Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak is quite remarkably a poet's novel: the writer was a poet, and hence each page is full of beautiful imagery, metaphors and word play. The protagonist is a poet, the novel revolves around his love and life in the first half of twentieth century Russia. The reader, by association, has to be a poet to really relish the saga.
It is one of those novels from last century that everyone must read. The ghosts of socialism and Marxism, the excesses that occured in name of revolution, the transformation of the largest country of the world from ceturies old system into a failed ideal: the novel has enough historical significance. Last century was guided, molded, scarred, decorated and defined by the events and ideas that crop up as part of Doctor Zhivago's life. The literary underpinnings are gigantic: a love story with the Russian Revolution as background score: a Nobel was the least he could have got.
Besides the historical perspective, the story itself is a delightful one. The homely Tonya, Dr Zhivago's wife and first love and mother of his children, the sensuous Lara who weaves into and out of Yuri (Dr Zhivago's) life, her husband Pasha Antipov, who at every junction of his life must fight against ghosts and demons of his wife's past and present and in attempt outclass himself, the Uncle Koyla, the intellectual: the list is unending. Characters are crafted from all sections of society, making this novel a representation of whole society at that time. Like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, the novel provides four or five chief characters, who are immense in their own potrayal, parting with their thoughts, ideas, ideals and philosophies, and possessing unique well-defined characteristics, the novel has another string of about twenty characters who are unforgettable for whatever roles they are assigned.
The harshness of winter, the beauty of forests and fields, the man divided in his love for wife Tonya and lover Lara, the poet in exile, the idealists seeking to change the world, Russian history and customs: such ideas find Pasternak displaying hs poetic prowess. Many passages in the book are sheer poetry, and I am amazed at seeing how powerful they are in translated language: I wish I knew Russian to find out how delightful the original must have been.
It is a long novel, with graphic pleasant and unpleasant sequences and a writing style where its apparent that either because it is a translation or ther writer was a poet attempting prose, the writing is not a easy read. Requires lot of time and effort and most people prefer the movie that was made in 1965 or so. I think reading Doctor Zhivago is an experience in itself, and in this post cold war era, it contains the perspective and historical lessons that we all must know and understand.
An excerpt that presents a preview of all the things this novel incorporates into the love saga of Yuri, where his heart is in strife in his love for two women as is it in strife witnesses changes that challenge every aspect of his being and thinking:
"Even more than what they had in common, they were united by what separated them from the rest of the world. They were both repelled by what was tragically typical of the modern man, his shrill textbook admirations, his forced enthusiam, and the deadly stillness coldly preached and practiced by the countless workers in the field of art and science in order that the genius must remain extremely rare.
They loved each other greatly. Most people experience love, without noticing there is anything remarkable about it.
To them- and this made them unusual- the moments when passion visited their doomed human existence like a breath of timelessnesses were moments of revelation, of ever greater understanding of life and of themselves."
Loved it. Highly recommended.
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness,--melt itself Into the sea! "
King Henry IV, Part 2, Act III. Scene I
Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago takes us back to a time when fate took Russia through a perfect storm of revolution, war, revolution, and civil war. This was a time that did not just level mountains and melt a continent but also melted and cruelly leveled the lives and fates of untold numbers who were caught in these turbulent waters. Josef Stalin is reported to have said that "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic." What Pasternak has done so masterfully in telling this story is to paint a picture on a huge canvas that stretches from Moscow to Siberia while at the same time telling an intimate story that allows the reader to maintain that feeling of tragedy.
I've had a copy of Dr. Zhivago sitting on my shelf for decades, one of the books I inherited from my father's collection. I never bothered to pick it up. I'd seen David Lean's classic film and wrongfully decided that there was no need to invest any time in reading an epic novel about the tragic romance of Yuri Andreevich Zhivago and Larissa Fyodorovna Antipova. When I saw that Pevear and Volokhonsky had done a new translation I decided to give Zhivago a shot. What a revelation. As good as the movie was it didn't begin to plumb the depths of the book. The movie focused, understandably enough, on the relationship between Yuri and Lara and it seemed that the Russian Revolution and Civil War was merely the back-story to the relationship. But in Pasternak's hands I think it was close to being the other way around. The first two-thirds of the book takes two separate lives that contain just a few incidental touch-points where those lives intersected.
