Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Book Review - Classics - Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is a big book, not so much in length as it is in scope and theme. Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, beginning with the uprising in 1905, and continuing through the Civil War of 1918-1923 and the foundation of the Soviet Union, Doctor Zhivago is, primarily, a character driven novel, one whose subjects live intense, interweaving lives, often lives of great difficulty, as the events of the early twentieth century play out. At the heart of the book, of course, is its eponymous hero, Dr. Yuri Zhivago and his quest to simply live life and to love.
Women play a huge role in Yuri Zhivago’s life, beginning with his own mother, but it seems Yuri Zhivago was a man destined to live life with no one woman being the constant for which he yearned. If you’ve seen the movie, and I think most readers of the book will have, then you know Zhivago the man is torn between his love for his wife, Tonya and his love for his lover, Lara, who just happens to be married to, and love, the radical left-wing leader, Pasha Antipov. This rich book isn’t a book “about” the Russian Revolution, nor is it a book “about” a love triangle, or quadrangle. It’s a book about the quest for a meaningful life during times when one’s every action was controlled by the government, a government that was anything by sympathetic to the individual.
While Doctor Zhivago isn’t “about” the Russian Revolution (the major battles aren’t even mentioned), Russia and the revolution both act as characters in the book and their presence is always felt. Pasternak seemed to be exploring what it meant to be a Russian during this period in history. How it felt to try to carve out a life when one really wasn’t free to do so. Individualism, of course, was frowned upon, but Yuri Zhivago is one person who’s determined to retain his individuality at any cost.
While many readers are going to love this book, I think others will find themselves bogged down by its many details. Certainly those readers who enjoy primarily plot driven novels are going to be frustrated by the dreamy Doctor Zhivago. For the most part, I loved the book, but then I am attracted more to character driven novels than plot driven ones.
I ‘m sure I missed quite a lot of the symbolism in the book, though I had read about it prior to reading the novel, and I was even on the lookout for it. I’ve read that Pasternak looked to Symbolism, the dominant literary mode in Russia at the time of the writing of this novel, to express Yuri Zhivago’s complex thoughts and ideals, which are, at almost all times, quite lofty. British scholar, Angela Livingstone, writes about the symbolism of a seemingly minor scene depicting the coming of spring. In this scene, the branches of budding apple trees “miraculously” reach “over the fences into the streets” and are symbolic of the “bridging and linking” of places and communities in society. I have to admit, that escaped me. I thought it was simply a beautiful depiction of the arrival of spring. I am sure I missed many more symbolic references, although the major ones were clear. I wish, though, that I would have been able to catch all the allusions and all the symbolism.
I should point out that I most recently read the “new” Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago. Previously, I had read the older Hayward and Harari translation. I especially love the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina, so I really looked forward to their translation of Doctor Zhivago. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have both said that this book has been their most challenging translation to date, more challenging even than Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. And Pasternak, himself, said that Hayward and Harari didn’t get it quite right.
I don’t read Russian, so I can’t really express an opinion on that except to say that I loved this book and was thoroughly caught up in the lives of its characters. Pevear and Volokhonsky aim to help today’s readers “read the novel in a new way, to see more clearly the universality of the image that Pasternak held up against the deadly fiction of his time.” But can the image of the immensely talented and poetic Yuri Zhivago ever be universal? I’m not sure. He was very different from most men.
I think, rather than seeing Zhivago as representative of “all men,” it’s easier to see him as representative of the “Silver Age of Russia.” The “Silver Age” refers to the artistic movements of the tumultuous years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Russia, and yes, one of the movements embraced by poets was Symbolism.
And there are clearly autobiographical elements in Doctor Zhivago as well, though the book is not at all an autobiography of Pasternak.
So if Doctor Zhivago isn’t “about” the Russian Revolution, and it isn’t autobiographical, what is it?. The root for Zhivago’s name is the word zhiv, which means “life” or “living.” One scene that clearly points out Zhivago’s individuality is the one in which he’s explaining to Lara why he (Zhivago) does not follow Marxist ideology:
The revolution broke out involuntarily, like breath held for too long. Everyone revived, was reborn, in everyone there are transformations, upheavals. You might say that everyone went through two revolutions, one his own, personal, the other general. It seems to me that socialism is a sea into which all these personal, separate revolutions should flow, the sea of life, the sea of originality. The sea of life, I said, the life that can be seen in paintings, life touched by genius, life creatively enriched. But now people have decided to test it, not in books, but in themselves, not in abstraction, but in practice.
Zhivago’s individualism stands out in sharp contrast to the conformity of the Bolsheviks. Zhivago questions his smallest acts from the perspective of conscience, while left-wing leaders like Pasha Antipov, who recasts himself as “Strelnikov,” or “Shooter,” kill, even women and children, without a second thought.
While the Bolsheviks justify their actions with the promise of a classless future in which all will be treated as equals, Yuri Zhivago is consumed with the passion of living in the here and now. He revels in physical toil, but he gives no thought to what Communism might bring. Instead, says Yuri Zhivago, he seeks “a new form of communion, conceived in the heart and known as the Kingdom of God,” where “there are no peoples, there are persons.” Individuality. That’s what Doctor Yuri Zhivago is all about.
The bottom line is the fact that Doctor Zhivago, in whichever translation you choose to read, has stood the test of time. In fact, this timeless masterpiece only grows better with the passing years. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have shown us that Doctor Zhivago is a living work of art, not a dated text from some bygone era. These two dedicated and immensely talented translators have exposed the deep, inner truths Pasternak sought to convey. They’ve made it possible for all readers to know that Pasternak is speaking to them, too, when Yuri Zhivago says to Lara: “Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. And life itself, the phenomenon of life, the gift of life, is so thrillingly serious!”
Recommended: Of course. This is a timeless masterpiece, and the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation brings new riches to the English speaking reader. Not to be missed.