Book 138: Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago counts for three challenges, and actually wraps up one of my 2012 Challenges! It counts for the Back to the Classics Challenge (6 of 9), The Classics Club (12 of 100), and is my final book for the Tea and Books (8 of 8) challenge! I will do a wrap up post for the Tea and Books challenge early next week. For the Back to the Classics Challenge, this book was the novel from a place I realistically wouldn’t visit. After reading Doctor Zhivago and Anna Karenina I can say my aversion to visiting Russia is less, but I still would list it as not likely to travel to.

One thing I’ve learned that is vitally important when reading a classic novel is that you have to read the introduction. Sure it might tack on 20-30 extra pages, but they are there for a reason and they reveal so much information that is incredibly useful when reading a book, not to mention they give you a head’s up of what to look for as you read. For example, in the introduction to Doctor Zhivago, the following quote points out how the novel is written.

“Pasternak’s vision is defined by real presence, by an intensity of physical sensation rendered in the abundance of natural description or translated into the voices of his many characters.” (loc. 146)

And although this prepared me for how the novel, it didn’t really. Doctor Zhivago is only the second piece of Russian literature I can recall reading I don’t want to make any generalizations, but I sort of can. As both this and Anna Karenina are written in the Russian epic style, they both provide broad sweeping views of society, the Russian Landscape and people’s emotions. This is both a good thing and a bad thing and it was definitely an adjustment for me. II’m not sure how much more Russian literature I will read, but it was fun to step out of my comfort zone.

I accidentally read these novels in chronological order. Anna Karenina takes place at the end of the Russian Empire and Doctor Zhivago takes place during the revolution. I have very strong opinions about the feasibility of communism and socialism. I mean don’t get me wrong, theoretically they are a great idea and have great potential of working in a society starting with no history, no identity and no connection to the outside world, like Pasternak writes,

“If anyone were given the task of creating a new world, of beginning a new chronology, he would surely need to have a corresponding space cleared for him first. He would wait first of all for the old times to end, before he set about building the new, he would need a round number, a new paragraph, a blank page.” (227)

One of the reasons this novel wasn’t published until the late 1950s, and then published in Italian in Italy, was it’s critiques on the ruling regime. Here are a few of the lines which I particularly appreciated as realistic views of the government’s ability to govern,

“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!” (202)

and perhaps where he most succinctly gets to the point of it being a great idea theoretically, but not quite so great once it’s put into practice,

“But these things live in their original purity only in the heads of their creators, and then only on the first day of their proclamation.” (284)

Needless to say, you can see why the novel wasn’t very popular in Russia at the time of its publication and why Pasternak refused the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year.

Before I close out this response, which is even more random than usual, I want to mention that although the novel is long it is a good read. Boris Pasternak was an incredible writer. His phrases and his beautiful descriptions stunned me on occasion and I had to re-read a few to truly appreciate the beauty. One example is when he describes the changing seasons,

“Autumn had already sharply marked the boundary between the coniferous and deciduous worlds in the forest. The first bristled in its depths like a gloomy, almost black wall; the second shone through the open spaces in fiery, wine-colored patches, like an ancient town with a fortress and gold-topped towers, built in the thick of the forest from its own timber.” (402)

Between the words he uses (and the translators chose) the description embodies the weather, the season, the time, the place. In short, it’s fantastic. You should definitely check out some of his other quotes below, especially those about art and history.

Recommendation: Definitely read it. It is definitely a slog, but it was worth it. Pasternak is an incredible writer even if he is not that succinct of a story teller.

Opening Line: “They walked and walked and sang ‘Memory Eternal.’ and whenever they stopped, the singing seemed to be carried on by their feet, the horses, the gusts of wind.”

Closing Line: “And it was as if the book in their hands knew it all and lent their feelings support and confirmation.” (Whited out.)

Additional Quotes from Doctor Zhivago
“The unforeseen is the most beautiful gift life can give us. That is what we must think of multiplying in our domain. That is what should have been talked about in this assembly, and no one has said a word about it … Art is inconceivable without risk, without inner sacrifice; freedom and boldness of imagination can be won only in the process of work, and it is there that the unforeseen I spoke of a moment ago must intervene, and there no directives can help.” (loc. 282)

“Only the solitary seek the truth, and they break with all those who don’t love it sufficiently.” (8)

“And what is history? It is the setting in motion of centuries of work at the gradual unriddling of death and its eventual overcoming.” (9)

“Separately, all the movements of the world were calculatedly sober, but as a sum total they were unconsciously drunk with the general current of life that united them.” (12)

“Now, as never before, it was clear to him that art is always, ceaselessly, occupied with two things. It constantly reflects on death and thereby constantly creates life.” (103)

“How is it he doesn’t understand that it’s he, not the cannon, who should be new and not repeat himself, that the accumulation of a great quantity of senselessness in a notebook will never arrive at any sense, that facts don’t exist until a man puts something of his own into them, some share of whimsical human genius, something of the fantastic.” (141)

“The rapture of life, like a gentle wind, went in a broad wave, not noticing where, over the earth and the town, through walls and fences, through wood and flesh, seizing everything with trembling on its way.” (162)

“My long-standing thought that art is not the name of a category or sphere that embraces a vast multitude of notions and ramified phenomena, but, on the contrary, is something narrow and concentrated, the designation of a principle that enters into the composition of an artistic work, the name of the force applied or the truth worked out in it. And to me art has never seemed a subject or an aspect of form, but rather a mysterious and hidden part of content. To me it is clear as day, I feel it with my every fiber, but how express and formulate this thought?” (332)

“The correlation of forces that control creative work is, as it were, stood on its head. The primacy no longer belongs to man and the state of his soul, for which he seeks expression, but to the language in which he wants to express it. Language, the homeland and receptacle of beauty and meaning, itself begins to think and speak for man and turns wholly into music, not in terms of external, audible sounds, but in terms of the swiftness and power of its inner flow.” (516)

“Moscow now seemed to them, not the place of these events, but the main heroine of a long story, which they had reached the end of that evening, with the notebook in their hands.” (611)

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25 thoughts on “Book 138: Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

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  4. I’ve been meaning to read this book for the past year, but I suspect it might still be a few years before I get to it since I have other Russian books that take precedence (War and Peace foremost!). I’ve always been nervous about the Russian writers, but having begun W&P I think I’ll do fine with them. 😀

    And I know what you mean about reading the introductions. It’s something I began doing only in the last two or three years. Like you said, it really does help figure out how the rest of the book is to be read.

