This interview, conducted by a docile anonym, is preserved
in a fragmentary transcript dated October, 1972.
There are two Russian books on which I would like you
to comment. The first is Dr. Zhivago. I understand you
never wished to review it?
Some fifteen years ago, when the Soviets were
hypocritically denouncing Pasternak's novel (with the object of
increasing foreign sales, the results of which they would
eventually pocket and spend on propaganda abroad); when the
badgered and bewildered author was promoted by the American
press to the rank of an iconic figure; and when his
Zhivago vied with my Lalage for the top rungs of the
best-seller's ladder; I had the occasion to answer a request
for a review of the book from Robert Bingham of The
Reporter, New York.
And you refused?
Oh, I did, The other day I found in my files a draft of
that answer, dated at Goldwin Smith Hall, lthaca, N. Y.,
November 8, 1958. I told Bingham that there were several
reasons preventing me from freely expressing my opinion in
print. The obvious one was the fear of harming the author.
Although I never had much influence as a critic, I could well
imagine a pack of writers emulating my "eccentric"
outspokenness and causing, in the long run, sales to drop, thus
thwarting the Bolshevists in their hopes and making their
hostage more vulnerable than ever. There were other reasons--
but I certainly left out of consideration one point that might
have made me change my mind and write that devastating review
after all-- the exhilarating
prospect of seeing it attributed to competitive chagrin by some
ass or goose.
Did you tell Robert Bingham what you thought of Dr.
What I told him is what I still think today. Any
intelligent Russian would see at once that the book is
pro-Bolshevist and historically false, if only because it
ignores the Liberal Revolution of spring, 1917, while making
the saintly doctor accept with delirious joy the Bolshevist
coup d'etat seven months later-- all of which is in
keeping with the party line. Leaving out politics, I regard the
book as a sorry thing, clumsy, trivial, and melodramatic, with
stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, and
Yet you have a high opinion of Pasternak as a lyrical
Yes, I applauded his getting the Nobel Prize on the
strength of his verse. In Dr. Zhivago, however, the
prose does not live up to his poetry. Here and there, in a
landscape or simile, one can distinguish, perhaps, faint echoes
of his poetical voice, but those occasional fioriture
are insufficient to save his novel from the provincial banality
so typical of Soviet literature for the past fifty years.
Precisely that link with Soviet tradition endeared the book to
our progressive readers. I deeply sympathized with Pasternak's
predicament in a police state; yet neither the vulgarities of
the Zhivago style nor a philosophy that sought refuge in
a sickly sweet brand of Christianism could ever transform that
sympathy into a fellow writer's enthusiasm.
The book, however, has become something of a classic. How
do you explain its reputation?
Well, all I know is that among Russian readers of today--
readers, I mean, who represent that country's wonderful
underground intelligentsia and who manage to obtain and
distribute works of dissident authors-- Dr. Zhivago is
not prized as universally and unquestioningly as it is, or at
least was, by Americans. When the novel appeared in America,
her left-wing idealists were delighted to discover in it a
proof that "a great book" could be produced after all
under the Soviet rule. It was for them the triumph of Leninism.
They were comforted by the fact that for better or worse its
author remai! ned on the side of angelic Old Bolsheviks and
that nothing in his book even remotely smacked of the true
exile's indomitable contempt for the beastly regime engendered
Let us now turn --
(The fragment stops here)