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Doctor Zhivago: Pasternak on Writing

by John Cobley

Tuesday Mar 28th, 2023


Although his hero, Yury Zhivago, is a poet, Pasternak doesn’t introduce the topic of poetry writing until near the end of Doctor Zhivago. He chooses to wait until the tragic climax of the novel, when Yury and Lara spend a few days in secluded cabin at Varykino. 


In this article, it is taken for granted that both Yury’s and his author’s opinions are the same.


There are four passages on writing in the fourteenth “Again in Varykino” chapter:

1. Writing under inspiration

2. Writing the final draft

3. Writing about people

4. Writing in the present.


Brief notes are appended after each passage.


1.  Writing under Inspiration


Yury was surrounded by a blissful silence that was full of happiness and the sweet breath of life. The soft yellow light of the lamp fell on the white pages of his notebook, and a golden glint of that light floated on the surface of the ink in his inkwell. Outside, the frosty winter night shone blue. Yury stepped into a cold dark room, which had a better view of the outdoors. He looked outside. The light of the full moon flooded the snowy clearing with the palpable viscosity of egg-white or whitewash. The splendor of this winter night was inexpressible. Peace filled the doctor’s soul. He returned to the warm, well-lit room and started writing.        

He wrote in a flowing hand, taking care that the appearance of what he had written conveyed the living movement of his hand without losing its character and becoming dumb and soulless. He recalled and wrote down the poems he remembered the best, gradually improving them, especially the most polished and memorable ones like “The Star of the Nativity,” “Winter Night,” and several others that were subsequently forgotten, lost and never found again.

     Then he moved on from settled and finished things to others he had started and abandoned. He entered into their tone and started to sketch out their development, without the slightest hope of finishing them right away. Then, getting in to his stride, he got worked up enough to move on to a new poem.

     After two or three stanzas and a few pleasing images that flowed easily from his pen,  work took hold of him, and he felt close to what is known as inspiration. This is when the alignment of the forces that drive creativity is turned upside down. The prime source for expression is no longer man and the state of his soul; the prime source for expression is now language. Language itself, the home and receptacle of beauty and meaning, begins to think and speak for man, and everything becomes musical, not as outward audible sound but as the speed and power of an inner flow. Then like the massive rolling current of a river whose movement polishes the riverbed stones and turns mill wheels, the flow of speech itself, through its own laws, creates in passing both measure and rhyme, as well as thousands of other forms and structures that are even more important but as yet unrecognized, unconsidered and unnamed.   

     At such moments Yury felt that he himself was not doing the main part of the work. Rather, something higher than himself was controlling him: the current state of thought and poetry and its future development. He felt himself only the pretext and pivot that would start this movement.  

     Throwing off self-reproach and discontent, he felt his own insignificance leave him for a while. He looked up and cast his eyes around. He saw the heads of the Lara and Katenka as they slept on the snow-white pillows. The purity of their features, the purity of the linen sheets and the purity of the room merged with the purity of the night, the snow, the stars and the moon, flowing in a single wave through the doctor’s heart and making him tearfully rejoice over the triumphant purity of life.



Paragraph 1: The peaceful scene is set with colours (yellow, white, gold, blue). Outside there is a full moon and “egg-white” snow.

Paragraph 2: Yury starts by working on completed poems in his memory, reworking them. These poems are transferred to paper in improved form. This seems to be a warm-up for the creative work to come.

Paragraph 3: Yury works on fragments of poems without expecting to achieve a completed poem. This is clearly more warm-up; in fact he talks about getting into his stride enough to start a new poem.

Paragraph 4: Now inspiration moves in. Significantly Yury himself is no longer the “prime source” for creativity; it is now language that “thinks and speaks” with force: “speed and power,” “massive rolling current.”   Pasternak uses the extended image of a river to capture “the inner flow” of creation and language that naturally moves into poetic meter and rhyme. Inspiration thus comes after some poetic fine-tuning and moves with speed and power through language.

Paragraph 5: Pasternak expands on the poet’s limited control during inspiration. As well as language partly controlling the poet, there is also “the current state of thought and poetry and its future development.”

Paragraph 6: Withdrawing from his inspiration, Yury notices his surroundings, the instigators of his inspiration: Indoors were Lara and her daughter on “snow-white pillows” and the “purity” of the linen, the room and the night. Outdoors the purity of the night, snow, stars and moon.


2.  Writing a Final Draft

     When evening came, Yury lit the lamp, as he had done the previous day. Lara and Katenka went to bed early. 

     What he had written the night before fell into two categories. The familiar revised poems had been written out in clean calligraphic copies. The new ones were briefly sketched out with ellipses and hurried handwriting. As he tackled these rough sketches, the doctor felt the usual disappointments. The previous night, these fragments had brought tears to his eyes and shocked him with some unexpected gems. But now these supposed successes upset him. They were clearly forced.

     All his life he had dreamt of an originality that was softened and toned down, that was outwardly unrecognizable, hidden under the cover of ordinary conventional speech. All his life he had striven to develop this restrained, unpretentious style through which readers and listeners would grasp the content without noticing how they managed it. All his life he had worked towards a transparent style that didn’t attract attention, and he was appalled at how far he still was from that ideal.

     In the previous day’s sketches he had wanted to use language that was so simple that it was almost childish babble or a lullaby in order to express his mood of love mixed with fear and of anguish mixed with courage in such a way that it should speak for itself, almost independently of words.

