Archive for the ‘Boris Pasternak’ Category

Originally published June 9, 2014

Title: Dr. Zhivago
Author: Boris Pasternak
Published in 1957

Summary from Goodreads: “Boris Pasternak’s widely acclaimed novel comes gloriously to life in a magnificent new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the award-winning translators of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and to whom, The New York Review of Books declared, “the English-speaking world is indebted.”

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.

Stunningly rendered in the spirit of Pasternak’s original—resurrecting his style, rhythms, voicings, and tone—and including an introduction, textual annotations, and a translators’ note, this edition of Doctor Zhivago is destined to become the definitive English translation of our time.”

Book I:

Doctor Zhivago is a complex novel that begins in 1905, when the title character, Yuri, is ten years old. The first scene involves with the funeral of his mother. This event means that he will be raised as an orphan, as his father is, at first, absent, and later, has committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train.

Thus, in disorder and amidst perpetual riddles, Yura spent his childhood, often in the hands of strangers, who changed all the time. He became used to these changes, and in this situation of eternal incoherence his father’s absence did not surprise him.

The first part of Doctor Zhivago deals primarily with the events leading up to the October Revolution, and the flight of Yuri’s family from Moscow. The events related to Yuri are intertwined with the second narrative focus, which concerns Larissa (Lara). Both Yuri and Lara are fatherless, living in a time of great instability. They are the two minor players on the great stage of Russia, and the Russian revolution, and Pasternak uses them to demonstrate the effects of the revolution on relatively ordinary young people.

Doctor Zhivago is a quintessentially Russian novel – and is a novel in which Russia herself is a character. Pasternak himself is a poet, and he wields words with precision and beauty. Much of the novel focuses the attention of the reader on minute details to show the beauty that he is trying to convey, like this description of a traditional Russian Christmas:

The frosted-over windows of houses, lit from inside, resembled precious caskets of laminated smoky topaz. Behind them glowed Moscow’s Christmas life, candles burned on trees, guests crowded, and clowning mummers played at hide-and-seek and pass-the-ring. It suddenly occurred to Yura that Blok was the manifestation of Christmas in all domains of Russian life, in the daily life of the northern city and in the new literature, under the starry sky of the contemporary street and around the lighted Christmas tree in a drawing room of the present century. It occurred to him that no article about Blok was needed, but one needed simply to portray a Russian adoration of the Magi, like the Dutch masters, with frost, wolves, and a dark fir forest.

or to depict a character with delicacy and care, like this description of Tonya, Yuri’s wife:

Yura stood absentmindedly in the middle of the ballroom and looked at Tonya, who was dancing with someone he did not know. Gliding past Yura, Tonya tossed aside the small train of her too-long satin dress with a movement of her foot and, splashing it like a fish, disappeared into the crowd of dancers. She was very excited. During the break, when they sat in the dining room, Tonya refused tea and quenched her thirst with mandarines, which she peeled in great number from their fragrant, easily separated skins. She kept taking from behind her sash or from her little sleeve a cambric handkerchief, tiny as a fruit tree blossom, and wiping the trickles of sweat at the edges of her lips and between her sticky fingers. Laughing and not interrupting the animated conversation, she mechanically tucked it back behind her sash or the frills of her bodice.

The lives of Yuri and Lara are intertwined, like the twin strands of DNA, Sometimes separated, sometimes twisted together. They see one another as if at a distance several times when they are young, Yuri constantly aware of her. She is involved, Lolita-like, in a frankly abusive relationship with a much older man, the lawyer Komarovsky, and he exploits her until, unable to cope with the pressure and humiliation of her sexual subjugation, she tries to shoot Komarovsky.

Yuri becomes a doctor, and marries Tonya. Lara becomes a nurse, and marries Pasha Antipov. The revolution sweeps them up and tosses them like so much flotsam:

Just think what a time it is now! And you and I are living in these days! Only once in eternity do such unprecedented things happen. Think: the roof over the whole of Russia has been torn off, and we and all the people find ourselves under the open sky. And there’s nobody to spy on us. Freedom! Real, not just in words and demands, but fallen from the sky, beyond all expectation. Freedom by inadvertence, by misunderstanding. “And how perplexedly enormous everyone is! Have you noticed? As if each of them is crushed by himself, by the revelation of his own heroic might.

Doctor Zhivago relies extensively on coincidence – characters run into one another constantly, which, because given the size of Russia, seems unlikely. But Pasternak is moving his characters around like chess pieces because he has something he wants to say and he needs them in places together at various times to be able to say it.

