Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Last year my book club chose The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel as our classic pick. Obviously we have a rather broad and inclusive sense of classics. While I enjoyed that novel way back when, this year, I wanted to read something that had been on my list for a long time, had in fact stood the test of time, and was fairly universally recognized as a classic. So I lobbied hard for Doctor Zhivago. I pointed out the newly done translation. I highlighted the love story aspect. And pushy me, I won the day. So much the worse! Book club is tonight and I'm afraid they are going to lynch me for my choice. Frankly, if I was anyone else but me, I might lynch me too. I have read many other Russian and Societ writers and have never quite felt the dread about returning to their works after putting them down as I did with this one. It was truly a chore.

Ostensibly the story of Yuri Zhivago and Larissa (Lara) Antipova, this a sweeping tale of the early stages of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath shot through with a doomed love story. Zhivago is a physician and a poet (his poetry follows the text of the novel). He is of the priviledged class but initially feels great sympathy with the proletariot. He volunteers to serve in WWI and it is while working as a medic there that he first meets Lara although he had glimpsed her once before in Moscow. Lara, born to wealth, lived through financial struggles with her mother after her father's death and suffered a Lolita-like relationship with the older man who posed as her mother's benefactor. As these two, both already married to others, continue to find each other after the war, through the revolution and then during the hardships and paranoia afterwards, they grow ever closer and eventually unable to resist any longer, fall into an all-consuming affair. But Yuri and Lara's love story is only a minor thread when compared to the sweeping and all-encompassing story of Russia's changes of the time, politically and socially.

The tenor of the Revolution changes in the course of the novel, as do Yuri's feelings about it and its potential. There are long and complicated musings on the philosophical ideology underpinning the Communist Party as versus those underpinning the White Party. Detailed and extensive descriptions of the Russian-Soviet countryside abound as well, with the weather sweeping through it frequently reflecting the desperation and despair accompanying the new regime's policies. It is no surprise, given the criticisms and even just the ambivalences toward the Revolution spelled out in the character of Yuri Zhivago that this was not allowed to be published in Russia and that there was subsequently a "request" by the government that Pasternak not accept the Nobel Prize.

For many unfamiliar with (or not avidly interested in) the details of the Russian Revolution, the story of Yuri and Lara is not enough to counterbalance the heavy political commentary. Even though I do have a decent working knowledge of the time, I found it tedious. Yuri and Lara as characters were flat and uninspired. The number of secondary and incidental characters was enormous and there was far too much information about each of them, especially when their background or views were not necessary to the plot in any way shape or form and their appearance in the tale was as fleeting as possible. Excessive is the word that springs to mind when I think of the novel as a whole, followed closely by boring. As much as I wanted to thrill to it as I did to Tolstoy's works so many years ago, I just couldn't. It's hard for me to say whether the translation had anything to do with the dry, unappealing nature of the novel for me but I don't plan to pick up another version to find out. Quite a disappointment.


  1. Ack, this one is in my TBR bookcase. I'll keep shoving it to the back.

  2. Great review. I have to read Dr. Zhivago one of these days.

  3. I'd love to read this as a group read-a-long. Loved the movie -- have the book.

  4. Clan of Bear a classic? Does that mean Twilight will be a 'classic' in 30 years? Here's one i'm pushing: The Man Without Qualities Vol. 1: A Sort of Introduction and Pseudo Reality Prevails by Robert Musil ---or you should switch to Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller- that'll get em'.

  5. Actually here's what u should do --Get Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon and download the audio vesion-narrator Dick Hill and listen for 1 hour. Now, single up old lines!

  6. I was looking forward to this translation and even won it in a book giveaway, but it's not good at all! I read Dr. Zhivago long ago and enjoyed it, but this was horrible. I only made it through about 30 pages. I hope you escaped the book club unharmed ;). BTW, other translations by these two have been wonderful. I don't know what happened.


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

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