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Doctor Zhivago: Mme Guishar’s Suicide Attempt

by John Cobley

Tuesday Apr 18th, 2023



Mme Guishar’s Suicide Attempt  


When still teenagers, Yury and Misha are taken on a doctor’s visit to a rundown hotel. While there Yury sees Lara and Komarovsky for the first time. (Part 2)


Inside the room a kerosene lamp, which normally hung above the dining room table, had been taken out of its holder and moved to the other part of the room behind a wooden partition that stank of bedbugs.

There was a sleeping nook there, separated from the main part of the room and from strangers’ eyes by a dusty folding curtain. In the commotion they had forgotten to lower it. The lamp was on a bench in the nook.

This corner was brightly lit from below, as if by footlights.

It was iodine poisoning, not arsenic as the dishwasher had wrongly asserted. In the room there was a sharp pungent smell of unripe walnuts in hard green husks that turned black when touched.

            Behind the partition a maid was mopping the floor and a half naked woman, soaked with water, tears and sweat lay on the bed with her head of matted hair lowered over a basin. She was sobbing loudly.

            The boys quickly averted their eyes; it felt so shameful and improper for them to look. But Yury managed to notice how in some uncomfortable and contorted positions, in moments of strain and exertion, a woman ceases to be what sculpture depicts and becomes a naked wrestler with bulging muscles ready for competition in shorts.

            At last someone behind the partition thought to draw the curtain.

            “Fadey Kazimirovich, dear, where’s your hand? Give it to me.” The woman said, choking with  tears and nausea. “Oh, I’ve been through such horrors. I had such suspicions, Fadey Kazimirovich. But happily it has turned out that it was all nonsense, just my crazy imagination. What a relief! After all, here I am and still alive.”

            “Calm yourself, Amalia Karlovna. I beg you to calm down. How awkward this has all been. My word, how awkward.”

            “We’ll go now,” Alexander Alexandrovich grunted, turning to the boys.

            Overcome with embarrassment, the boys stood in the dark lobby on the edge of the non-partitioned part of the room, and as they didn’t know where to look, they stared into the depths of the now unlit area. The walls were covered with photos, a bookcase was covered with sheet music, a desk was piled high with papers and albums, and on the other side of the dining room table covered with a crocheted cloth, a girl was asleep in an  armchair, her arms entwined around its back and her cheek pressed against it. She must have been dead tired to be able to sleep through the noise and bustle.

            Their coming here was pointless and staying was indecent. “Let’s go home now,” Alexander Alexandrovich said once more. “As soon as Fadey Kazimirovich comes out, I’ll say goodbye to him.”

            But instead of Fadey Kazimirovich someone else came out: a thick-set, clean-shaven, portly and self-confident man. Above his head he carried the lamp taken out of its holder. He went to where the girl was sleeping behind the table and put the lamp into its holder. The light woke the girl. She smiled at the man, screwed up her eyes and stretched.

            At the sight of this stranger, Misha gave a start and fastened his eyes on him. He tugged at Yury’s sleeve and tried to speak to him.

             “Aren’t you ashamed to whisper in company? What will they think of you?” said Yury, stopping him and refusing to listen.

Meanwhile, a mute scene was taking place between the girl and the man. Not a word was spoken; only looks were exchanged. But the understanding between them was frightening magical, as if he was the puppeteer and she was the puppet, obedient to every movement of his hands.

A smile of weariness on her face made her half-close her eyes and part her lips. She answered the disdainful gestures of the man with the sly wink of an accomplice. Both of them seemed pleased that everything had turned out so well, that their secret had not been exposed and that the poisoned woman had survived.

            Yury devoured them both with his eyes. From the half-darkness that kept him hidden, he stared in to the circle of  lamplight. The spectacle of the enslaved girl was inscrutably mysterious and shamelessly transparent. Yury was overcome with conflicting emotions.

            This was the very thing that he, Misha and Tonya had so ardently discussed over the last year under the name of vulgarity, that frightening and attractive issue that they had dealt with at a safe distance through words. And now here it was before Yury’s eyes, this force that was thoroughly tangible but vague and elusive, pitilessly destructive, and disapproving and asking for help. Where was their childish philosophy now, and what was Yury to do?

            “Do you know who that man is?” Misha asked when they were out on the street. Yury was deep in thought and did not answer.

             “He’s the same man who made your father drink himself to death. Remember? On the train. I told you about him.”

            But Yury was thinking about the girl and the future and not about his father and the past. At first he could not understand what Misha was saying. It was too cold for talking.




Yury Remembers Mme Guishar’s Suicide Attempt


Yury explains to Lara how he felt on seeing her for the first time in a rundown Moscow hotel. (Part 14)


“You were that night, as a senior high-school student in a coffee-coloured uniform, in the semi-darkness behind a hotel-room partition, exactly as you are now and just as stunningly beautiful.

            “Since then I have often tried to put into words the light of enchantment that you aroused in me—a slowly dimming ray and a fading sound which from that time have filled my whole existence and have become, thanks to you, the key to understanding everything else in the world.

            “When you emerged from the darkness of the hotel room, like a shadow in a school uniform, I, a boy, knew nothing about you, but I did sense at once the extent of your suffering. Here was a slight girl charged to the limit, as if by electricity, with all the conceivable femininity in the world. If I had gone close or touched you with just a finger, a spark would have lit up the room, either killing me on the spot or electrifying me for a lifetime and filling me with a magnetic force of longing and sorrow.

            “I was filled with unaccustomed tears and everything inside me flared up into weeping. I felt mortal pity for myself, a boy, and even more pity for you, a girl. The whole of my astonished being asked: if it’s so painful to electrified by love, how much more painful must it be for a woman to the electricity that inspires love?”


Notes: These two excerpts cover a crucial episode in Doctor Zhivago when Yury sees both Lara and Komarovsky for the first time. In the first extract, Pasternak heightens the drama of the scene by using theatrical imagery—a curtain, bright lighting “as if by footlights,” and a darkened viewing area. The importance of this scene, especially to Yury, is shown in the second retrospective description in Yury’s own words many years later.  


 The translations from the Russian are mine, but I benefitted from consulting the three translations of Doctor Zhivago by Hayward and Harari, Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Pasternak Slater.      





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