Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – A Review
Pasternak’s own story surrounding the writing of this novel, his winning the Nobel after the manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in Italy, and the consequences that ensued and led to his inglorious death a couple years later, it reflects the fictional life of Dr. Zhivago, and is more attractive than the novel.
This is a difficult novel to follow, because although Pasternak was a celebrated poet and translator, he seems to have been a fairly amateur novelist. Otherwise, this book was written in chunks over a long period without continuity checks, or pages were lost in the translation, or the translators tried too hard to translate the original Russian into English and failed. The result is a mix of characters and points of view that deviate even to minor characters that disappear soon after, and naming conventions that defy understanding: Lara is known alternately as Lara, Larochka, Larissa Fyodorovna, Raissa Komarova, Antipova, and Strelnikova. ; and when he transposes that into the myriad of others with variations of his name, first name and patronymic, surname, nickname, pseudonym, etc., it becomes a great labyrinth. The descriptions of the landscape during war and peace and of the seasons are well interpreted from the poetic stance of the author, but the plot is often artificial and the dialogue amounts to forced speeches lasting for paragraphs, often by the same speaker . The much-acclaimed romance between Zhivago and Lara, which was so evocatively highlighted in the film and in its main theme, is limited to a few short pages, again concerned with the other’s political stance rather than emotional. There are more feelings expressed in their loss in parting than in being together.
The story span begins with the dispersal of Zhivago, his family and his privileged upper-middle-class associates from Moscow with the onset of World War I, follows his travels to the Urals and Siberia during the time of the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed. between 1917-22, it traces the return of the good doctor to Moscow at the culmination of that turbulent period, and concludes with the end of his impoverished life in that city eight years later. There is also an extended epilogue during WWII, when two of his colleagues attempt to rebuild the Zhivago diaspora. During this period, the characters cross each other in different circumstances in a random way; lives change and loves are lost due to the greater possibility of incidents. In one such incident, Zhivago, who is on a surreptitious visit to his lover Lara, is kidnapped by Red soldiers to serve as a medic on the Siberian front and never sees his official family again. Contribution or real life?
The strength of this novel – yes, despite its flaws there is great strength – lies in the fact that it was written by a writer who lived and witnessed the period of the Russian revolution and the civil war, without the stain of the propaganda that symbolized the Soviet era. . Pasternak is outspoken in portraying the White Russians and the Bolsheviks as equally guilty of patronage, corruption, and cruelty. Zhivago’s (and Pasternak) own political stance is revealed when he says: “I used to be in a very revolutionary mood, but now I believe that we will gain nothing from violence. People should be drawn to the good for the good.” The other powerful force in this book is her symbolism: Lara is the incarnation of Mother Russia, corrupted at a young age by her mother’s lover, Komarowsky, of the ruling class, and then abandoned by her idealistic and revolutionary husband Antipov and of her beloved man. of science and art, Dr. Zhivago. Lara regrets that she is left with a reinvented Komarowsky, “a monster of mediocrity.”
Historical notes help to marry fictional events with real life settings. I wish there had been a glossary of names as well. And the poetry of Zhivago (Pasternak) in the end reveals much of the character of the doctor and his spiritual development in this crucible of devastation that was in the early years of the Soviet empire, much more than what appears in the novel itself.