Doctor Zhivago – x3
by Boris Pasternak
1958 / 592 pages
translated by John Hayward
Well, this is the third time I’ve read Doctor Zhivago – this time was a very slow and thorough read, careful (I hate the word “close”) and I think I finally “got it.”
Pasternak lived through the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It tore his spirit apart as he wrestled with the changes. At first he supported the Revolution, but as the Bolsheviks showed their “true colors,” his enthusiasm waned and I think a kind of despair set in as he saw the parts of Old Russia he loved demolished. He survived even Stalin by writing poetry which inspired that monster to call him a “dreamer.” (He also made some politically astute moves.) What he did was write out his feelings in a “poetic novel,” Doctor Zhivago. The book was banned in Russia, smuggled out and heralded throughout the rest of the world – to the point of a Nobel prize.
The book? Well – it’s a fictionalized memoir of sorts – the story of a man caught between two lovers (wife Tonia and soul-mate Lara) who more or less represent the material world vs the spiritual. He can’t choose between them but the Revolution forces changes and the destruction of what went before – the church, society, economics, families – almost even nature.
Yurii Zhivago is a doctor and a poet – both material and spiritual. In the book he’s almost entirely the poet – and a very religious one with a profound feeling for the aesthetics of the Russian Orthodox faith as well as nature. He takes no positive actions in his life, makes no decisions until about 2/3rds of the way through.
The book starts with Yurii at his mother’s burial and the song “Eternal Memory” and it ends with his own death and “resurrection” in the form of his found poems. The book is about the cycle of life, nature, God.
Yurii, a young married doctor with poetic sensibilities, is sent to the front (WWI) where he re-meets Lara who was familiar to him from Moscow. Lara is the daughter of a Moscow widow who was sexually abused by her mother’s lover, Komarovsky. He is haunted by her from that time on. He returns to Moscow where he and Tonia decide to move (taking the train) to Varykeno, the old Gromeko (Tonia’s ) family estate. They are happy there – for awhile.
But Yurii finds out that Lara lives nearby in the city of Yuriatin. She is married to her childhood friend Pasha, a devout revolutionary who is away fighting the Whites. Their affair starts. Yurii is captured by the Revolutionaries and meets Pasha who is now Strelinkov, a highly placed but unofficial leader. The train travels the countryside in western Siberia where outrages are witnessed and after 2 years Yurii finally escapes his wall-less prison. He heads back to Yuriatin where Lara still lives.
During the time he has been captured Tonia has had a child and they have been allowed to emigrate to Paris. Lara and Yurii are now in serious danger according to a rather unexpected visitor – Komarovsky. They move to Varykino but Komarovsky hunts them down and gets Lara to go to Siberia (and Pasha) with him. Yurii descends into drink and madness. He finally leaves the area and makes his way back to Moscow where much has changed. He lives out his days, marries again and dies of a heart attack while on a trolly.
Lara comes to his funeral assisted by Efgraf, Yurii’s rather mysterious step-brother from his father’s Siberian side. Efgraf has helped Yurii in several tight spots throughout the novel. The Epilogue shows two of Yurii’s friends meeting the daughter of Yurii and Lara as well as them reading his poetry.
Love, nature, aesthetic spirit of man, religious spirit of man, what the very material Bolshevik Revolution turned Russia into.
Structure – a mosaic-like piece of symbolist art. There are pieces of one thing and then pieces of another. There are many connections, coincidences and counterpoints.
Symbolism – resurrection, forgiveness and redemption (Lara’s), Yurii is at times a Christ-like figure while Lara plays the role of Mary Magdalene. Trains and mechanical devices – they break down after the Revolution. Nature and cycles of life – (this is a very brief list).
I don’t love the book – Yurii is not a sympathetic character although he is meant to be – the only way I can see him as sympathetic is if I identify him with nature or the church, what he represents. Beyond that, the material Yurii is too passive in all this, he drifts from Tonia, a very good wife who has his children, to Lara, his muse. The book is too heavily symbolic, too dense with metaphor, the cycles of nature get repetitive.
But I do appreciate the book and REALLY wish I could read it in Russian. Pasternak was a poet of the top ranks and this book is a poem in novel form. But poetry is notoriously difficult to translate so it’s not entirely available to me.
Is it an historical novel? No. It is historical literature – it was written by a man who lived through it – a fictionalized memoir of sorts. The 21st century reader can glean much about the days of the Revolution and what it was like for the Russian people by reading this book but unlike historical fiction (written about historical events for contemporary readers) some personal research will be necessary to understand it.