The emotional heart of the story for me was elsewhere. It was a story of the dissolution of Russian life in the years between the 1905 Revolution and WWI where the decadence and debauchery of a life lived in fancy clothes and salons played out against the turmoil bubbling beneath the surface. It was a story of the disruption and destitution set in motion by WWI and the October revolution. It was a story of the story of hunger and desperation brought on by a vicious Civil War in which the phrase "man is wolf to man" comes to the fore and the fragile web that keeps a society civilized is swept away in a sea of inhumanity. It is into a world that has already been rent asunder that the relationship of Yuri and Lara comes into bloom. The story of Yuri and Lara almost seemed to me to be the back story, the context that illuminated the age of unreason that Pasternak wrote about.
One passage set this out for me in stark terms: "This was the sickness of the age, the revolutionary madness of the epoch. In thought everyone was different from his words and outward show. No one had a clear conscience. Each with good reason could feel himself guilty, a secret criminal, an unexposed deceiver." The passage concludes that people denounced themselves, "drawn on by a destructively morbid inclination, of their own free will, in a state of metaphysical trance and passion for self-condemnation that, once set loose, could not be stopped." This struck me immediately as Pasternak's version of Yeats' "Second Coming" where the centre cannot hold and where "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. It was one of the many touch-points in the book that were immensely moving to me.
The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko has said, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that a "translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful." My high-school level Russian does not permit me to speak to this translation's faithfulness but I can certainly attest to its beauty. Pasternak's prose, as rendered by the team of Pevear and Volokhonsky, flows beautifully. As I read through the book I did not feel I was reading a translation. Any time I read a piece in translation and feel compelled to underline or highlight particularly noteworthy passage I think of the translation as one that does justice to the book. Time after time I found myself highlighting passages that I wanted to remember. This strikes me as being my own testimony not just to the beauty of the translation but what also must be its faithfulness.
Dr. Zhivago is not, as I imagined, a eulogy for a pair of tragic Russian lovers but an elegy for an age in a specific time and place. It is a beautiful, moving story that was a pleasure to read.
I read Zhivago for the first time in high school. I loved it, but didn't pick it up again for 20 years. I was surprised to find it rough going at the beginning. When I had first read the book, it had been precisely the first 100 or so pages that had enchanted me and pulled me into the novel. This time around, it was the complex and often frustrating last half of the book that really moved me. I guess this is a measure of how the book grows with the reader.
Doctor Zhivago is a complicated book that seems to me largely about how people get involved with circumstances (politics, love affairs) that do not interest them, simply because life leaves them vulnerable. That makes for a strange reading experience, because it is not a message that wraps itself up neatly. The texture of the novel is in part about ends-- loose ends, dead ends, character cul-de-sacs. A more experienced author wouldn't have tried to work this theme out in prose using the same methods that Pasternak employed. The book rolls from melodrama to nearly documentary realism. He uses diary form, letters, even poetry to complete the work. I guess it was his lack of experience that allowed him to (very nearly) achieve the impossible. The feeling of the book is an awful lot like life.
There are certainly more polished and perfect novels and novelists out there. Doctor Zhivago would not have profited from their example. As the title of this review says, Zhivago is great precisely because it isn't perfect. It is a great sprawling messy wonderful world of a book.
Recommended for readers of all ages.
on February 23, 2003
The events of the novel revolve around a doctor and poet by the name of Yurii Andreievich Zhivago whom we first meet at a crucial point in his life. From the day of his mother's funeral to the day of his own, we follow Zhivago on his travels throughout Russia. He travels to the warfront, flees to Siberia, and is drafted into the Red Army before making his way back to Moscow. Over the course of these two decades, Zhivago repeatedly encounters a beautiful woman who essence fills his thoughts and heart. He is loyal to his wife Tonia and his little son Sasha, but he cannot help falling in love with the lovely Larisa Feodorovna Antipov, who is also already married to a famous war general. It is these chance encounters that allow the plot to progress and lead to their eventual love affair.
