Yuri Krotkov

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Gilberto Perez

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Rather than a novel, I wish the author [of The Nobel Prize], Yuri Krotkov, had written a memoir on this subject which he knew at first hand, as a leading literary figure in Soviet Russia at the time and an insider to political circles…. Much of the detail I have no doubt is authentic: the houses and habits of life of Pasternak and Khrushchev, for example, I assume were as Krotkov describes them. Often he clearly departs from what he could have witnessed or reliably learned, but I'm willing to grant him this novelist's prerogative so long as he exercises it to good effect. Sometimes he does, as in the story he tells about the Khrushchevs's reading of Doctor Zhivago. The Soviet premier didn't bother to read the novel whose author he decided must be threatened, vilified, coerced by any means to renounce the Nobel Prize. Instead he had it read by Nina, who liked it, thought it too esoteric anyway to have much effect on the masses, and recommended that it be allowed to circulate: an opinion her husband peremptorily disregarded at the time—but came to agree with years later, when Nikita got to reading the book after Pasternak's death and his own deposition from power. Whether or not all this is true—and that last part especially is surely outside the province of Krotkov's knowledge—it seems in character with Nina and Nikita, and makes a nice novelistic irony. The Nobel Prize is Tolstoyan in at least one way: in the omniscience the author assumes toward his characters, feeling free to let us into any scene that suits his purposes. There would be nothing wrong with this procedure, however it may distort the facts, if Krotkov could make it work for him; but most of the time he cannot.

Unlike other recent novelists who have treated factual material as if it were of their own creation … Krotkov strictly adopts the convention of realism: he asks us to accept all the things he depicts in his novel as being, not necessarily true, but probable, verisimilar. Although he doesn't seem aware of it, he set for himself a peculiarly difficult task: more than the semblance of truth we expect in any realistic novel, he must give us, in his exclusively factual context, something we can accept as if it were the truth itself. That task is easier with the Khrushchevs, secondary characters in the book and simpler, in any case, than the great poet he has chosen for his central figure, whom he must portray in full detail and invest with the complexity of the real Boris Pasternak. Krotkov's novel would no doubt pass muster by the standards of "socialist realism"—having repudiated the content, he still embraces the form—but as realism it fails to convince, and fails utterly with Pasternak, whatever attendant accuracies it supplies. Not for a moment could I believe in this stilted, incantatory Pasternak, meant to be high-minded but actually appearing simple-minded, forever engaging in contrived, grandiose discussions with his greedy mistress or his scientist son or a party henchman improbably sharing a room with the poet at the Kremlin Hospital…. The rounded portrayal Krotkov attempts would tax the talents of far better writers than he; they, however, would have known to proceed with caution into the regions over which he blithely assumes command. (pp. 584-86)

Gilberto Perez, "These Days in the Holocene," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Winter, 1980–81, pp. 575-88.∗

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D. M. Thomas