December 01, 2008

Let's be mad! Romantic heroes from Heathcliff to Zhivago

It’s been really fun to read the literary love confessions which people have been posting here, not least for the introductions to some romantic heroes I hadn't encountered, such as William, described by Wikipedia in its exhaustive way as "adventurous, imaginative, romanticising, irrepressible, optimistic, and lovable”. My only doubt is about the irrepressible, a fine character trait for a best friend but a bit worrisome in a soulmate you'd be planning to glue yourself to.

Yuri Zhivago was on a lot of people’s lists and he came to my mind as well, but I wasn't sure if I were in love with him or with his love story. “But to go to Varykino now, in winter, that would be madness. But why not, my love, let’s be mad if there is nothing but madness left to us!” I quote this line from memory so cannot vouch for it exactly, but this is what it is all about. Revolution, civil war, the lovers' desperation, the snow, always the snow, the candle flame.

Heathcliff was another name which came up, problematical as always. Not long ago I read, I think in the TLS, someone's opinion that Wuthering Heights is the only instance of "L'amour fou", mad love, in English literature. In notes on Abismos de pasión, Bunuel's fantastically named film version of the novel, Kevin Hagopian tells how what fascinated the surrealist was precisely this, the book's portrait of mad love, “a tempest of rage and self-indulgence.” Despite the call to madness, Dr. Zhivago is not about mad love which leaves devastation in its wake. It is the world which is mad, and which devastates the lovers.

Boris Pasternak made his name in Russia as a great poet during the first World War. At the time of the Revolution, he was 27 and optimistic about its idealism, unlike Anna Akhmatova who, just a year older but evidently tougher, was “neither young enough to believe in it nor old enough to justify it”, as Joseph Brodsky put it with his usual acumen. Forty years on, in 1957, there was Dr Zhivago.

Knowing it could not be published in Russia, Pasternak had the manuscript delivered to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher who is still famous today in Italy for defying pressure from Russia and being the first to publish this great work, as well as for dying while setting explosives on a Milanese electricity pylon in guerilla warfare against the Italian state in the 1970s.

In the midst of all this, a book came in on reserve for me which I have no recollection of having requested. It’s about Russia’s poets of the Silver Age: Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Pasternak, and the rest. The author, Elaine Feinstein, is a poet and a translator of Tsvetaeva, and her grandparents were Russian Jews, as were so many of these writers, including Pasternak. She goes to St. Petersburg to write this book, "for the ghosts" she says.

She tells the story of Pasternak's anguish over the Nobel Prize, which he at first accepted and later refused, possibly under threat of exile. He was a somewhat Hamlet-like character, as was his hero Yuri Zhivago. When he had to look for something else to do during the Stalin years, not a good time for poets, he translated Shakespeare. His banned poem Hamlet, included in Dr. Zhivago, was recited by his friends at his funeral.


The rumbling has grown quiet. I walk out on the stage.
Leaning against a door jamb,
I try to catch in a distant echo
What will happen in my lifetime.

At me is aimed the murkiness of night;
I'm pinned by a thousand opera glasses.
If only it is possible, Abba, Father,
May this cup be carried past me.

I cherish your stubborn design
And am agreed to play this role.
But now a different drama is underway;
This time, release me.

But the order of the acts has been determined,
And the ending of the journey cannot be averted...

The books:

  • Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • The Russian Jerusalem by Elaine Feinstein

  • Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 05:30


    Post a Comment

    Powered by Blogger.