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Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
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Doctor Zhivago (1957)

by Boris Pasternak

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
8,859119599 (3.87)1 / 593
Yuri Zhivago, doctor and poet, lives and loves during the first three decades of 20th-century Russia.
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    BeeQuiet: This is one of my favourite books; it explores themes of modernity, providing a fresh insight moving away from the idea that modernity is about fixed repeated sequences. It works through various texts from Goethe, Marx and Baudelaire, through to works created in St Petersburg by authors living in a time when modernity seemed to be passing them by in another world. This is why I would suggest it to anyone fascinated by Russian literature as it gives a brilliant new perspective on the reasons behind their writing.… (more)
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1950s (45)
Europe (127)
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English (108)  French (3)  Yiddish (2)  Hebrew (2)  Italian (2)  Dutch (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (119)
Showing 1-5 of 108 (next | show all)
What a weird book, man. I can say with 100% certainty that I've never read anything that's been written quite like this, so before we get to what's good and bad, let's talk about the strange.

If you're aiming to enjoy Doctor Zhivago, you'll have to get over a few big things. Firstly, you'll need to forget how gigantic Russia is and how bizarre it is that the whole country seems to be inhabited by nine or so people that keep running into each other all the time. Walking along some random ass railroad tracks? You'll see a guy you know. Traversing a firebombed village? You'll run into a kid you know. That's just how it works.

Secondly, you'll need to adjust your understanding of what a conversation is. These people NEVER talk to each other. One person will stand next to another and then soliloquize off into the distance while the other occasionally says something like, "You speak so well!"

Finally, don't be surprised if you don't have a clue which characters are relevant to the narrative and which aren't until the end of the novel. You get swamped with names in the first 50 pages, some of which are vital, some of which disappear entirely (damn you, Voskoboinikov!). I've read a ton of Russian lit and have never struggled with names the way I did with Doctor Zhivago.

What makes this book particularly strange to me, though, is the way Pasternak actually acknowledges these oddities in several encounters throughout the novel. In reference to the incredible chance encounters that Yuri Zhivago has with his half-brother, Pasternak writes: "As usual, he dropped from the sky... As always before, the riddle of his power remained unexplained. Yuri Andreevich did not even try to penetrate the mystery." To me, that says, "Yeah, I know it's weird that people keep running into each other all the time, but sometimes, that's just how things go. Don't worry about it."

In terms of the conversations that aren't quite conversations, the interaction between Zhivago and his uncle Nikolai upon returning home from the war is described by Pasternak thusly: "The two men constantly exclaimed and rushed about the room, clutching their heads from the faultlessness of each other's conjectures, or went to the window and silently drummed on the glass with their fingers, amazed at the proofs of mutual understanding."That is EVERY CONVERSATION. We aren't privy to the words of this particular one, but we can easily picture good old Uncle Kolya dropping five paragraphs as Yuri bangs his head on the wall yelling, "Good God, this is brilliant!" Is it a weakness in Pasternak's writing that every conversation he describes, even one without the words, is the exact same? After reflecting more on Yuri and Nikolai's conversation, I think it's a deliberate attempt to illustrate one of the novel's most important themes.

Yuri Zhivago's greatest "failure" as a Russian during the October Revolution is his individuality. Dissent of any kind, be it armed resistance or just speech, was quickly and violently quashed, to the point where, in Pasternak's view, interaction and discussion of ideas became nothing more than groupthink that would rapidly veer in a radical direction. Look at every conversation that takes place in the novel after the abdication of the tsar, and keep track of what happens to those with a dissenting voice. Resistance to ideas in Doctor Zhivago is just as dangerous as resisting the Red Army, albeit in a different way. Intellectual disagreement quickly becomes ancient history.

Unfortunately, this leads me to my one big beef with the book. One of my favorite "conversations" occurs between Zhivago and his friend Misha Gordon about the Jewish people, who at the time (like most times in their history) were suffering through a great period of persecution in Russia. Gordon makes the point that, despite his own Jewish heritage and distaste for religious persecution, much of the suffering of the Jews is due to their collective identity. He argues that their refusal to individualize and their continued struggle to remain a united Jewish community is a bizarre and unnecessary sacrifice, given the fact that their identity as Jews limits both their ideological and economic development.

