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Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago (1957)

by Boris Pasternak

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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When I was a little less than half-way through Doctor Zhivago, I mentioned it casually to a thoughtful and well-read friend. "Ugh," he said without hesitation and rolled his eyes. I was confused by this--I was enjoying it so far. Sure there were a million characters, each with multiple names, but the Internet helps with this a lot. And the author does a pretty good job of reminding you who's who as you go along.

Granted, I expected to have trouble with this book. I have a pretty shaky grasp of Russian history. It wasn't taught in my grade schools, and I didn't pursue it in college. My 9th grade English teacher taught us Animal Farm as an Aesop's-Fable-type story about the importance of knowing your place. I expected to get lost in some of the "who's fighting who when and ostensibly why" details of this novel, which stretches from the early 1900s through World War II--a pretty active time in Russia. And I did.

But I kept reading (rather, listening; I got it on CD for my commute). I read without an undeniable amount of eye rolling until chapter 13, "Opposite the House of Sculptures." And then it lost me; I turned. Glancing through other reviews on Goodreads, I'm not the only one who turned at this point. It's a ginormous chapter in which two characters who are supposed to have the most pure, passionate love ever known to existence speak to each other in impersonal monologues, explaining their feelings and large sections of the plot that the reader has already witnessed.

The chapter probably shouldn't feel so ridiculously long and boring and forehead-slappingly unbelievable. The reader is supposed to understand the intense passion that these two feel for each other. The problem, obviously, is that we don't. And this was the point in the book when I realized that there wasn't going to be any further character development. The characters were fully formed, but they were wooden. The only other explanation for their reactions, emotions, and absences we'd get would be delivered in monologue--either by themselves or the narrator.

I felt and understood this great love exactly once: [spoilers ahead!] Yuri is headed home to confess his affair with Lara to his pregnant wife, Tonia. On the way, he convinces himself that he really didn't end things right with Lara and should probably go back and talk to her again. (Eye rolling, because you want him to be better--this poet/philosopher/physician--but it's realistic.) He's so overjoyed at the prospect of seeing Lara again, even if it's just to break up with her. But then, on the way, when the reader is anticipating a beautiful love scene, he gets kidnapped by partisans. And marches around the woods with them for about 2 years. And then, when he finally escapes, he goes to Lara's house first so that they can give speeches at each other for hours. "Ugh." [spoilers over]

After that turn in chapter 13, Doctor Zhivago wasn't able to win me back. The coincidences get ludicrous. Reading this, you'd think there are only about four houses in Russia, because everyone keeps appearing at the same places. They walk straight across Siberia and end up at the same house. Really.

(All of that said, Pasternak comes up with some of the more beautiful nature descriptions I've ever read. His scene descriptions are the strongest part of the novel. And the relationship between Lara and Komarovsky in part 1 is, oddly, the most believable and human relationship in the book.)

Once I finished the book, I read the Wikipedia page and a few other online resources. Maybe, I thought, I missed something. Maybe each of these characters is a metaphor for some aspect of Russian culture or history that is lost on me in my ignorance. Maybe that would explain they way they all interact with each other, fade and reappear, go to their fates. But no. At least, I didn't find an interpretation that supported that theory.

So, the question remains: Why is this Nobel-winning novel such a drag? Maybe it's because it's written in a style that modern (American) readers aren't familiar enough with--like trying to watch Lawrence Olivier act and wondering how anyone could ever have stood him for a whole movie. It's not very old (smuggled out of Russia and published in Italy in 1958), but it's a bit old, and it's Russian. Or maybe the reason for its popularity and critical success during the Soviet era had a lot more to do with what it said about the Soviets and less about its plot and characterization. Are the readers or the book to blame?

I don't have enough information to answer the question. But if you're a student of Russian history, I encourage you to read Doctor Zhivago and tell me what you think. Let's talk about it. Because it's very possible I just missed something obvious, and you have something to teach me. ( )
1 vote JLSmither | Dec 6, 2014 |
One of the hardest classic novels I have ever read. I am not sure why, but I had to push myself through this one. I remembered seeing the 1965 movie and 2002 TV miniseries and both encouraged me to actually read the book. Dr. Zhivago is written well, it is easy to understand, but most of the passages in the book are descriptive. Long paragraphs are handed over to describing the physical and the emotional; scenery, weather, objects, thoughts, feelings. There is also a great deal of unfinished thoughts and story arcs that could have been pursued to a relevant conclusion. The story, however, is really, very good. The struggle is very human, the loss, the strife, the emotions are very real and palpable throughout. Despite the difficulty in reading this book, it has become a favourite, and I am glad I read it. ( )
  codename_walter | Sep 23, 2014 |
The translation from Russian seems superior and more elegant than in the American version in my collection ( )
  bjenks | Aug 20, 2014 |
Having earlier read a more stylish translation, I was not at all impressed with this one, particularly the poems, which read very badly.
  bjenks | Aug 15, 2014 |
  CBMcGuire | Aug 14, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 78 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (98 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Pasternak, Borisprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Guerney, Bernard GuilbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harari, ManyaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hayward, MaxTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pevear, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scheepmaker, NicoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Volokhonsky, LarissaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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On they went, singing "Rest Eternal," and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing.
The fear known as spymania had reduced all speech to a single formal, predictable patter. The display of good intentions in discourse was not conductive to conversation.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679774386, Paperback)

n celebration of the 40th anniversary of its original publication, here is the only paperback edition now available of the classic story of the life and loves of a poet/physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:50 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Yuri Zhivago, doctor and poet, lives and loves during the first three decades of 20th-century Russia.

» see all 16 descriptions

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