Even with such a complex plot, "Doctor Zhivago" remains a primarily character-based novel, as can be seen from the vast number of names and people we become familiar with throughout the story. Even the minor characters become dear to us, once we have figured out who they actually are and how they are connected to the main story. It is a challenging process to sort through the long list of characters, who may have any number of pseudonyms or nicknames along with their original Russian forenames. It is rewarding to recognize that Pavel Pavlovich, Pasha, Antipov, and Strelnikov are, in fact, the same person. We are also given several glimpses into the views and opinions of minor characters. Each person we meet along the way has a detailed history and a certain point of view to establish. Even if a character is only remotely connected to the main plot, Pasternak educates us on his family history and his role in the revolution.
The detail the author includes in the story extends to the scenery and land of Russia itself. With lengthy and occasionally tedious descriptions, Pasternak implores us to imagine the rough and beautiful wilderness of his home land and notes the striking contrast of the destruction caused by the war. He adds to his descriptions by making religious and philosophical allusions. These views alone are interesting but in the context of a greater story that should be told without interruption, they often slow down the more stirring moments in the plot. Some of these images, however, do create a startling picture of the devastation that swept Russia, such as the scenery at the warfront and during the uprising. Others, though educational, disrupt the plot to a greater extent.
With the combination of all these elements, "Doctor Zhivago" tells a compelling story while simultaneously describing the events of the early 1900's that shaped history. But unfortunately, I did not gain as much from reading this novel as many reviewers have expressed. I enjoyed the moments when the plot neatly coincided with Pasternak's poetic descriptions of the countryside or his unnerving depictions of the revolution, but these were too sparse throughout the novel for it to be engaging. The main plot was interrupted too often by philosophic commentary from either the author or one of the characters. It often took a great effort to get through monotonous passages and descriptions that did not contribute effectively to the plot or scenery of the novel. Many have expressed their frustration at the number of long, complex names Pasternak uses to refer to each of his characters, and I would agree that this they are difficult to keep straight. But once I finally understood the names, it was rewarding to get to know the minor characters and learn of their experiences during the revolution. But despite these disappointments in the writing and the excessive commentary on the story, I enjoyed reading the novel's depiction of life during such decisive times in Russia's history. The setting and the characters were equally important in telling the story of Yurii and Lara. Though not a masterpiece in my opinion, it was certainly an interesting novel that was worth the slow read in the end. I must recommend this novel to all those who are interested in a deeply illustrated account of Russian history and an exploration of the themes inherent in that era.
on June 21, 2013
Why on earth does this volume purport to be the Hayward and Harani translation that has been around since the late 50s without any mention of who masterminded this awkward and frustrating re-write? Where is the attribution for this effort? The original translators died decades ago. Who has the gall to alter their work?
If the idea was simply modernize the Russian name variants that can confuse some Western readers, I might understand -- a little. But this junior subordinate of an undergraduate teaching assistant has not stopped merely with names but has chosen to rewrite entire passages.
Unfortunately, this has resulted in true damage to the and poetic language of Pasternak that Hayward and Harari were somehow able to preserve in the novel's first translation to English. If the original translation came under fire occasionally for straying from a true literal translation, at least it sacrificed the literal for the lyrical -- a subtlety that a poet like Pasternak surely (I think) would have appreciated.
I would suggest that the editors at Knopf silently ditch this ill-advised attempt and give us back a text that perhaps should not have been tampered with to begin with. At least warn me that this is a rewrite. Don't get me wrong -- I am not one resistant to improvement or change. I was all excited by the recent translation offered by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhnosky -- until it arrived. But I think the rhythms of speech captured in the novel's original publication have been so engrained in my memory that I would no more think of changing them now than I would suggest updating Moby Dick for a readership that no longfer had an intimate knowledge of whaling.
Sometimes change is good. Sometimes good should be left alone.
on October 20, 2010
Boris Pasternak's most famous novel, and the source for one of the biggest (both in box office and scope) films in cinematic history, arrives in stores once again, translated for the 21st century. As already noted by the product description, "Doctor Zhivago" was an international sensation on its initial publication in 1957 - smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published first in Italy due to the censorship of the Communist government, it was rapidly translated into English (and other languages). Max Hayward's work was of good quality, particularly given the time constraints under which he laboured - good enough to make the novel a bestseller and probably the most famous work of Russian literature published in the 20th century. It earned its author the Nobel Prize in Literature, though political considerations interfered even then to block his acceptance.
