Wednesday, December 26, 2018
This year’s family Christmas preparations involved troop movements and contingency planning at a degree of complexity in comparison with which the Normandy Invasion must be regarded more along the lines of a trip to Trader Joe’s. I was merely a grateful observer of their expert execution by others. The Montreal contingent arrived on Saturday night. Joan had brilliantly snagged six last-minute bargain seats for the production of “A Christmas Carol” at the McCarter on Sunday. Everything went like clockwork including not merely the timely conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge but—mirabile dictu—even parking at the theater! Next day, the Christmas Eve feast at Kingwood was a culinary tour de force by son Richard and an epic success, followed by a second when we whisked all the little ones off to the statutory church pageant featuring live manger animals and classic Christmas carols.
By then I had already undergone a strange catharis in no way formally connected with the holiday, yet still somehow useful for it. Every life, however humble, must have its Eureka moments. For me one came in my fifteenth year when the Modern Library edition of The Brothers Karamazov came into my hands. I felt I had never before read anything so strange and wonderful. Some of the exotic flavor, I would later learn, derived as much from the translator Constance Garnett as from Dostoyevsky; but no matter. Here was this vast world of obsolete titles, puzzling patronymics, “degrees of frost”, visionary monks, and thirty different kinds of horse-drawn conveyance--and from its center vivid moral issues shining forth as bright as klieg lights. I went on a reading jag: more Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol’s Dead Souls. This must have been in the year 1951, height of the Cold War, the year of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. Gray-faced Russians in bad gray suits were throwing tantrums at the UN. The Rosenbergs were on death row. How could Alyosha Karamazov have morphed into Andrey Vyshinsky? I knew that if I ever wanted to get serious about this interest I would have to learn Russian. I surprised myself with the realism of my decision. I would not get really serious, but I would nonetheless continue to indulge my Anglophone Russophilia. Otherwise, what’s the point of literary translation? At Sewanee there was an old guy named Eugene Kayden, an economist but also somehow an expert on Russian poetry, and he helped me. It was from him I first heard the name of Boris Pasternak.
On Saturday afternoon our “Montreal family” set off in the direction of Princeton. I tend to get sleepy pretty early, but I was determined to be awake when they arrived. So I did something to guarantee that I would not nod off. I slid a DVD of “Doctor Zhivago” into the reader on my computer and settled in for a couple of hours of intense emotional immersion. I take the probably heretical view that Doctor Zhivago is a good novel, but a great film. Book and film need to be regarded as quite separate, though obviously related, works of art. My opinion is that just about everything in Lean’s film is perfect. I watch it about once in a year or eighteen months. You cannot make caviar a daily commonplace. It always made my eyes tear up. This year I just let it rip, a solitary weeper in a darkened room. The term “tear-jerker” was invented to try to shield us from the embarrassing reality of our own emotions. If you can without weeping watch the scene in which Lara departs by horse-drawn sleigh from Varykino, leaving Zhivago to do his far, far better thing—well, you probably should make an appointment for a general physical check-up.
Is there a “tragic sense” of history? I have studied enough of it to know that mostly it is a record of intense human struggle against formidable enemies: want, disease, ignorance, “natural” disasters and the unnatural ones launched in the darkness of the human heart. This may be a grim view, but it seems to me the one upon which the Christmas “message” is posited. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. That is the “comic sense” of history, and the one that keeps me from despair. Be this as it may, no reader of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy is allowed to doubt that “there are tears in things”—as Virgil has put it, nearly two thousand years before them. But there are degrees and styles of tragedy. The tragedy of the political pathologies of modernity is on so colossal a scale as to beggar the imagination. Only comparatively recently have I read the historian Martin Malia’s extraordinary book The Soviet Tragedy; but I had much earlier seen its central truths foreshadowed in Dostoyevsky’s Devils (The Possessed) and delineated in the twentieth-century pages of Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. What David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” does with unmatched brilliance is to exemplify a vast intercontinental disaster through the private grief of two compelling characters worthy of Dickens or Victor Hugo or any of the great nineteenth-century heirs of the Romantic tradition. It was only accidental that, this year, it also served as my version of keeping watch by night.