Doctor Zhivago

It’s never a good sign when a book takes so many attempts that you’ve no idea if the 2003 cutting you find in the back is yours or the person you lent it out to at one point.

Doctor Zhivago
Boris Pasternak
trans Max Hayward and Manya Harari
(Panther, 1996 – now owned by Harper Collins)

Yury Zhivago, sensitive and studious, lives through the most tumultuous period of Russian history. He witnesses the 1905 uprising, World War One, the 1917 revolution and the bloody civil war that followed it. Throughout these years he is drawn again and again to Lara Guishar, a beautiful girl of poor origins who is abused by one of the gentry and abandoned by her revolutionary husband.

At one point, partway through, I remarked that “It’s all a bit Russian”. Yes, I know.

It’s entirely plausible that, as the introduction to the edition I read suggested, Doctor Zhivago is a “work of genius”. The trouble is that it is all so terribly Russian. And I read Dostovesky for fun.

There are moments, in this translation, of great beauty. Descriptions of nature that lyrically connect to those moments where you startlingly feel your surroundings more vividly than usual.

There is also the sentence “all that is left to tell is the brief story of the last eight to ten years of Zhivago’s life” at the start of a forty page chapter called “Conclusion”. So not so very brief.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I started to read it as a political allegory. Lara – beautiful, mysterious and, when we hear some rare dialogue from her, exciteable and melodramatic – is Mother Russia. Komarovsky is the old power – corrupt, venal, abusive and taking advantage of Lara whenever possible. Pasha is the new power – ruthless, dedicated to the Cause to the exclusion of all else and putting endangering and ignoring Lara. And Zhivago? Perhaps he’s meant to be the spirit of Russia: passionate, romantic, poetic and hopelessly in love with Lara.

A work of genius, maybe, and definitely more complex than the film could ever have been. But I still prefer Dostovesky.

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One Response to “Doctor Zhivago”

  1. Lisa Says:

    Oh, it’s been ages since I read Dr. Zhivago. I remember being more entertained with it, but yes, it is oh, so russian. LOL!

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