Book I ends with all four of the primary characters leaving Moscow, with the Zhivago’s in a very long train ride to Yuriatin, the location of Tonya’s old family estate. Lara is already in Yuriatin, and Pasha has left her to become a participant in the Revolution.

Book II

The train that had brought the Zhivago family to this place still stood on the back tracks of the station, screened by other trains, but there was a feeling that the connection with Moscow, which had stretched over the whole journey, had broken, had ended that morning.

So, we’ve left Moscow and travelled across Russia with the Zhivago family to begin again. Having read this book immediately prior to beginning my Great War read, I am struck by the narrow focus of Doctor Zhivago. It plays out across this grand stage of the Russian revolution, but at its heart, it is the story of one insignificant man. There is scarcely a mention of Lenin in the entire book. The great figures and battles of the revolution are absent – they are engaged in their great acts somewhere else, in the heart of Russia. This is a story of a revolution, and of a war, but it is the story of the minute impact of the war on one man. The reader is completely unaware that World War I is happening elsewhere on the great stage of history during this story. This makes the story feel almost claustrophobic, like we are Zhivago, living with bits and snatches of information but very little real understanding of what is going on out there. How is the war progressing? Who is winning? Who is losing? When will it end?

This is a really unique perspective, and one that I found thought-provoking. In wartime, communications aren’t always reliable, and the people in the middle of war often aren’t able to access legitimate, accurate information about what is actually going on – but this is difficult to convey in fiction. Doctor Zhivago effectively immersed me in the Russian revolution because it wasn’t written with a hindsight is 20/20 approach. Zhivago is conscripted into service (abducted, really) and spends month without a clue about his family, about how the war is going, about what has happened to Lara.

And I want to talk about Lara. The relationship between Yuri and Lara was problematic for me, and not just because they were both married. I am not a fan of cheaters, even if they are involved in an star-crossed, epic love story. It undermines their moral authority.

But I also struggled with Pasternak’s treatment of Lara, and the way that she was constantly tossed from male character to male character as though she was some sort of a toy that the manliest Russian man got to take home. I hated Komarovsky (and we’re supposed to hate him. He’s a rapist, notwithstanding his claim that he isn’t). Pasha was weak and pathetic until he turned into a monster because his wife made him feel inadequate. And Yuri chose a wife and chose a family and benefited from those choices, and it was really pretty crappy of him to abandon Tonya and his son because hot sex with the Russian earth mother.

Not to absolve Lara. She was allegedly friends with Tonya. I feel like the “romance” cheapened both of the characters. It’s self-indulgent to absolve oneself of the burden of infidelity by claiming that you have an all-consuming, irresistible passion for someone other than your spouse. Even in wartime. And Lara could have been a fantastic character – a bright and ambitious woman who pulled herself out of the most pernicious servitude by sheer force of will, she went to school, became first a teacher and then a nurse. That’s some pretty amazing stuff, but it gets lost in the narrative of Lara is so hot and sexy and men fall all over themselves to possess her.

One of the things that I unequivocally loved about the book, though, was Pasternak’s language. He is a poet, and some of the passages are achingly beautiful. A few examples:

Big stars like blue mica lamps hang in the forest among the branches. The whole sky is strewn with little stars like a summer meadow with chamomile.

Winter had long since come. It was freezing cold. Torn-up sounds and forms appeared with no evident connection from the frosty mist, stood, moved, vanished. Not the sun we are accustomed to on earth, but the crimson ball of some other substitute sun hung in the forest. From it, strainedly and slowly, as in a dream or a fairy tale, rays of amber yellow light, thick as honey, spread and on their way congealed in the air and froze to the trees.

The ashen softness of the expanses quickly sank into the lilac twilight, which was turning more and more purple. Their gray mist merged with the fine, lacy handwriting of the birches along the road, tenderly traced against the pale pink of the sky, suddenly grown shallow.

Ultimately, I enjoyed a lot of things about this book. It was frequently a tough read, though, and I feel that I would have enjoyed it more, and understood it better, if I had had more context for the Russian revolution while I was reading it. It is not an easy read, but is worth the trouble.

A note on the translation: I read the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation. I am assured by friends who are more knowledgeable about translations that this is not the best translation to read, that the Hayward translation is preferable. I did notice that the experience of reading Doctor Zhivago was curiously distant, almost arms-length, and I wonder if that is because of the translation.

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