Nevertheless, the theory and practice of translation has evolved considerably in the last half-century (and probably will continue to); works are continually retranslated, sometimes with minor variations in style, sometimes with bigger ones. Now comes the turn of "Doctor Zhivago". And as any fan of Russian literature could tell you, there could be no better team on hand to handle it than Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This husband-and-wife team has become the gold standard in Russian-to-English translation over the last quarter century, having produced a truly astonishing volume of work: the major works of Dostoevsky, Count Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Gogol, and Chekhov (Pevear has also translated Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" from French by himself, I guess for a change of pace). Now they've turned their hand to Pasternak's magnum opus. The resulting translation is up to their usual standards.
One won't get too far into story summary, given how famous this is, but in brief it is a semi-autobiographical account by the author of the tumultuous history of Russia in the early 20th century. Beginning with the fall of the Tsarist despotism, the brief and doomed interlude of attempted democracy under Kerensky, and the assumption of power by the Bolsheviks, with ensuing civil war, we follow Dr. Yuri Zhivago. Something of an idealist, like Pasternak (or Pasternak's self image, anywyay), Zhivago struggles with his love for Lara, and the conflict it creates with his family. That's the part everybody remembers, anyway, almost invariably. David Lean's famous film, as big as it was, could only tell a condensed version of Pasternak's story, which is larger still on the page; but that is true with all the great novels. Pasternak weaves an epic account of one of the greatest political earthquakes in history, which claimed millions of lives, and is comparatively little-remembered in the contemporary West.
Recommended. And one hopes that Pevear and Volokhonsky can make time for Sholokhov.
on November 9, 2007
Doctor Zhivago has, in the years since its secret publication in Italy, been called a timeless love story. However, even though this may be true, it does not follow the usual type of a love story which begins with the meeting of two lovers and then ends happily with their marriage or a comparable event. Instead the author, Russian poet Boris Pasternak, writes the love story between Yury Zhivago and Lara Antipova, two characters who were already married to others. In this, Doctor Zhivago is a palpable commentary on marital infidelity. This has, in the past, lead this beautifully worked novel to be shunned as controversial or immoral. However, despite the fact that Pasternak chooses such a difficult theme to work with in his novel, he validates and creates sympathy for Yury, Lara, and their affair with his usage of characterization, symbolism, and appeals to pathos.
Pasternak's characterizations of the two principle female characters play a huge role in winning the audience's sympathy for Lara and her plight. Yury's wife Tonya is, essentially, a flat character; throughout the book she remains devoted to Yury and her children; she conforms to the social norms both before and after the revolution takes place where Pasternak's more dynamic characters all experience a change because of it. Additionally, Pasternak makes it difficult to connect to Tonya by keeping her essentially out of sight throughout the novel; the only time the audience reads of her feelings is in a letter, and consequently, is indirect. In fact, all of the audience's experience of Tonya is indirect; we see her through Zhivago's descriptions or conversations about her, but never as just herself. This distance from Tonya is furthered by Yury's lack of identification with Tonya; he always feels spiritually apart from his wife. A sharp contrast is Lara, whose poignant thoughts and feelings can be read from nearly the beginning of the story, and who, despite having extremely nonconformist tendencies like political activeness, maintenance of a job even into her married years, and an insistence to assist in the WWI war effort, is portrayed more warmly than any of the other characters in the novel. She is given the endearing Tonya-like qualities of devotion to family (it is the emergence of her husband Pasha as the merciless revolutionary Strelnikov that leads to their separation) and the nonconformist attributes which make her such a fascinating character. The audience is also made to see Lara as a character worthy of the kind of love she has with Yury because of the tragic nature of her previous intimate relationship as a teenager with the aging lawyer Komarovsky, which can be described as nothing less than parasitic. As Lara later says to Yury, "There is something broken in my whole life. I discovered life much too early, I was made to discover it, and I was made to see it from the very worse side--a cheap, distorted version of it--through the eyes of a self-assured, elderly parasite, who took advantage of everything and allowed himself whatever he fancied" (13:398). This clearly exhibits the disillusionment she felt as a result of her affair, and is not only presented here but also throughout the text. Pasternak uses Lara's disillusionment to create sympathy and hope for something better for this extremely likable character; as she loves Yury Zhivago, their love affair is the culmination of our hopes.
