The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham, Head of Zeus, 2014, 432pp, £20 (hardback)

The Zhivago Affair, Peter Finn and Petra Cuvée, Pantheon Books, 2014, 368pp, £20 (hardback)

A medical student searches for love and poetry in a time of political upheaval. The air is filled with dangerous talk. Like a latter-day Odysseus, life becomes a wandering quest for the authentic among the false, the outrageous and the violent. Ulysses andDr Zhivago share some key similarities. They are works that challenge the realist tradition of the novel, employing narratives where coincidence is natural, however unlikely, and they challenge the banal and obvious in their respective societies. Anti-social, anarchic and immoral, they were banned as a consequence, and remain all the more subversive for being the work of writers of substance, who understood the persuasive power and potency of language. Censors are rarely concerned with aesthetics, but they know that literature is more than words on the page, even when they are not at all sure what that ‘more’ is.

A banned publication often becomes a cause célèbre, especially if the author is widely admired. Both Joyce and Pasternak had prepared the ground with The Deadand The Last Summer respectively, both novellas of loss and regret for the past. As writers they had stated their terms about transformative times to which each offered an ambivalent response. That ambivalence was a moral and political necessity, but it is not difficult to see why authorities were suspicious. Many years were to pass before both the Irish Republic and the Soviet Union could accept the cuckoo each had in its nest. Neither romantic nationalists nor social optimists construct their revolutions out of subtlety and ambiguity. It is better not to judge these things from a supposed vantage point of liberal enlightenment. In the abstract, we may believe in complete freedom of expression. In practice, everyone agrees, and rightly so, that there are boundaries. We cannot tolerate paedophiles or Holocaust-deniers today and the repugnance we feel surely demands universal agreement. Nevertheless, we ought not to censure things that others in this world may find deeply offensive. Different societies face different challenges.

The modern liberal mind may have a problem in understanding societies more narrowly defined and more directed in purpose. De Valera’s Ireland to the secular rationalist looks unfathomable with its metaphysic of moral purity expressed as a political construct. The Soviet Union’s communality of interest now may seem too simplified a reading of human society. Today we tend to see the negatives at the cost of any possible gains in such different societies from our own. The literature produced, even in opposition, may count as a gain for literature naturally has something of a critical nature. Freedom can be a house without walls. An artist is to a degree in inevitable and necessary conflict with the social context of the art. Unqualified assent is not what writers give; there is always a holding back. Added to this, a sense of memento mori surely shadows all literature. ‘The grave proves the child ephemeral’, said Auden. On the other hand, we have Larkin’s phrase: ‘What survives of us is love.’ Joyce is perhaps with Auden on this. Pasternak is certainly with Larkin. Many in positions of influence, with the capacity to censure, if not censor, have no understanding of all this. Subtle allusion, paradox and irony are the lifeblood of literature and the challenge to authority. Power is often in the hands of literal, but not literate minds. Literature is a force in society, but not a power.

One thing is immediately evident on first reading Joyce: only someone raised in Irish Catholic traditions could write as Joyce did. Equally, it took one who had lived through Soviet history to write Dr Zhivago. Both books offer testament that is far removed from the pamphleteering purposes to which these great books have been subjected. Great works rise above their circumstances to offer a transcendence of mere circumstance. The great narrative of human history requires its chroniclers. The very title of Ulysses refers to this task. So, too, does Pasternak’s (and not readily translatable) poem Hamlet included in Dr Zhivago.

Tellingly, where Pasternak is concerned with romantic love, Joyce is a celebrant of the basic physical sensations. E. M. Forster remarked that it was an ‘attempt to cover the universe with mud.’ If there is a worldly beauty in Dr Zhivago which is breathtaking, there is a willed vulgarity about Ulysses that was intentionally shocking. Both T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf initially rejected the manuscript for publication. They changed their minds, as Kruschev in retirement did about Dr Zhivago. The problem always will be that new work is unsettling, either morally or culturally or both. The corollary is that distinguishing between the genius and the charlatan presents formidable choices. Iconoclasts cannot complain if convention is offended.

