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Doctor Zhivago (Everyman's Library) Hardcover – November 26, 1991
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“The best way to understand Pasternak’s achievement in Doctor Zhivago is to see it in terms of this great Russian literary tradition, as a fairy tale, not so much of good and evil as of opposing forces and needs in human destiny and history that can never be reconciled . . . [Zhivago is] a figure who embodies the principle of life itself, the principle that contradicts every abstraction of revolutionary politics.”—from the Introduction by John Bayley
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Russian
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For me - I spent most of my adult life as an analyst of foreign political, economic, social, and military affairs - Doctor Zhivago is particularly brilliant in its depiction of the horrors and dislocations war and civil war inflict on populations, and especially those segments with little or no recourse to "safety nets" of any variety - personal, familial, governmental, church-, religion-, or community-based, or other. Pasternak depicts the range of human ingenuity in such circumstances, as individiuals cobble together the means of extracting brief moments of small pleasure from the tractor-pull of events. But through an accumulation of hundreds of small details, often in asides and parenthetic observations, Pasternak conveys the epochal common misfortunes and hardships of those whose accident of history made them Russians born around and after 1900. The novel compels us to consider that, at some point in the 20th century, such horrors of remorseless privation, despotism, and brutal inhumanity were visited upon the majority of humanity - the Europe of the World Wars, China for most of the century, and on and on - and how fortunate those spared such travails (and their descendents) are.
Throughout, Pasternak's characters comment on the flow of events, the political struggles, the conduct of, first, the World War and later the Civil War, the states-of-play at various key junctures, the putative winners and losers, the impositions of what must seem arbitrary policy (and then policy reversals), all in the name of advancing to some formless Communist Utopia but, to the cynically incisive observations of Zhivago and other perceptive observers, simply a Soviet variation of high-stakes politics of power-seeking individuals. THIS is how depotism and deprivation of freedom looks, and it's an experience alien to most American readers and one worthy of serious contemplation. Zhivago is filled with long, philosophical digressions that in general weigh humanism and spirituality against ideological politics; many found these passages tedious and a drag on the narrative. Suffice to say, I did not. Moreover, I found even Pevear-Volokhonsky's more literal translation filled with beautifully poetic moments, as were the translations of "Yuri Zhivago's poetry" that forms an appendix to the novel.
In short, I found Doctor Zhivago a transporting literary experience and a profound reflection on Soviet Communism. And a book I will reread, soon, in the Hayward-Harari translation.
Most everyone knows the basic story from having seen David Lean's magnificent film. But Lean's "Doctor Zhivago" is not Pasternak's. The film deviates too much from the novel for seeing the movie to be a substitute for reading the book. The biggest discrepancy is in the character of Zhivago, who in the book is less heroic and more feckless than he is in the movie. In turning such a sweeping novel as DOCTOR ZHIVAGO into a film, numerous cuts and simplifications are of course necessary. But, for me, the movie's omission of Zhivago's third wife Marina, the daughter of a house porter, is inexcusable. And hence, in the book, Zhivago abandons not only his "legal" wife Tonya and their children -- for Lara, the natural, irrational love of his life -- but he also abandons his third wife Marina and their children -- because family life becomes too much for him (in other words, he is too selfish).
The centerpiece of the story, of course, tracks the tumultuous times in Russia of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and then the Russian Civil War. There is violence, rebellion, famine, and typhus. Families are splintered and lives are transformed . . . and many end prematurely.
To me, the story sprawls too much. Worse, it relies too much on extraordinary, almost divine, coincidences. I marked seven such coincidences, and in doing so I did not count such things as the improbable multiple roles of Kamorovsky -- as the lawyer who drove the boy Yura Zhivago's father to suicide, who also was the lawyer for Lara's mother who then seduced Lara, and who in later years suddenly showed up to save Lara and her daughter. And then there is the feckless character of Zhivago.
What redeems the novel, for me, is its exploration of "the accursed questions" ("prokliatye voprosy" in Dostoevsky's phrase), namely, the ultimate questions of human existence--the nature of man, the existence of God, the problems of evil, the looming omnipresence of death, and the meaning of life. Some of Pasternak's philosophizing seems fatuous to me, and some of it is inscrutable. But much of it is more or less on the mark, and at least he is writing in the grand tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
Another notable aspect of the novel is its meditations on the Russian Revolution. Paternak was ambivalent about it, and sufficiently critical of it and the Communist state it brought about that the novel could not be published in the Soviet Union until thirty years after it first was published in 1957 (in an Italian translation). Moreover, he was not allowed to accept the Nobel Prize when it was awarded him in 1958. What, then, did Pasternak think of the Russian Revolution? In the words of one of his characters, "History will sort it all out."
A few words about this edition, in which the translation is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: The prose is among the most "modern" that I have encountered in my ongoing traversal of Russian literature in translation (a reprise of sorts of that college course decades ago). As much as Pasternak reminds me, alternately, of Dostoevsky and then of Tolstoy, his prose, at least as rendered here, is more straightforward, more modern. Is that because of Pevear and Volokhonsky? Or is it Pasternak? This edition is footnoted, with twenty pages of endnotes collected at the back of the book. They are excellent, not only because they are informative but also because they are judicious, in that P&V do not go overboard annotating everything that might not be known to the average high school graduate. In addition, however, I for one would have appreciated a listing of the numerous characters (a who's who or dramatis personae), including all the variations of each character's Russian name.