“Take Ink and Weep”


Seizing the wind, waving the wood
Drives us out,
Down the stairs for firewood—
All about.

Snow, knee deep comes drifting in —
With the cry:
“it’s been ages, how you been?
Time goes by!”

Snow like foaming salt from clouds,
Or from reins,
Leached away like stains from cowls,
Earthly pain (“Before all This there was Winter”)

Overindulged though it might appear, whenever it rains in my cities, I still imagine it as a part of me raining without. Where I live it has not snowed yet, and while I have January today, Doctor Zhivago (the doctor living or alive) bears all its snows. I wish to make a pact with its maker: I intend to take his snow in exchange of a January Zhivago never had. For, it were the snows for the cloud-dwelling (Stalin’s phrase) Boris Pasternak which became the cloak to preserve his poetic sovereignty when the entire literary world around him was going into liquidation, under General Joseph Stalin’s orders. If only then another Giangiacomo Feltrinelli could smuggle those exquisite elfin shreds of Stalingrad to my country … dreaming of such a nobility I must compose a January for Zhivago.

Winter’s passionate and primeval constancy to Yurii Zhivago — a winter fastened to his portended corpse before his death — was what made me first realise that snow was not a virtue of a time or a season. It was an acute secretion of a space — in longing, in sufferance, in abeyance — in over-abundance of colour. Snow is that which configures the space of the landscape of Zhivago’s mind, and the transitory heim whose noises he grows up inculcating. It is that which is the leftover, the one source of fidelity that stays on for young Yura, after his father has departed. Snow is the face of his uncle, Nikolai, whose “aristocratic sense of equality with all living creatures,” and his urgency of expression of thought-provoking rationale, which situates Doctor Zhivago’s very beginnings outside the parameters of a Stalinist socialist realism. Snow is, for Zhivago, at once theological and secular, metaphysical and architectural, gregarious and taciturn — an arbiter of the infinite universe of loneliness that the individual truth-seeker experiences, away from a world of hegemonic acquiescence, of war-stricken Russia.

They spent the night at the monastery, where Uncle Nikolai was given a room for old times’ sake. It was on the eve of the Feast of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin. The next day they were supposed to travel south to a provincial town on the Volga where Uncle Nikolai worked for the publisher of the local progressive newspaper. They had bought their tickets and their things stood packed in the cell. The station was near by, and they could hear the plaintive hooting of engines shunting in the distance. It grew very cold that evening. The two windows of the cell were at ground level and looked out on a corner of the neglected kitchen garden, a stretch of the main road with frozen puddles on it, and the part of the churchyard where Maria Nikolaievna had been buried earlier in the day … Outside there was no trace of the road, the graveyard, or the kitchen garden, nothing but the blizzard, the air smoking with snow (Doctor Zhivago).

Zhivago’s poems are thoroughly imbued with the silence of a perpetual parting: “Because of hoarfrost on the panes/ The hopelessness of grief redoubles/ Its likeness to the sea’s vast desert (“Parting”), and this verily proves the source of his aristocratic sagacity, as distinct from the rest. It is also his deep and forlorn ability to love. The town is heavily characterized by snow and anthropomorphism: for Boris Pasternak, the town was the destiny of the modern man, and in Zhivago he exercises a complete rejection of the pastoral simplicity enforced by socialism, which he believed to be a artistic fraud. “The living language of our time,” he wrote, “is urban,” and to this effect Moscow is nominated as “the principal heroine of the long tale” of Zhivago (Doctor Zhivago). Simultaneously, Pasternak makes bearable the production of grief and its endless resuscitation in the feminization of the town and its snow. In the labour of the predicament of socialism and the Great Purge of 1937 — during which took place the internal exiling of the author and Pasternak’s friend Osip Mandelstam, among many others — is born Zhivago’s vision of snow, patriarchal to the utmost, ironical in its pathos, and yet clear as a vulture’s eyesight. In the hylomorphism of Zhivago’s world matter is snow and form is of a young school girl the reader, made avuncular, is sensitized to adopt into his own world:

She was still a child, but even then, the alertness, the watchfulness, the restlessness of those days — it was all there, you could read it all in her face, her eyes. All the themes of the century — all the tears and the insults and the hopes, the whole accumulation of resentment and pride were written in her face and bearing, which expressed both girlish shyness and self-assured grace. She was a living indictment of the age … A schoolgirl, and yet at the same time the secret heroine of an unchildish drama. Her shadow on the wall was the shadow of helpless, watchful self-defense (Doctor Zhivago).

