Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Not By Bread Alone": A Literary Footnote to "Doctor Zhivago"

When Boris Pasternak was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1958, he initially intended to accept the award. But five days after telegramming his delight with the honor, Pasternak caved in to pressure from the Soviet literary community and sent another telegram to Sweden, this time refusing the award. Pasternak’s telegrams to the Nobel Committee and his inability to claim the award are well known. This brief Sovlit.com account of the controversy quotes from Pasternak’s letter to the Soviet Writers Union, mentioning Pasternak’s belief that writing and publishing Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago) was not inconsistent with being a Soviet person.

Pasternak’s rationale? Official publication of Vladimir Dudintsev’s Не хлебом единым (Not By Bread Alone), a novel that examined questions of individuality and the collective. Unlike Doctor Zhivago, Dudintsev’s book has been largely forgotten, except as an example of loosened censorship and hope during Khrushchev’s thaw.

Unfortunately, Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until perestroika. Russian-language editions were available in the West in two forms: regular-sized books or tiny paperbacks that were easy to sneak into the USSR in a pocket. I bought the miniature version because the standard book was much more expensive.

Here's what I wrote for a Soviet fiction workshop last year about Not by Bread Alone:
Vladimir Dudintsev’s Not By Bread Alone is a somewhat peculiar book because of its historical time, the Khrushchev thaw. With a production novel structure and a hero battling to do what he feels is right to produce a better pipe-pouring machine that will help Soviet industry, the novel almost feels socialist realist. The twist is that the hero, Lopatkin, is an inventor who is reviled and called egotistical by a group of government bureaucrats and scientists. Government bureaucracy – not capitalist wreckers -- is the villain here.

The novel, written in 1956, was controversial when published in a literary journal, and my take is that it’s most important for the fact of being published, not its literary merit. The ado about the book was so strong that Dudintsev was condemned at a writers’ union meeting, whereupon he fainted. If you have read a socialist realist novel or two before this book, you’ll understand the book’s significance. As a novel, however, Not By Bread Alone is far from great. Much of what happens is predictable, and the characters are not all very developed, despite the book’s length. Some literary devices are painfully obvious and awkwardly handled: naming a character Надежда
(Hope), comparing the inventor to Christ, etc. The book reads easily because the inventor and love subplots interrupt each other, but it feels too long.
Books mentioned in this post:

Doctor Zhivago Not by Bread Alone by Vladimir Dudintsev

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