    And congratulations on finishing your Tea and Books challenge. 8 books of over 750 pages in one year is amazing!

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    • War and Peace is on my Classics Club list so I will eventually get around to it. I was surprised at how easy they were to read, what got to me was the length! I guess it’s just those books written in the Russian ‘epic style’ which are most famous and therefore they all have that tediousness. (Just an assumption, but who knows.) I’m definitely looking forward to W&P though.

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      • I’ve never heard of Russian classic that isn’t an epic. Perhaps, the length of the Russian novels had something to do with their weather? Perhaps, with a writer being snowed in all the time, the only thing he could do was write, write and write. No time for walks in the woods or by the lake to dream and draw inspiration?…hmmm…

        And yes, I suspect the translation we pick up also matters a great deal. I didn’t care much for the Madam Bovary translation I had…put me off the reading experience quite a bit!

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        • Haahaa – exactly, about the snow. Although I appreciated that both books I’ve read got through to me that Russia isn’t completely Siberia, and that there are major parts of Russia that have huge agricultural outputs. I was a little shocked by that.

          Translations are incredibly rough. I also read a rough translation of Madame Bovary (it was the free version :-D), but I have to wonder if I read a version that was better translated if I would’ve appreciated it more. I definitely felt this was a beautiful translation and can only imagine how much more beautiful it must be in the original Russian.

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  5. The more I read of the Russians, the more I like them. There’s something about how they philosophize everything that fills my need for deep conversation. 🙂 I still haven’t read this one though! I was hoping to get to it this year, but don’t know if I will.

    I’ve tended to avoid introductions because I feel like it takes away some of the twists and turns of the journey, but the idea that it helps you appreciate it so much more is a convincing argument…maybe I’ll give it a shot on the next classic.

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    • I agree about the philosophizing. There were points where it got to be a bit much, but it was definitely a great change of pace. (I’m glad I saved a fun book for when I finished to clear my mind again.)

      They can definitely remove some of the plot twists, but in general I’ve found they don’t always reveal everything. Perhaps going back and reading it afterward would work for you? I guess because most of the ‘classics’ I read I vaguely know the story so I’m prepared for any revelations the introduction might produce.

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  6. I finally read this last year, after loving the movie since I was a teenager. What I found interesting is that I shed all the tears for Zhivago and Laura in the movie (my heart breaks for them)… but when I read the book? No sympathy. I was so incredibly irritated by their selfishness and their disregard for the people they were hurting. Weird, huh? I reviewed it last year, if you care to check it out on my site. I did enjoy the book overall, though.

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    • I’m not surprised – I find that with most adaptations of books they seem to up the love quotient and reduce the selfishness. Which is funny because selfish egotistical individuals on reality TV are definitely all the craze these days! But I guess with this being such a classic, it would definitely have it’s own twist on the film. I’m debating on whether I will actually try and watch it. 😀 I will definitely check out your review and see your full thoughts on it.

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  7. The quotes from the book are beautiful. I keep putting off the Russians because I think it will take me months and months to read any of their books. Which do you suggest starting with this one or Anna Karenina?

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    • I don’t think it’ll take months, but it might take weeks! But like I’ll mention in my post on Monday, both Anna Karenina and Doctor Zhivago are conveniently divided into distinct books so if you’re struggling you can take a break and then go back to them.

      You could start with either, I’m glad I read them in the order I did (unplanned) because they were chronological in Russia’s history. But as I mentioned above to Risa, it depends on the translations as well, I would recommend this version of Zhivago (kindle edition) before the pre-1923 free version of Karenina.

      (PS – Thanks for the follow! :-D)

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  8. I had a similar experience with Pasternak, finding that though he was no novelist, he was bursting with ideas and good gravy, could the man write a nature description. I was more eager to check out his poetry for that reason. Doesn’t his verse seem surprisingly… spare and concrete… compared to his prose? (in case your edition included some of his poems, too)

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    • There was quite a bit of poetry and it was beautiful. At the point I read it though, I was ready to be finished. I will have to go back and read it at some point in the future when I’ve given my mind a break from the novel itself.

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  9. Pingback: Tea & Books Reading Challenge 2012 – COMPLETE! | The Oddness of Moving Things

  10. This is a tough, long book – but you’re right. It is worth it. Although, now I’m questioning if I actually did finish it? Hmm….

    But on the topic of introductions: I almost always skip them initially. I have been burned by too many times by spoilers in the introduction, that it is almost an instinct now to just pass it by. That said, I will occasionally glance through it while reading or even more likely once I’ve finished and am mulling the book over. -Sarah

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    • I know what you mean, but I guess I don’t mind so much with it being ruined. If I’m afraid something might be revealed in the introduction I’ll put it on hold until I get past that point in the book and go back and read them. I guess they are there more for people who have already read them or want a more in depth reading (another reason I don’t mind the spoilers), plus a lot of times I’ll forget about the introduction and be like WHOA when whatever it is happens.

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