But a successful work of art helps shape the change in conventions of taste and decorum. The tension between continuity and change is one of the shaping forces of history. It is one of the tensions from which literature is born. The public reception of a literary work produces further tensions, these being in the social world beyond the will and imagination of the writer. Kevin Birmingham, in his rich study of the censorship of Ulysses, speaks approvingly of Joyce’s demand for absolute freedom: ‘Joyce left nothing unspoken.’ There was bound to be trouble. The consensus is thatUlysses was worth the trouble. There was a freedom worth fighting for. The problem is the philistine’s inability to differentiate between legitimate explorations of privacy and the degrading milieu of obscenity. It took the power of an independent judiciary here and in the United States to acknowledge the case for the Joycean aesthetic of a romantic reality. Birmingham relates the story of the battles with the censors in well-researched detail while keeping the narrative interest flowing. He evokes well the feelings of an era that has past out of sight. Minor quibbles aside (Trieste was not enemy territory in 1917), this is a must-read for Joyceans, and is likely to remain so for quite some time.

‘They that endeavour to abolish vice destroy also virtue, for contraries, though they destroy one another, are yet the life of one another.’ So wrote Sir Thomas Browne. To put it another way, we cannot live in a perfect world. Celebrating the imperfections of life is what literature does. It was Pasternak’s misfortune to be caught between two kinds of utopia – the dream of security and the dream of freedom. In pursuit of these dreams governmental agencies will do terrible things. Pasternak himself was left unharmed, but Dr Zhivago was refused publication until a publisher in Italy took up the challenge Noviy Mir refused. The Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, was himself a Communist who did not regard Pasternak as a reactionary, but as a poet with a poet’s consciousness of life’s spectrum of meanings within and against the simplicities. The agencies of power deal only in simplicities. In the Cold War the choices on offer were stark and obvious with a high wall to illustrate the point. Pasternak’s manuscript, a novel of Tolstoyan vision, became a weapon in the war of attrition between East and West. That was never Pasternak’s intention, and the use of his work as propaganda was an embarrassment to him. The Nobel Prize, though deserved, was rejected as tarnished by power politics of a kind Dr Zhivago was a testament against.

Pasternak’s own kind of romantic realism suffered from arbitrary judgments made behind closed doors. Finn and Cuvée detail what is known of the clandestine operation to smuggle Dr Zhivago in manuscript to the West. Several intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, were involved. Where previously there were hints and half-truths we are now nearer to the whole truth of the (needlessly complex) machinations. The thrill of espionage, of whispers and shadows, is clearly attractive to the authors of this account. One thing emerges for certain from this bizarre narrative: spies love secrets. They love all the panoply of secret meetings and coded messages. For the fact remains that Pasternak simply gave a copy of the typescript to Isaiah Berlin to take to the West (one suspects with the KGB’s knowledge). Pasternak freely spoke of Zhivago to visiting Western journalists. That is glossed over in the need for a more sensational account that is true but not quite whole truth. It is, none the less, an interesting and entertaining story of another era that has passed.

It was not too difficult for Soviet citizens to find a published copy of Dr Zhivago. A Russian edition was published with CIA funds, and distributed quite freely from the Vatican pavilion at the World Fair being held in Brussels the summer of 1958. It is not known if the Vatican understood the CIA’s role in this. But it is typical of the intelligence community to do nothing openly. Nothing is straightforward in a looking-glass world. The details recounted make the whole affair seem not sinister but farcical. By not publishing the book the Soviet Union was wrongfooted by the liberal West. By treating the book as a secret weapon the Western powers looked crassly philistine. An international film inevitably followed. It was far better than seemed possible in the circumstance. It was scripted by Robert Bolt, a writer whose previous Communist affiliation made it difficult for him to visit Hollywood. At the same time the film of Ulysses was being filmed in Dublin on a shoestring. It succeeded artistically but faced censorship in several countries, ensuring much greater interest than would have been the case. A looking-glass world indeed.

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