What T.S. Eliot wrought on his readers’ London, or Guy de Maupassant on the Paris of his, is perhaps surpassed by Pasternak in his Moscow or Petersburg, which however seem positively dislocated, chiefly due to the writer’s strong nonconformist poeticism. They even blur in their boundaries with the northern Siberia. Zhivago, amidst the vast conundrum of literary bylanes, becomes the paramount reason for one not to be able return to Petersburg save in doctor’s universe. And, in all of it snow is the mise en abyme to interminably mirror the tragedy of the erstwhile Russian aristocracy. The figurality and the metonymy of snow is both a case for formal linguistic study of intertextuality with works by Pasternak and his literary predecessors of Russian modernism, as well as a more direct example of an ideological inertia that snow projects; insomuch as, it resists interpretation in is contemporary political context. One might surmise only as much as the snows standing for a certain kind of melancholia, and that would be the most perverse generalization. Inferably, the snows might just be there as life and civilization, as Zhivago’s own poetry, as matter-of-factly as an innate propensity for cheerfulness or sorrow, but that cannot gainsay the ambiguity they produce, although this fell short of beguiling even the post-Stalinist Nikita Khrushchev.

I have visions of a remote time:
A house on the Petersburg side of the Neva;

The street lamps are just like butterflies of gas.
The morning has flicked us with its first chill.
That which I am telling you is so much like
The far-off vistas now plunged in sleep.

You and I are in the grasp
Of precisely that timid devotion to a mystery
Which holds St Petersburg, spread like a panorama…

Night, like a barefoot pilgrim woman,
Is creeping close to the fences as she makes her way there,
And the tracks of our murmurs, which she has eavesdropped,
Trail after her from our window sill.

And the trees, themselves white as specters,
Come out on the road jostling and thronging,
Just as if they were waving their farewells
To the white night which has witnessed so very many things (“White Night”).

In 1712 the capital of Russia shifted from Moscow to Petersburg, to its north, and was brought back to Moscow in 1918. Even in the interim it was considered to be the cultural centre of Russia, given the concentration of the Tsars and the onion domed churches. For Pasternak Moscow in the 1890s “still had the look of a remote provincial town as picturesque as in a fairy tale” (Poems 1955-1959 ; An Essay in Autobiography) populated by bazaars, domes, sermonized horses, and the distant harmony of church bells. Pasternak grew in winters of “moonblue snow,” and sleigh rides thereon, along with the wintry realities of poverty and prostitution, which made him singularly pitiful towards women. For Zhivago this image of snowing from Pasternak’s youth becomes the image of Larisa Feodorovna Guishar’s (Lara) tainted schoolgirlhood, which both he and Strelnikov recount as Edenic.

The diffidence and the spectrality of waiting that snow performs is embodied in Zhivago’s Lara who thus bids her painful farewell to her lover after his death:

Farewell, my great one, my own, farewell, my pride, farewell, my swift, deep, dear river, how I loved your daylong splashing, how I loved to plunge into your cold waves. Remember how we said goodbye that day out there in the snow? How you deceived me! Would I ever have gone without you? (Doctor Zhivago)

Lara’s description of plunging, like a woman, came always, in Zhivago’s eyes, in the manner of the breaking of ice, of something hard, melting with painstaking effort. On the day he decides to break off his relations with Lara, she appears statuesque despite the agony: “Tears were running down her cheeks, but she was no more conscious of them than the stone statues on the house across the road were of the rain running down their faces” (Doctor Zhivago). The association of her flesh with the stones signifies a direct assertion of the anthropomorphic experience of architecture that Zhivago undergoes, mediated through the foundation of the snows. Larissa is the etymological condensation of Lara and sea, therefore unmistakably an image of the endless thawing and congealing of the snows under the feet of passers-by, or more poignantly the army. She is what, to Zhivago, remains after the war, the revolution, and the fire squads, the most perfect human landscape of anguish — a landscape which is feminine after assault. Women in Zhivago’s universe are water at their origins; the war makes of them frozen crustaceans, although revitalized into impermeable pinnacles of femininity, much like the diurnal metamorphoses witnessed in the gray landscape: “The snow was yellow at noon, with orange seeping into its honey color like an aftertaste at sunset” (Doctor Zhivago). Snow is Lara’s compliance, her helplessness, her nonconformism, and her anxiety to return to Zhivago, who like Pasternak himself, is seen by the Russian spies as a lunatic. Meanwhile he finds Lara’s morphed into a rowan tree and she communicates to him with the snow flakes:

The footpath brought the doctor to the foot of the rowan tree, whose name he had just spoken. It was half in snow, half in frozen leaves and berries, and it held out two white branches toward him. He remembered Lara’s strong white arms and seized the branches and pulled them to him. As if in answer, the tree shook snow all over him. He muttered without realizing what he was saying, and completely beside himself: “I’ll find you, my beauty, my love, my rowan tree, my own flesh and blood.” (Doctor Zhivago)

The epiphany and symbolism in the imagery of the rowan tree does not overshadow the fact that Lara belongs to Zhivago and can convey herself to him, only under the mantle of snow, given the strong sentry of the socialist regime. Their love is sanctified by the snow, despite the obstinacy of password-rule — “Red Siberia” — brought in by Stalinism. That snow enables the becoming of their common landscape is substantiated in Zhivago’s “Meeting”:

The snow will bury roads
And turn the rooftops white
I’ll go to stretch my legs
And you’ll be there outside

And thus this snowy night
Has made itself a twin,
And I cannot define
Where you or I begin (“Meeting”)

It was in the image of Olga Ivinskaya that Pasternak created Lara. The beauty and privations of Russia were meant to be the meanings of her face. She became Pasternak’s unofficial collaborator on Doctor Zhivago, while she was subject to constant surveillance even during the post-Stalinist era, after being imprisoned for three years, in 1948. Following the publication of Zhivago Pasternak begged Khrushchev not to eject him from Russia primarily for the fear of Olga, and her daughter Irina, and it was the novel’s unprecedented global impression, then, that kept those three, along with the members of Pasternak’s family safe, until his death in 1960. About six months later, in the January of the next year, Olga and Irina were arrested and were sentenced to eight and four years respectively. She went into custody uneventfully, without drawing any public outcry, just as Lara herself disappeared in Zhivago, perhaps with a deportation to Siberia:

One day Larisa Feodorovna went out and did not come back. She must have been arrested in the street at that time. She vanished without a trace and probably died somewhere, forgotten as a nameless number on a list that afterwards got mislaid, in one of the innumerable mixed or women’s concentration camps in the north (Doctor Zhivago).

Literary tourism is usually driven towards the cafés, the taverns, the coffeehouses, and often, even the beds and boudoirs of their writers; and, it might also be towards a solitary candle that has been burning indefinitely in the interiors of some unnamed Russian city in A February: an amorous funereality (of Eliot’s scene of Juliet’s tomb from “Portrait of a Lady”) that lives on in the ambivalent grieving and orgasms of the wax that weeps upon a dress in “Winter Night.” Zhivago’s passions, like the burning candle, live on, as do Lara’s in the literary monument Pasternak’s flame has become. Maybe, it is guarded even today by some remainder of Stalin’s ancient sentries, stammering out, in the cold, the vestiges of the command “Halt or I shoot! Who are you? Password,” while inside the room where they are meeting for the final time,

dearest Zhivago, I will name your candle January tonight … I have lit it before the month of your poem, then burn as you have burned like your flammable snow:

It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

Two tiny shoes fell to the floor
And thudded.
A candle on a nightstand shed wax tears
Upon a dress.

A corner draft fluttered the flame
And the white fever of temptation
Upswept its angel wings that cast
A cruciform shadow.

It snowed hard throughout the month
Of February, and almost constantly
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned (“Winter Night”)


Arup K Chatterjee

Arup K Chatterjee

Arup K Chatterjee is a recipient of the Charles Wallace fellowship, 2014-15, to UK. He received his PhD from the Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways (Bloomsbury, 2017), apart from numerous other prose or poetic works and opinion articles published worldwide. He is Assistant Professor of English at the Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, and the founding chief-editor of Coldnoon.