Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago
Boris Pasternak
Published 1957

I was intimidated to write about Doctor Zhivago; hence, I had been avoiding it like my nine-year old avoids brushing his teeth before bedtime.  It has been weeks since I finished this book and put it down to rest. What am I supposed to say? except this book is one of my more memorable reads this year, and maybe since I started reading classics four years ago.  Its emotion is magnified because I recently finished Solzhenitsyn's Gulag, which covers similar time periods and political and social themes of Soviet Russia.

This was a typical Russian literature experience for me, like with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.  The characters and their names were many, the themes were profound, and the human relationships intertwined and complicated.  I completely loved it overall, though sometimes I was clueless about the Russian history.  That's ok.  Some day I will be abreast of Russian history.

Since I watched the 2002 film version of Zhivago before I read the book, I knew about the adultery within the story, which perplexed me.  Our main character, Yuri Zhivago, is supposed to our hero. He says and thinks almost all the right things, yet his adultery is unacceptable.  It was difficult to rectify that conflict.  I even felt stronger about it while reading the book than I did watching the movie.  How can this man be so corrupt in his marriage, and yet have admirable views about life, liberty, freedom, individuality, and art?  How can he seek what is good and commit what is so wrong at the same time? He is almost incredible.  I suppose that is what makes him a tragic hero.

Yuri, the tragic hero (from 2002 film version)

Adultery aside, Pasternak shares insightful ideas through his characters' words.  On life:
People who can say that have never understood a thing about life - they have never felt its breath, its heartbeat - however much they have seen or done.  They look on it as a lump of raw material that needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be molded.  If you want to know life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my obtuse theories about it.
. . . about Russian society and Marxism:
I don't know a movement more self-centered and further removed from the facts than Marxism.  Everyone is worried only about proving himself in practical matters, and as for the men in power, they are so anxious to establish the myth of their infallibility that they do their utmost to ignore the truth.  
All customs and traditions, all our way of life, everything to do with home and order, has crumbled into dust in the general upheaval and reorganization of society.  The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined.  All that's left is the naked human soul stripped to the last shred, for which nothing has changed because it was always cold and shivering and reaching out to its nearest neighbor, as cold and lonely as itself.  
. . . untruth came down on our land of Russia. The main misfortune, the root of all the evil to come, was the loss of confidence in the value of one's own opinion.  People imagined that it was out of date to follow their own moral sense, that they must all sing in chorus, and live by other people's notions, notions that were being crammed down everybody's throat.
. . . on art:
. . . art always serves beauty, and beauty is delight in form, and form is the key to organic life, since no living thing can exist without it, so that every work of art, including tragedy, expresses the joy of existence.
. . . the "love" of Yuri and Lara (these two were made for each other):
Oh, what a love it was, utterly free, unique, like nothing else on earth!  Their thoughts were like other people's songs.
They loved each other, not driven by necessity, by the "blaze of passion" often falsely ascribed to love.  They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet.  
And that is just a raindrop in a deluge of ideas throughout the book.

The writing (translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari) was perfect.   I loved it so much, even though it was tragic and left me shaking my head.  What people under duress will write!  Pasternak even rejected his 1958 Nobel Prize, due to threat of deportation by the Soviet government; meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn rebuked his fellow writer for declining the award.  But like Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak had a great love for Russia and, even with all its faults, couldn't bear to leave it.  (I don't blame him.) Later, in 1989, Pasternak's son accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of his father, as they had not removed his name from their records. 

Boris Pasternak (1890 -1960)


Jean said...

I so agree with you about this novel. I loved reading it, and had a tough time with the adultery. There is so much great stuff there, though....I guess even a poet like Pasternak has great flaws. (Indeed, as far as I can tell, genius is a guarantee of seriously problematic behavior.)

Ruth said...

Certainly is.

While at times it was a disappointing and difficult to believe in Yuri; nonetheless, it was still an engaging story.

Marian H said...

Interesting review! This has been on my radar for a while; I didn't know much about it, and it sounds thought-provoking. I guess it just goes to show that even the best worldly ideals (life, liberty, individuality...) are not enough; we'll always fall short if we don't seek God above all else.

Ruth said...

Good point. I don't know if this was Pasternak's intent, but while his main character had great ideas and wanted to do right, he was terribly flawed. it is so true to life.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

I read this like ten years ago, and found it most engrossing. It's hard to remember now, but I think I felt like Zhivago's love for Lara was his tragic flaw. The thing he could have avoided, but didn't, and which gradually affected every part of his life even though he thought he could keep his love for her separate from everything and everyone else.

Ruth said...

So true. I think it was also very similar to the author's life. I have read that Zhivago was Pasternak, and Pasternak had a real life Lara.