Another way in which Pasternak validates Yury and Lara's affair is his use of religious symbolism, particularly in reference to who would have been the "fallen woman" of the affair, Lara. In Pasternak's time, it was the woman who suffered more from an affair; however, in one particular scene, Lara appears as an iconic image of the Virgin Mary. "Like a huge banner stretching across a city street, there hung before him in the air, from one side of the forest glade to the other, a blurred, greatly magnified image of a single, astonishing, idolized head. The apparition wept, and the rain, now more intense, kissed and watered it" (12: 367-386). By symbolizing the Virgin Mary as Lara, Pasternak is creating an association between Lara and the Virgin, and a good one at that. The reader is less disposed to think of Lara as a "fallen woman" after this association, and the image is repeated throughout the text, including Zhivago's funeral scene (15: 502). In this, Pasternak's use of symbolism is highly effective in creating the reader's sympathy for the affair in Doctor Zhivago.
Finally, Pasternak masterfully appeals to the reader's sense of pathos, especially when dealing with the fate of the two lovers; neither end up with the other or with their spouses. After running away to Yuryatin together, Komarovsky comes to collect Lara using black mail; Tonya and her children have already been deported, and he returns to work in his Moscow hospital. The novel ends with Yury's death; Lara, who has been searching for him for years, finds him only at his funeral, and it is this, one of the closing scenes, which is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking: Lara holds Yury's body in her arms and cries over him. The fact that these lovers, so obviously suited to each other in every way, have such a short relationship and do not end up together creates in the reader such regret and sympathy for Yury and Lara. Even though their relationship was illegitimate and possibly aberrant, we feel more sympathy at their parting, because of Pasternak's more poetic style at this part, than when Tonya is deported. It is much more personal, infinitely more heartbreaking. Boris Pasternak's appeal to pathos in Doctor Zhivago logically creates in the reader the most sympathy for Yury, Lara, and their romantic plight.
There is no reason that the theme of marital infidelity in Doctor Zhivago should keep any reader from enjoying and appreciating the exquisite loveliness of Pasternak's prose and story. Pasternak made sure of this with his dexterous handling of characterization, symbolism, and appeals to pathos. Doctor Zhivago remains as a monument of 20th century literature, and one that can be recommended to anyone from the age of about 14 up. Beautifully told, masterfully written, Doctor Zhivago is undoubtedly one of the must-read-classics of the last century.
I hate to say it but the Pevear/Volokhonsky edition rings hollow. They seem much better when sticking with 19th century classics like Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov. It may be, as Pevear writes in his forward, that they stuck closer to the original text, but the result is a clunky translation that at times reads like it was done with google. The writing is flat the sentence structure is awkward making any first time reader wonder what is so great about this book. I found myself going back to the original Hawyard/Harari translation which has a much nicer flow.
The story itself is odd in the way it is laid out by Pasternak. It seemed he was aiming at something far greater than a romance, or that his love was with Russia itself. The actual story of Yury and Lara comprises less than 4 chapters. The bulk of the narrative is about Yury trying to make sense of the tumultuous revolution taking place in his homeland, from the early years of the 1905 strikes to the eventual victory by the Red Army in the civil war that stretched to 1922. These chapters are the most visceral, as Pasternak places Yury on the battle front, tending to the wounded, growing more and more cynical with the great many casualties he has to attend to. He finishes the story off with an epilogue as told by his long-time friend Misha, and a strange epitaph in the poems Zhivago had penned during the course of the narrative.
While Pasternak pretty much keeps to an historic timeline, his thoughts are more impressionistic, especially in the way he relates the battles in the provinces as the country becomes split by the White and Red Armies. Yury can't bring himself to choose between the opposing forces, and this very much underscores his relationships with Tonya, his wife, and Lara, his lover. The first seeming to represent tradition, albeit not without its allusions to the modern writers of the day, and the second a democratic love in which he idealizes Lara as the perfect modern woman, above all the petty conceits of the bourgeoisie, yet not deluded by the false promises of the Bolsheviks.