Could this point be made about the Soviet Union as a whole? Of course it could. But for some reason, in a process not described in the book, after the February Revolution, Misha Gordon becomes boring and uninspired. Here's how it's justified in the book: Apparently, [Zhivago] had overestimated [his friends] earlier. As long as the order of things had allowed the well-to-do to be whimsical and eccentric at the expense of the deprived, how easy it had been to mistake for a real face and originality that whimsicality and the right to idleness which the minority enjoyed while the majority suffered!
But as soon as the lower strata arose and the privileges of the upper strata were abolished, how quickly everyone faded, how unregretfully they parted with independent thinking, which none of them, evidently, had ever had!
What a load of garbage that is. In a book full of insanely lucky coincidences, this is as contrived as it gets.

So now that Misha is out of the running, we can at least count on Zhivago to make the point that Gordon no longer could: that the forced collective identity of the Revolution hindered thought and progress. Except we can't.

About 200 pages after Gordon's talk, Larissa Antipova, the best character in the novel, makes an incredibly similar point about Jews to Zhivago. Here's where my mouth waters. "Good!" I say. "Zhivago's going to finally break it all down." But no. Larissa asks Zhivago if he agrees with her, and here's his response: "I haven't thought about it. I have a friend, a certain Gordon, who is of the same opinion."WHAT? This is a punt to end all punts, as the topic never comes up again, and it absolutely baffles me. I'm willing to believe quite a bit, especially when it comes to fiction. I refuse to believe that after the most interesting dialogue in the book, one of the men involved becomes dumb, and the other never thinks about it again, which is even worse. It might sound strange that I want a point of view that I came up with independently to be elucidated by a fictional character, but to me, having Zhivago not make this argument is wildly inconsistent from who he is throughout the rest of the novel. I'd like to believe this was intentional, like some of the other things that feel weird about the book, but I just don't think so.

That all being said, I can't forget to mention how good the good parts are. The last 10 pages (excluding the utterly useless epilogue) are as heart-wrenching as it gets. Anything involving Larissa is wonderful, and I wish more of the book had been written from her perspective.

I also would have liked more of Uncle Nikolai, specifically because of his arc. He's the best part of the book's first 50 pages. He's intelligent and incredibly influential, especially on Zhivago and Misha Gordon. His belief in the power and importance of the individual carries Zhivago throughout his life. So why in the world does he ally himself with the Bolsheviks? A case is never made, and this is a problem for me. The Bolshevik cause is never defended enough to give people like Nikolai and Gordon any reason to join it. I get that this is an anti-Soviet work (which probably led to Pasternak's Nobel Prize), but in a novel that largely shied away from politics, this seemed too much of a good vs. evil dynamic to justify good, intelligent people throwing their support behind Lenin.

I still don't know what I think about any of this. I guess losing the privileges of the upper strata has really hindered my individuality. ( )
  bgramman | May 9, 2020 |
Russian, fiction ( )
  lanewillson | Apr 4, 2020 |
The October revolution took several years. Yuri was never happy, nor were his women. ( )
  LindaLeeJacobs | Feb 15, 2020 |
A true classic. While I enjoyed the move, I have to confess I like the movie a bit more. To each their own. Recommended. ( )
  scottcholstad | Jan 13, 2020 |
Rereading this absorbing saga after Lara Prescott's historical fiction ("The Secrets We Kept") where "Doctor Zhivago" was one of the main themes. Still impressed, like after the first two readings of this book long ago (one in the original and one in English), but now somehow seeing it with a more critical eye.

This time around (maybe after reading other books of the period) Pasternak's dialogues didn't sound as natural as before, and in general, quoting another reviewer, it was not as "profound" as I would expect Nobel Prize writing to be. Probably at the time of its controversial publication (abroad at first, rather than in its home country) in the middle of the Cold War it was on that level, though. Lara Prescott's book hints at the reason. All in all, after 10 years from the last reading, I went down a notch in the book's appreciation, and now I give it only 4 stars. ( )
1 vote Clara53 | Jan 7, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 108 (next | show all)
At the beginning of his novel Pasternak deliberately deprives the Zhivago family of its wealth, as a kind of symbolic prelude to the revolution that is to come. Like so much else in the novel it happens as arbitrarily as if in a fairy tale: the rich king suddenly becomes a poor beggar. “There was a Zhivago factory, a Zhivago bank, Zhivago buildings, a Zhivago necktie pin,…and at one time if you said ‘Zhivago’ to your sleigh driver in Moscow, it was as if you had said: ‘Take me to Timbuctoo!’ and he carried you off to a fairy tale kingdom.” This wealth of gold both symbolizes and contrasts with the wealth of life which will be the precious gift and possession of the son, the hero of the novel...

