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Book Review – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – 4 1/2 Stars


Book Cover of Doctor Zhivago

Book Cover of Doctor Zhivago

I read the 1958 translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari of Doctor Zhivago, written in Russian, by Boris Pasternak. Amazingly I have never seen the film of Doctor Zhivago but I remember listening to twin sister friends from school who would quote lines from the film. Their father was Polish and for some reason I assumed that the story was set in Poland. It wasn’t until I spoke to a colleague about Russian writers and he asked if I’d read Doctor Zhivago that I learned it is quintessentially Russian. We were on a 3 day work trip and we spent a 4 hour flight engrossed in enjoyable discussion of literature. Neither of us had read Doctor Zhivago and we decided that we should both read it. That was 18 months ago and I eventually bought my weathered copy from a 2nd hand book fair for $2.

The novel, Doctor Zhivago, follows the Russian revolution giving the reader an unsettlingly in-depth account of the horrors and deprivations of this long and tumultuous time, starting in the heady pre-revolution days of political idealism of 1903 and ending after much disenchantment and remodelling in post WWII communism in 1953. The main parts of the novel are set in pre-revolution and later communist Moscow and war-torn Eastern Russia. Characters introduced early in the novel continue to pop up throughout the novel, I read the novel over a 3 month period (and many other books in between) so it was difficult for me to remember the implications of different characters re-emerging and I’m sure that I would have missed some important aspects because of that.

Pasternak was the first writer of the Soviet regime who dared convey the truth about Russia’s recent history. In the space of 40 years the Russians of his generation suffered two world wars; three revolutions; civil war and famine; the disasters of collectivisation and famine; the purges of the intelligentsia, the military, the Soviet political elite and the kulaks. Starvation, cannibalism, murder, reprisals, legitimised slaughter – nothing is glossed over in the novel’s unflinching particularity. Source: link

Sitting in a traffic jam last week a colleague pointed to my book and said that he’s seen the film 12 times! I asked what the film is about, wondering whether the intricacies of the revolution and civil war are dealt with in as much detail as in the book. He said that the politics are important themes but for him it is a love story. Amidst all of the details of the political situation over the 50 years that Pasternak presents, the reader is rewarded by a burgeoning love affair between the protagonist Dr. Yury Zhivago and the complex character of Lara Antipova. By the time that they meet, both are married with children and devoted to their spouses and children and this leads to the angst that punctuates their love story.

At the start of the novel Yury is an orphaned boy and as he grows under the guardianship of his uncle Kolya, a great thinker and writer, he realises the need for change in Russia. However as the revolution takes shape he becomes disenchanted with the rhetoric and contradictions of the bureaucracy. Scattered throughout the novel are interactions between Yury and politically passionate leaders of various key groups. I suppose that Pasternak uses Yury as a vehicle to express his disillusionment with the way that the reforms were imposed and the deprivations that the population experienced as a result. I found Yury to be a likeable character who thinks deeply, is driven to do rather than simply observe and be idle, and I think that I would enjoy a friendship with a person such as Yury.

Yury has three love affairs and children with all three women, all while still married to his wife Tonya. I think it’s interesting that over a relatively short period of time, about 3 years, his hesitations about starting an affair with Lara disappear and he enthusiastically embarks on a grand but very brief love affair with Lara who he loves deeply. It’s also interesting that when he was sunk in depression after losing touch with Lara and Tonya he embarks on a new love affair with the daughter (Marina) of his former servant (Markel). In the case of Tonya and Lara, the reader knows of Yury’s deep feelings of love and devotion but in this final love affair we know that Marina is devoted to Yury but there is no indication to the reader of Yury’s feelings.

Towards the end of his life Yury was struggling with depression and ill health. Following a conversation with his friends from school he has a change of heart and decides to lift himself from his depression and really live again. This passage resonated with me and the way that I feel about life:

I have an indescribable, passionate desire to live, and living of course means struggling, going further, striving for perfection and achieving it.

At a reunion party after Yury returned to Moscow and (as someone on a grain-free diet) I liked this comment about the necessity of bread to complete a meal:

The large duck was an unheard of luxury in those hungry days, but there was no bread to go with it, and because of this its splendour was somehow pointless – it was even a little disagreeable.

As I walked through the Botanic Gardens in Rio and saw many heavily pregnant women smiling and posing for photographs I reflected on the passage in Doctor Zhivago when Yury thinks of his heavily pregnant wife as someone who has lost control of her body. He isn’t very positive and certainly doesn’t talk about her glowing or any of the terms used nowadays in writing about expectant mothers. There really has been a change in perception since the 1950’s when a woman still had a confinement compared to now when she can proudly bare her distended stomach in public.

This review in the Guardian talks of the danger that Pasternak faced in speaking out against Stalin’s regime:

From his schooldays, Pasternak tells us, Yury Zhivago had dreamed of writing “a book of impressions of life in which he would conceal, like sticks of dynamite, the most striking things he had so far seen”. Doctor Zhivago was that book. It was packed with dynamite and, as Pasternak expected, it blew up in his face.

Normally I skip over the introduction to books in the fear that it will reveal something about the story but in this case I read the Translators’ Note before embarking on the novel. I wish that I hadn’t because the translators lament that they have not done justice to the writing in their haste to make an English translation available to the reading public. As a result as I read I often felt concerned that I was missing out on the beautiful use of language that typifies excellent Russian writers and I was disappointed with myself for not seeking out a better translation. Lolita is exquisitely written but in the edition that I read Nabokov laments his lack of mastery of the English language which he finds unable to adequately express his thoughts compared to his native Russian.

From the Translators’ Note:

Pasternak’s prose has astonishing power, subtlety and range. While always remaining simple and colloquial, it is exceptionally rich and poetic. Indeed, he makes use of sound and word association in the manner of a poet of genius. His language has a vitality which must be rare in the literature of any country and is perhaps unique in that of Russia. Needless to say, these very qualities face the translators with difficulties which are almost insurmountable, and we have no illusions that we have done justice, even remotely, to the original.

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One comment on “Book Review – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – 4 1/2 Stars

  1. Pingback: Book Review – In Cuba I was a German Shepherd – 2 1/2 stars | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on June 12, 2014 by in fiction and tagged , , , , , , .
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