I suppose some readers will have difficulties with all the tangents this story takes, especially if you were thinking that the great love story between Yury and Lara would dominate the narrative. Actually, it is a very awkward love story as Pasternak never really allows his two characters to grow together. They come together because of circumstances and their love is never fully realized. I had to wonder if Pasternak was uncomfortable with the romance he created, as he seemed much more at home describing Yury's and Tonya's plight first in Moscow and then at Varykino. His best writing was that of the military camps Zhivago found himself in.
Overall, I give the book 4 stars and this translation 3 stars. The book was made into a fantastic mini-series by Aleksandr Proshkin in 2006 that takes in the full scope of the novel, whereas Sir David Lean focused primarily on Yury and Lara. Don't even bother with the 2002 British mini-series.
on December 17, 2006
Dr. Zhivago's ideal life `escape into freedom out of all sorrows' contrasts sharply with the horrors of war and revolution around him: `the ruthless logic of mutual extermination.' As a doctor he is daily confronted with `survivors whom the technique of modern fighting had turned into lumps of mutilated flesh.' Red and White atrocities rivaled each other in savagery.
After the Reds won the civil war, `the old oppression of the tsarist state was replaced by a much harsher yoke of the revolutionary superstate led by the professionals, the Bolsheviks, and their false sympathizers, informers, intrigues and hatred.'
Their Marxist policies are severely criticized: `Marxism is not sufficiently master of itself. Ordinary people are anxious to test their theories in practice, to learn from experience, but those who wield power are so anxious to establish the myth of their own infallibility that they turn their back on truth.'
Dr. Zhivago with his independent mind and love for humanity highly understands that nothing can be gained from violence: childhood friends fight each other in the name of their truth, `man is a wolf to man'; `stranger meeting stranger killed for fear of being killed.'
Under the totalitarian system, he feels bitterly `the loss of faith in the value of personal opinion. Instead of being natural and spontaneous, something artificial, forced, crept into our conversation; falsehood had crept into our lives.'
Boris Pasternak's book is a profound meditation on life and death, love and hate, personal commitment and mass ideology, freedom and slavery, war and peace.
The fate of the main characters and the crossings of their lives within the upheavals provoked by war, revolution and totalitarianism are masterfully painted and heart-rending.
This magically written and brilliantly built novel is an eternal masterpiece. It stands in sharp contrast with the extreme vulgarity of the anti-Pasternak campaign in the USSR after Pasternak was awarded the Nobel prize (see I. Kadaré's `Le Crépuscule des Dieux de la Steppe').
A must read.
on February 14, 2001
This is the epic of Zhivago (and later, Pasternak himself)over the background of Russia's transition from Czarist rule to Bolshevism, passing through the First World War and the Civil War. The novel tells the intercrossing stories of Dr. Yuri Zhivago and Lara, whose lives meet several times during their childhood and adolescence, without getting to know each other. Zhivago grows up in Moscow, with the Gromeko family, whose child Tonya becomes his wife. Lara gets married to Pavel Antipov, who goes to war. When he is missing in action, Lara becomes a military nurse, in order to look for him. Zhivago also has to go to war, and there he meets Lara. After the war, he and his family move to a rural estate near the city of Yuriatin. There he meets Lara again. She lives alone with her daughter, since her husband has become the terrible revolutionary known as Strelnikov. They fall in love immediately and absolutely, and they start an affair which torments Zhivago, since he feels bad about being unfaithful to his wife. One day, he is kidnapped by the Partisans (revolutionaries), who keep him in prison during the Civil War. Eventually he escapes, to proceed his life. Many things more happen, but let's not spoil the plot.
This book is a vast landscape of Russia, but it's not a political or social novel. It is basically a story of love and Fate, but it is also possible to interpret it as a symbol of what war, politics and especially totalitarianism can do to the individual. But I don't agree with the reviewer who says that every character is a specific symbol or prototype, since I found them to be full personalities, tragic figures with a whole life depicted in the book. This book is to be suffered, for it is very emotional and sad. "Rich" is perhaps the best word to describe it.