Tossed about like corks in the tumult, people are thrown up against one another in all sorts of unexpected ways and places. The ruthless partisan commander turns out to be the same young officer we used to know, rumored to have been killed in an attack on the Austrian entrenchments in 1916. The old Swiss lady walking past the trolley in which Zhivago has his fatal heart attack was the former governess of a noble Russian whom he had known briefly when they both worked at a hospital during the war. And this final coming together is in any case unknown to both parties, without apparent significance. And yet everything in life has significance, just because it is life, the thing itself, and not the abstract vision of how it ought to be for which the tyrants of ideology drench the world in blood. As Zhivago observes, you must live, you cannot always be making preparations for living—a sharp comment on the Communist promise that everything is going to be wonderful, some day in the future.
added by SnootyBaronet | editNew York Review of Books, John Bayley (Mar 7, 1991)
 
Those who expect some kind of counter-revolutionary or anti-Soviet journalism from Dr Zhivago will be disappointed. It is not, in that sense, a political novel at all, although it is entirely about the effects of the revolution of 1905, the First World War, the 1917 revolution and the last war, upon a group of families of the upper-class intelligentsia and others. Pasternak is apolitical. His temper is Christian; Marxism is dismissed scornfully as half-baked folly and pomposity...

There is no cliche of invention in Pasternak; there is no eccentricity either. He has the eye of nature. Another refreshing quality is the freedom from the Anglo-American obsession with sex. In love, he is concerned with the heart. It is hard to imagine an English, French or American novel on Pasternak’s subject that would not be an orgy of rape or creeping sexuality.

Dr Zhivago is a great mound of minutely observed particulars and this particularity is, of course, expressive of his central attitude - his stand for private life and integrity.
added by SnootyBaronet | editNew Yorker, V.S. Pritchett
 
Doctor Zhivago has no doubt been much read—like other books that promise to throw some light on the lives of our opposite numbers in the Soviet Union—out of simple curiosity. But it is not really a book about Russia in the sense that the newspaper accounts of it might lead the reader to expect; it is a book about human life, and its main theme is death and resurrection...

Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history. Nobody could have written it in a totalitarian state and turned it loose on the world who did not have the courage of genius. May his guardian angel be with him! His book is a great act of faith in art and in the human spirit.
added by SnootyBaronet | editNew Yorker, Edmund Wilson
 

» Add other authors (116 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Pasternak, Borisprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Guerney, Bernard GuilbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harari, ManyaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hayward, MaxTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Konkka, JuhaniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pevear, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prins, AaiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reschke, ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scheepmaker, NicoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Volokhonsky, LarissaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zveteremich, PietroTranslatorsecondary 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.
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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.
After two or three stanzas that came pouring and several metaphors by which he was himself surprised, the work took possession of him, and he began to feel the presence of what is called inspiration. At such moments the correlation of the forces that govern artistic genius have as it were been turned upside down. It is no longer the man and the state of his soul, for which he is seeking expression, that are in the ascendancy now, but the language. his instrument of expression. Language, the home and dwelling of beauty and meaning, itself begins to think and speak for man and turns wholly into music, not in the sense of outward, audible sounds, but by virtue of the power and momentum of its inward flow. Then, like the current of a mighty river polishing stones and turning wheels by its very movement, the flow of speech creates in passing, by the force of its own laws, rhyme and rhythm and countless other forms and formations, still more important and until now undiscovered, unconsidered and unnamed.
The rising sun had cast the long dewy shadow of trees in loops over the park grounds. The shadow was not black but dark gray like wet felt. The heady fragrance of the morning seemed to come from this damp shadow on the ground, with strips of light in it like a girl’s fingers. Suddenly a streak of quicksilver, as shiny as the dew on the grass, flowed by him a few paces away. It flowed on and on and the ground did not absorb it. Then, with an unexpectedly sharp movement, it swerved aside and vanished.
He began to write down the legend of St George and the Dragon in lyrical form. He started with broad, spacious pentameter, but its harmony, derived from the metre itself, and independent of the sense, annoyed him by its slick, humdrum sing-song. He gave up the pompous rhythm and the caesura and cut down the lines to four beats, as you cut out useless words in prose.... The writing was livelier but still too verbose. He forced himself to shorter lines. Now the words were crammed in their tetrameters and he felt wide awake, roused, excited; the right words to fill the shot lines came, prompted by the measure.... He heard the horses' hoofs ringing on the surface of the poem as you hear the trotting of a horse in one of Chopin's Ballades.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book. DO NOT combine with film.
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