more than Eliot’s essays and poems would.

Reading Doctor Zhivago helped me see how fiction and poetry make the world, and history, immediate, palpable. I saw novels were about details, surprise, unexpected truths. More important, they were about lives, and they helped us to see the gift of family, legacy, church, that so many had worked to create for us. The story of loss and suffering was really a celebration of the things around me I hadn’t noticed before. The novel showed me the privileges I had enjoyed, and the importance of humility and compassion. The book showed me something of my own failures and limitations.

I never forgot the description of revising a poem on page 453. Pasternak describes how Zhivago’s poems to Lara, written in the most desperate, hopeless time, go through draft after draft, until they are no longer just a personal statement, but a work of art that speaks to all. Of this essential paradox about writing, the narrator says.

“As a result, his feeling, still pulsing and warm, was gradually eliminated from his poems, and romantic morbidity yielded to a broad and serene vision that lifted the particular to a level of the universal and familiar. He was not deliberately striving for such a goal, but this broad vision came of its own accord as a consolation, like a message sent to him by Lara from her travels, like a distant greeting...”

Oddly enough, the passage that made the deepest impression on me was one of the most obscure, the section describing Zhivago’s return to Moscow by foot and rail across a Russia ruined by war and revolution. The chapters are a catalogue of towns and countryside torn by war, disease, dislocation. I read it again and again for its detail and panoramic sweep. I felt in my heart Pasternak was teaching me about history and culture and what it means to be human, more than any textbook or Sunday school had.

“In unharvested fields the ripe grain spilled and trickled on the ground. Yurii Andreievich gathered it in handfuls, and at the worst, if he had no means of boiling it and making gruel, he stuffed it into his mouth and chewed it with great difficulty. The raw, half-chewed grain was almost indigestible.”

Particular books affect us at particular times. Each of us finds our own literary canon. I found Doctor Zhivago at just the right time, for it showed me how fiction brings the world to our own eyes and breath, and connects us intensely with those so different, so distant, and yet so much like ourselves. I saw how much I had to learn, and, just as important, I saw how much I already knew without knowing it.