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)