     Now, as he looked over these drafts a day later, he found that they lacked a unifying link to bring the lines together. Gradually rewriting what he had written, Yury began to develop the legend of St. George and the Dragon in the same lyrical way. He began with broad, spacious pentameters, but the euphony characteristic of this meter annoyed him with its false formal melodiousness. He abandoned this pompous meter with its caesura and cut down the lines to four feet in the way one struggles with wordiness in prose. Writing was now more difficult but more appealing. His work proceeded at a faster pace, but the lines were still too wordy. He forced himself to shorten them still more. His words were tightened into trimeters. As the last traces of his drowsiness flew away, he caught fire, and the right words came to fill the lines, prompted by the meter. Subjects hardly named began to take form in earnest. He heard a horse crossing the surface of the poem just as you hear a horse’s hooves in one of Chopin’s ballades. St George was galloping across the boundless steppe. Yury watched him recede into the distance. He wrote with feverish haste, hardly having time to put the words and lines on the page as they arrived appropriately and to the point.



Paragraph 2: Against the reader’s expectation, Yury is shown to be disappointed with what the previous night’s inspiration had produced.

Paragraph 3: Pasternak stresses Yury’s lifelong stylistic goal, repeating “all his life” three times. This deviates from the autobiographical: Pasternak’s early poetry was very difficult and far from restrained and transparent.

Paragraph 4: Important goal for Yury: “a mood of love mixed with fear and of anguish mixed with courage.” This is how Yury feels at this point in the story.

Paragraph 5: In this long paragraph Yury moves from the disorder of the previous night’s fragments to a unifying motif: the myth of St. George and the Dragon. (Earlier, the wolves outdoors had reminded Yury of the hostility of dragons.) Next, the hard work is done to find the correct meter. Eventually inspiration (“fire,” “feverish”) comes to such a degree that Yury can actually hear the hoofbeats of St. George’s horse. Music and speed are now crucial elements in the composition of his poem. 


3.  Writing about People

He drank vodka and wrote about her. But as he replaced one word after another, the Lara of his notes and poems moved further away from her true prototype, the living mother of Katenka now travelling on a long journey.

            He made textual changes for precision and power of expression, but they also reflected an inner restraint that would not allow him to reveal much of his past so as not to offend or hurt the actual people connected with what he was writing about. Thus he kept out of his poems the visceral experiences that were still boiling up in his mind; instead of the bleeding and noxious there appeared in them a tranquil perspective, raising the particular to the universal and familiar. This was not a goal he was consciously striving for, but the new perspective came as consolation, like a personal message from a certain traveller, like a distant greeting from her, like her image in a dream, like her hand on his brow. He loved this ennobling of his verses. 

            While he was working on his lament for Lara, he was also organizing his past notes on all sorts of topics, such as nature and ordinary life. As had always happened to him before, a multitude of ideas about his personal and social life descended on him as he wrote. In organizing these, he again affirmed and wrote that art always serves beauty and that beauty is the joy of form, that form is the organic key to existence, that form must possess everything living in order to exist, and that art, including tragedy, is about the joy of existence. These reflections and notes also brought him a joy that was so tragic and full of tears that it gave him a headache and tired him out. 



Paragraph 2: Pasternak explains the difficulty of writing freely about people in his life. This passage explains how to read the poems in the novel. They explain Yury’s experiences in a “universal and familiar” way, “ennobling” them. None of the novel’s characters are mentioned by name.

Paragraph 3: More on his writing. The importance of form in art. The need for beauty and joy of existence.


4.  Writing in the Present

Afterwards, this note was found among his papers:


            “When I returned to Moscow in 1922, I found it empty and half-devastated. That was how it emerged during the first years of the revolution and that is how it remains to this day. The population had thinned out, new houses hadn’t been built and old ones hadn’t been restored.

            “But even so it remains a large modern city, the only inspiration for truly modern contemporary art. The random assembly of seemingly incongruous things and ideas in the Symbolists Blok, Verhaeren and Whitman is in no way a stylistic whim. It is a new arrangement of impressions observed in life and copied from nature.

            “Just as Symbolists hurried their succession of images along the lines of their verse, so the busy city streets hurried along--with their crowds, coaches and carts at the end of nineteenth century and with their trams, buses and electric trains at the start of the twentieth century. 

“Pastoral simplicity has no place in these situations. Its false artlessness is a literary fraud, an unnatural mannerism, a phenomenon of bookish practice originating not from the countryside but from the bookshelves of academic libraries. A living, naturally developed language that answers the spirit of our times is the language of urbanism.

“I live at a busy city crossroads. Dazzled by the sun, baked with the asphalt of courtyards, dappled with sunrays on upper-floor widows, and breathing with the blossom of clouds and boulevards, summertime Moscow rotates around me and makes my head spin. It wants me to glorify her and spin the heads of others. To that end she raised me and gave me a gift for art.

“The day-and-night street noise outside is just as closely connected with the modern soul as the first bars of an overture with the curtain still down in darkness and with mystery already starting to redden in the glow of the footlights. The city, ceaselessly stirring and rumbling beyond doors and windows is a vast overture to life for each of us. It’s in these terms that I would like to write about the city.



This extract does not fit organically into the novel, but clearly Pasternak wanted to make an anti-pastoral point. His was the age of the city. He wanted to separate himself and his alter ego from academia and to show that they wrote in “the spirit of our times.” Pasternak romanticizes urban noise with a theatre simile.


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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