Wednesday, 9 February 2011

[017] Doctor Zhivago - Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

"On they went singing 'Eternal Memory', and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing..."

Doctor Zhivago is the epic novel of Russia in the throes of revolution and one of the greatest love stories ever told. Yuri Zhivago, physician and poet, wrestles with the new order and confronts the changes cruel experience has made in him and the anguish of being torn between the love of two women.

Why I Picked It Up:

Yet another misguided attempt to better myself by reading the classics.

What I Think:

Personally, I feel like I deserve some kind of special accolade for having read all of Doctor Zhivago. The entirety of the novel feels like you're reading a "classic." It revolves around Yuri Zhivago, true, but it encompasses eras of Russian history, from the Tsarist beginnings of the early 1900s to the end of the 1940s and World War II. Because of the scope of the novel, it makes it incredibly difficult to read for many different reasons.

The first reason is, to be quite honest, my own ignorance of early twentieth century Russian history. Of course, Pasternak lived through everything he described in the novel and there is an assumed sense that you know what the current regulations are, who each of the various fighting armies or militias are, and indeed, even what the year is. I always thought I knew a bit about Russian history but this novel has opened my eyes to the fact that everything I know about said history is from popular movies that I have watched and clearly that is not enough. 

The secondary reason this book is nearly impossible is Russian names. In the edition I read, the page after the table of contents is a page devoted to "Principle Characters in the Novel" with a name division of three columns: "surname", "name and patronymic" and "diminutive". Any character can be called by any three of those names. Our main character is referred to as Zhivago, Yury Andreyevich, Yura, or Yuri. At least most of his start with "Yu" so you can figure it out. Other main characters are fairly easy. But where it gets hard is with all the secondary characters which leads us to our third reason.

There are so many secondary characters and Pasternak expects you to remember every single one of them. Despite the list after the contents, there are still at least ten or so characters that the author clearly expects you to recognize immediately but usually just leave you with that strange 'I know I should be making a connection' feeling in the back of your head. Pasternak is obviously trying to make a theme of connectedness and fate with the way characters appear in and out, hundreds of pages apart but it is ultimately just frustrating. What you actually need to read this novel is a constantly updating chart with names, references and maybe even page numbers. 

Getting past all these details, there is still the plot itself. The cover of my edition tells me that this is "one of the greatest love stories ever told." I am annoyed with this. The way love is portrayed in this novel is the way all old fashioned, epic love stories tend to make it: the main characters meet and despite the reader never actually seeing them fall in love, they somehow fall into that state and then are passionately and painfully in love. It's tiring, especially as it seems to come from nowhere and catches both of our "destined" lovers in adulterous affairs.

What really annoys me about Lara and Yury's deep and powerful love is that they are both obviously still in love with their respectful partners, despite also having an all-consuming love for each other. I understand the way the author tries to justify their love by showing how their spouses came out of childhood views of responsibility but the two of them clearly still feel for their significant others. They're also both parents and Lara, in particular, seems to be leaving a bad impression for her daughter, Katya. 

And beyond all of that, towards the end of the novel, Yury takes on a third relationship with a girl named Marina and has children with her. Tonya and Lara are vaguely understandable as a dutiful love versus a passionate love but to bring in a third girl? I was slightly offended, to be honest. 

I'm not even going to get into the strange Biblical undertones that come out of nowhere sometimes and the forty pages of poems ostensibly written by Zhivago in the back of the book. Suffice it to say, I tend to dislike poems and these did not change my mind. 

All in all, the novel definitely felt like an epic but keeps a distance from the reader that is nigh impossible to bridge. Read it if you fancy an intellectual exercise but I don't know if you'd really want to read it for pleasure. I definitely wouldn't again. 


  1. Russian Literature usually is very epic and dense with everything. I have really never read Russian Literature, nor do I plan to. Good job though in sticking with it.
    I've heard the movie is epic. I'm not sure if it's good. Oddly enough, it's one of my dad's favorites.

  2. Everyone keeps saying the movie is amazing. I've certainly head 'Lara's Theme' enough times in my life. To be honest, though, I get the feeling I'd just be annoyed the whole time, thinking about this book.