Book review: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Posted April 23, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 5 Comments

Book review:  Doctor Zhivago by Boris PasternakDoctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Published by Pantheon on October 2010
Genres: Classic, Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 544
Source: my shelves

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Doctor Zhivago is a Russian Epic novel, set during the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Russian Civil War.  It is the story of Yuri Zhivago, a physician and poet, and the ways in which these two major events in Russian history affected his life.  It is also the love story of Yuri and Larissa (Lara) Fyodorovna, whose lives cross paths twice before Yuri decides to pursue her and eventually choose her over his already established family.

From the inside flap:

First published in Italy in 1957 amid international controversy—the novel was banned in the Soviet Union until 1988, and Pasternak declined the Nobel Prize a year later under intense pressure from Soviet authorities—Doctor Zhivago is the story of the life and loves of a poet-physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.  Taking his family from Moscow to what he hopes will be shelter in the Ural Mountains, Zhivago finds himself instead embroiled in the battle between the Whites and the Reds.  Set against this backdrop of cruelty and strife is Zhivago’s love for the tender and beautiful Lara: pursued, found, and lost again.  Lara is the very embodiment of the pain and chaos of those cataclysmic times.

Sounds kind of depressing, doesn’t it?  Well, it is.  I honestly only know the basics concerning Russia, its history and its politics, but after reading this book I can tell you that being in Russia at the time these things were happening was not very fun at all for the general population.

I’ve seen the film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago a few times, and I love it, but I had never read the book.  When I saw this new translation in hardcover at the bookstore, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to purchase it and give it a read.  The book is much better than the movie—they usually are—but it was also more difficult to understand.  I am not well versed in Russian politics or the particulars of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, so it was a little hard for me to keep track of why particular people were doing what they were doing, or why they were going after the people they were going after.  When I’m reading, I can’t just take things for what they are and move on; I need to understand exactly why things are happening.  So I was constantly getting on the internet and searching for information on Russian politics and the revolutions that were taking place within the time frame of the story.

Now, there are people who have read this edition of Doctor Zhivago who are of the opinion that Pevear and Volokhonsky completely convoluted the story with their translation, making it harder to read than other translations that were printed in the past (you can see an example of this claim here, made by Pasternak’s niece).  But the prose of Doctor Zhivago in the translation I read was one of the things I liked most about the book.  I was never confused by the way the translators decided to word things, and the beautiful descriptions of nature were the very things that made the book so much better than the movie.  Pasternak was very good at giving nature human characteristics, which I just loved.  This is taken from Yuri Zhivago’s journal:

“The first heralds of spring, a thaw.  The air smells of pancakes and vodka, as during the week before Lent, when nature herself seems to rhyme with the calendar.  Somnolent, the sun in the forest narrows its buttery eyes; somnolent, the forest squints through its needles like eyelashes; the puddles at noontime have a buttery gleam.  Nature yawns, stretches herself, rolls over on the other side, and falls asleep again.”

Or here, Pasternak has given the falling snow the characteristics of window coverings, which describes it in such a way that I knew exactly what the people in the story were experiencing:

When they came out from their lane to the Arbat, it was a little lighter.  Falling snow veiled everything down to the ground with its white, billowing curtain, the hanging fringe of which tangled under the walkers’ feet, so that the sensation of movement was lost and it seemed to them that they were marching in place.

I would never have had the pleasure of Pasternak’s wonderful, poetic descriptions had I never read the book.  A movie could never convey these things.

One thing I found interesting about myself while reading Doctor Zhivago was how much my opinion of Yuri Zhivago changed from the movie to the book.  It could be that I have some kind of illogical, sentimental feeling for the movie because I first watched it as a teenager, when love stories will be blown all out of proportion by teenaged hormones.  I haven’t seen the movie in some time, but I’m pretty sure my heart ached for Yuri and Lara; I felt like the world was against them and after all they had been through, they deserved to be together, darn it!  Their story is very much that of a Shakespearian tragedy (which makes sense once you know that Pasternak spent much of his life translating Shakespeare into Russian).  While reading the book, however, I found myself disliking Yuri more and more.  His relationship with Lara really is a load of you-know-what.  Here he is, with a family that loves him and probably misses him terribly while he is away being a medic for the army during the revolution, and he completely brushes them aside to be with Lara, who also has a husband and a daughter.  What the heck?  I got the sense that Yuri’s wife was more like a mother figure to him–since his own mother died when he was very young and he never knew his father–and Lara was more his companion in love.  But still, he does a whole lot of talking about how it is his duty to return to his family and take care of them, but he sure doesn’t take a whole lot of action to try to get back to them.  And Lara just perpetuates this awful behavior, naturally.  I’m all about true love and a person being able to be with the one who makes them happiest, but I also think he should have done the right thing for his family.  I was grumbling at him throughout almost the entire book.

Doctor Zhivago is also a book of Pasternak’s ideas about religion, politics and art, all spoken through the voice of Yuri Zhivago.  It is about Yuri finding a voice for his poetry, and Lara turning out to be not only the love of his life, but also his muse.  Maybe this is why he has really fallen so hard for her.  Maybe it is more about his art and less about the woman.  I’m not sure.  But I found his ideas on religion and politics quite interesting, and his poetry is beautiful.  Mother Russia also takes center stage in the book, in all of her dictatorial awfulness, with her harsh Russian winters and epic scenery.

I would recommend Doctor Zhivago to people who like to read classic literature, to people who are interested in the history of Russia and its revolutions, or to people who have seen the movie but have not yet read the book.  In light of reading about more than one person being dissatisfied by the particular translation I have reviewed here, you may want to start by reading the translation done by Max Hayward and Manya Harari.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and comparing it to what I had already seen in the movie, and I will probably be reading it again in the future to see if I can get a better grasp of the politics behind everything that was going on in Russia at that time.  Who knows, maybe when I read it again I’ll have more sympathy for Yuri and Lara, but I’m not counting on it.

(This edition was translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky.)

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(Click here to learn more about Boris Pasternak)

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  • Milene

    I DO need to read this book; the movie has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it as a teenager. I, too, was influenced by the romance between Yuri and Lara when I was younger. Even not having read the book yet, though, I came to realize over time that Tonya was the true hero of the story.

    • You’re right, Tonya really was the true hero. She did the majority of the grunt work for the many times her family had to move, she held things down while her husband was away, and she was willing to let Yuri go off with Lara without any regrets or hard feelings. She was a tough woman.

  • So if you ever reread it, definitely check out the Kindle version (with the same cover). It had an amazing set of endnotes about all the little things I would’ve wanted to know more about (some were lacking and I had to do more research), plus you click at the end of the sentence and voila there it is!

    I agree with you about the language, clearly! I think it’s funny you pulled the spring passage and I pulled the fall when that’s when we were writing our responses to it!

    • This is actually the edition I own, but in hardcover. I’m pretty sure the hardcover has endnotes, too, but I ended up having to look a bunch of stuff up to really understand it.

      Wow–I didn’t even notice the passages we chose correspond to the seasons during which we were writing our posts. Hahaha! That’s awesome.

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