Thursday, April 17, 2008

Back to Classics: "Doctor Zhivago"

Любовь к жизни, чуткость к её голосу, доверие к её неискаженным проявлениям – первейшая забота автора.
Love for life, sensitivity to its voice, trust in its undistorted manifestations – these are the author’s foremost concern.

–Evgenii Pasternak about his father’s Doctor Zhivago, in an introduction to a Russian edition of the novel.

The Book: Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago)

The Writer: Boris Pasternak

Dates: Written in the 1940s and 1950s; publication in the USSR was refused in 1958, the year Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for literature. (A previous, related post.)

Why it’s important: Doctor Zhivago looks at the life of the intelligentsia before, during, and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was banned in Russia until the Gorbachev era, primarily because the title character did not support the revolution.

Criticism: A Critical Companion by Edith W. Clowes. Letter to Boris Pasternak from the Editorial Board of Novy Mir (in Russian); this highly political letter is published in an appendix of Edward Crankshaw’s Khrushchev’s Russia. Writers in Russia 1917-1978, by Max Hayward, a co-translator of Zhivago, contains interesting observations about the book. Original New York Times book review by Marc Slonim (Sept. 7, 1958). (PDF, paid unless subscriber.)

IMVHO: I read Zhivago multiple times – six, seven? – in grad school, gathering references to light and darkness so I could write a paper. I loved the book as a literary puzzle: What was the significance of the rowan tree? How did mechanical and biological metaphors compare? How did Biblical references enhance Lara’s character? And then there were trains and the Apocalypse…

These and other motifs, along with the novel’s banning in the USSR, made the book feel important. Zhivago became a favorite because there was so much to analyze and discuss. Later, while living in Moscow during the ‘90s, I loved visiting the Pasternak dacha-museum, particularly for celebrations of Pasternak’s life on the anniversary of his death, which corresponds with my birthday.

Years later, to paraphrase a friend, the book hasn’t changed, but I have. I still enjoy thinking about Zhivago, but, after recommending the novel for years, I feel like something of a traitor to Pasternak and a bit of a jerk to my friends and students for writing the truth: I simply didn’t always enjoy reading the book this spring.

I recognize the novel’s place in literary history and respect its moral significance and authority, particularly among others who suffered during the Soviet era. I also admire the considerable beauty of certain passages. But reading Zhivago as a piece of fiction – and looking for a story to develop out of nuanced characters and relationships – highlighted narrative flaws.

Unfortunately, Zhivago feels almost as deterministic as socialist realism because Pasternak’s characters are rather flat for an epic. They felt, to me, more symbolic than real, often with names that both define and confine them: the orphan Zhivago’s name is rooted in “living,” the parasitic Komarovsky is based on “mosquito,” and the revolutionary Strel’nikov is derived from “shoot.”

One serious consequence of Zhivago’s undeveloped characters is that discussions of politics frequently feel like uncontextualized exhibitions of ideas, not organic thoughts. They often stalled my reading. I have no quarrel with lengthy dialogues about philosophy – I witnessed and even participated in similar talk when I lived in Russia – but, for this reader, pages of talk only become art with description of settings, faces, and gestures.

These and other technical weaknesses in Zhivago probably arise from Pasternak’s lifelong focus on poetry. Fortunately, Pasternak’s lyricism also produces the book’s best passages. My professor, Elliott Mossman, liked to say Pasternak “gave” his best poetry to Zhivago. I think Pasternak also gave the best prose of Zhivago to Zhivago, for his diary. Pasternak makes the diary device work by filling Zhivago’s ten pages with simply written notes that discuss family, and reference literature and nature. The writing feels more personal and natural than most of the rest of the book, where the language is sometimes so dense that even some Russians have told me they found it difficult to read.

Many of Pasternak’s beautifully drawn descriptions are highlights, too: the evil Komarovsky and his dog Jack, the spring thaw, and the use of drowned suicides in Zhivago’s med school classes are only three early examples. I enjoyed many other passages, including some of the conversations between Zhivago and Lara in Iuriatin, and Zhivago and Strel’nikov’s meeting at Varykino. These dialogues filled in details for the reader without feeling too contrived. For the record, I have no objections to Pasternak’s use of coincidences.

My reactions to other themes in Zhivago are more personal. As an eternal optimist writing in spring, I can appreciate lines like “Oh, how sweet it is to exist! How sweet to live on earth and love life!” As a science writer, I enjoyed following the theory of relativity through the novel. I can’t say I’m as thrilled about the tragic love theme or Zhivago’s treatment of the women in his life.

But Zhivago probably couldn’t help himself: I still maintain, after 20 years and this seventh or eighth reading, that Zhivago is a descendant of the 19th-century superfluous man. I think it’s emblematic that his name, unlike the majority of Russian surnames, is indeclinable (doesn’t change depending on its function in a sentence), giving his name and character an inert feel. This carries especial irony about the fate of the intelligentsia in early 20th century in Soviet Russia: Zhivago (Живаго) means, roughly, “of the living one.”

Summary. I have contradictory feelings about Zhivago: my sentimental attachment to a book and ideas I’ve spent many weeks reading and discussing collides with my literary preference for plots that arise from character development. The combination of Pasternak’s cast of dozens with frequent Biblical and historical references results in a crowded novel that works best as a stimulus for discussion or research. The book contains some beautiful passages, but the experience of reading Zhivago is, for me, less enjoyable than the experience of contemplating it.

Links worth following. Russian-language recordings of Boris Pasternak reading full or excerpted poems from Doctor Zhivago.

"Fairy Tale"


  1. I wonder if Zhivago is a book for the young reader to explore, be catalyzed by--a novel for certain spaces in one's life. And for certain times.

    1. Thank you for this comment, Iulia! I wonder about that, too: Zhivago was so perfect when I was in grad school but felt a little flat to me when I read it in 2008. There was still lots to enjoy but I think all the grad school discussions, in and out of class, really did fit a certain time and place in my life. I'm also curious: did you have a similar experience with Zhivago?

  2. I am just finishing Zhivago for the first time, although I have read several works by each of the Russian 'majors' previously (in translation unfortunately). Apart from the occasional lack of continuity, I found Pasternak's need to provide artificial suspense and the methods he uses - something I've been investigating in Tarkovsky's films - as somewhat annoying. The need to keep an eye open for what Zhivago is going to do next to jeopardise his safety tends to divert the reader's attention away from the ideas which are expressed mainly through Pasternak's protagonist (one can almost see Zhivago as an antagonist in his failure to accomodate the new leaders in any real way and his failure to understand women). Certainly a strong condemnation of the Civil War, and not in my mind a totally honest one.

  3. Very interesting review! I enjoyed reading Zhivago a lot (in English) and I've had a go at translating some short passages.

    Reading it though I was surprised at how obviously the three main female characters were just cyphers - especially after David Lean's film gave the book its reputation as a great love story (most of the characters seemed rather emblematic, but the women especially).

    Also, it didn't feel like a political novel at all. It felt like it started out as a "War and Peace" for those times, but something happened to it about halfway through (about when Zhivago left Moscow).

    Expressing what I /did/ find and why I did like it is not so easy :D.

    Best wishes


    1. A belated thanks for your comment, llaisdy! It really is difficult to express thoughts and feelings about Zhivago, isn't it?

      I wonder how I'd read the book if I were planning to translate it--I'm sure even those short passages you've worked on gave you a wonderful deep feel for those pieces of the book. I can only imagine that it would be a very, very fun book to translate! My 2008 reading was notable for giving me a better feel for some of the book's most beautiful passages.