Boris Pasternak (trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harai, Vintage, 2002 (first published Collins and Harvill, 1958)) ISBN: 9780099448426
Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago has been lauded for almost 60 years as one of the greatest love stories of all time. An epic set during the Russian Revolution, it saw its author awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and has been adapted several times for the screen in both Russian and English. With the weight of its renown, but without much notion of what the story was actually about, I looked forward to falling in love with this book. Unfortunately, I didn’t.
I’m not entirely sure why this novel failed to engage me as much as I’d hoped. It might have been the expectation, given its reputation, but I have read any number of books loaded with literary acclaim, and loved many of them. While romance is not a genre I read much of, I have enjoyed many literary love stories—Norwegian Wood, Cold Mountain, and A Suitable Boy, for instance. I am also a complete history nerd; what appealed to me most in this novel were the details of daily life in Russia’s revolutionary period. It may have been the prose itself, since the translators, Max Hayward and Manya Harari, lamented their inability to properly translate the poetry of Pasternak’s language. Unfortunately, Russian is yet another language I can’t read and this would be impossible to test.
The best I can come up with is that the character, Yury Zhivago, is kind of wet. A doctor and poet, being pushed around by revolutionary politics and in love with two women, Yury Zhivago doesn’t actually do all that much. He is rushed about by the circumstances of his time, becomes ill, is rescued from starvation, and wanders off to the countryside. As far as I recall, he makes two important decisions in the story: 1. to declare his love for Lara, a mission which is thwarted when he is conscripted into the revolutionary army; 2. to flee the revolutionary army back to Lara, which works but is not made much of. Then he becomes sick again and is yet again rescued, before dwindling into depression, somehow finding another wife, fathering some daughters, and dying miserably. I’m not sure if all this was meant to be the point of the story—artistic brilliance and the fierce intelligence of a doctor being eroded by the straits of time—or if I have badly misunderstood. In any event, while there is certainly a fair bit of waffling about adoration and love and inspiration, the love story left me cold and Yury Zhivago seemed a fairly ineffective character in his own life.
Another thing that irritated me about the story was the sheer amount of coincidence. If this had been a Dickens story, or a story in a similar vein that did not present itself as realist, the coincidences might have been forgivable. However, this novel does at least appear to be a realist romance. Russia is geographically enormous and has several tens of millions of people. The story itself takes place across the expanses of Moscow and Siberia, at a time of great population movement and mass death. Yet people just keep running into each other again after several years without contact.
All that said, the prose itself is wonderful to read. If you can put up with the indecisive main character and have an interest in post-revolutionary Russia, do give this book a go. You may find yourself swept up in the romance. I am disappointed that I didn’t.