Book Review: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

I can’t remember the recent thought processes that caused me to desire to read Doctor Zhivago now, after all this time. The David Lean film was very important to me as a young teen. I saw it multiple times in the theater and more times on TV. I was utterly enthralled by the cinematography, the music, the story, the historical background, and the performances. It meant something different back then during the Cold War era than it does now. It had relevance; it was a hot topic. The novel was rejected in Russia and was first published in 1957 in Italy. In 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but Soviet backlash forced him to refuse the honor. In an article published in the Paris Review in December 2017, shortly before her death, Ursula K. Le Guin writes with admiration that a prize for refusing major awards should have been named the Boris Pasternak Prize in honor of this deed.

I had had a copy of the novel Doctor Zhivago when I was young, but the length and style daunted me and I never got around to reading it. I had been thinking about watching the film again, as certain scenes accompanied by the music had been playing in my mind, but decided to wait until my son arrives from the east coast in a month or so to join me. Reading the novel, I suppose, was a prelude to this event.

Once the decision was made, I had to choose which translation to go for. There are two major translations, both of which are applauded and criticized. From my research I found out that the early original translation flowed better but did not follow every nuance of the original Russian so closely. The newer translation was more meticulous but as a result much harder to follow. I decided to go for the older easier translation; I didn’t want to hamstring myself with a text that might not make sense in the literal rendering. Unfortunately, our local library system had many copies of the newer translation but only one 800-page large print edition of the older one. This version turned out to be rife with typographical errors; it was almost as if whoever was responsible didn’t bother to check the text at all. Nevertheless, I was able to ignore these as I read.

To be honest, the book starts slowly. I was about 300 pages or so in before it began to get interesting. The story begins with Zhivago as a boy witnessing his mother’s funeral. It follows his life as a young man as well as the background of Lara, his eventual lover, a corrupt lawyer named Komarovsky who torments and abuses Lara, and Pasha, a revolutionary who becomes Lara’s husband. The plot also unfolds around a number of secondary characters whose stories were trimmed from the film version. Zhivago and Lara meet at the front during World War I but remain chaste with each other. During the course of the war the Marxist revolution grows and spreads. The story really becomes interesting and absorbing as Zhivago and his family are forced to flee Moscow and take a long train ride across Russia to Varykino in the Ural Mountains. Zhivago’s father in law has an estate there where they all hope to find peace, but the peace is short-lived. Zhivago reunites with Lara and has an affair with her, but soon afterwards he is abducted by a faction of armies fighting in the countryside and forced to serve as a medical officer. Eventually he escapes, but only after his family has already fled back to Moscow and then to Paris. He and Lara have a brief, heartfelt affair and then are once again separated.

My summary of the plot is hopelessly brief and inadequate. As I mentioned, there are many nuances and subplots. Parts of the novel, for me, were slow and ponderous; others seemed unnecessary; there were moments, though, when Pasternak’s gift of poetry shines through in all its glory. This happens frequently when he describes the colors and landscapes of the cities, towns, and countryside in all seasons.

The glorious highlight of the book is when Zhivago, Lara, and Lara’s daughter go and live for a short time in an abandoned house in Varykino in the dead of winter. The town is deserted. They are all alone and isolated. They know that they have but a short time, as they are in danger of arrest or execution. In the midst of it all, Zhivago finds a pen, ink, and paper, sits down during the late night hours at a desk, and writes poetry. Pasternak’s description of the creative process, of sheer uninhibited abandonment to the writer’s art, is unparalleled, and I found the joy of discovering and reading these few pages worth the time it took to read the entire 800 pages of the book. He writes of Zhivago first putting to paper and revising poems he had already written, and then, as he starts on a new poem, inspiration takes over. As it does, language becomes the receptacle of beauty and meaning and assumes the power of a piece of music or the flow of a mighty river. When this happens, the writer is but a tool of universal thought and the poetry of the present and future. Ah, I don’t do it justice. I’m sure the translation doesn’t do it justice either. This is probably one of those sublime passages that can never be properly read except in the original language.

In short, I enjoyed reading this novel, but some parts were far more evocative than others. And I also highly recommend the film by David Lean, which remains one of my all-time favorite cinematic experiences.

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