I’ve come to the end of an incredible year of Russian reading and, I’ve got to say, I’m very proud of myself. I didn’t feel this congratulatory earlier, because there’s nothing really impressive about reading lots of great books. I’ve just finished ‘Doctor Zhivago’ though, and I do deserve some kudos because I’m afraid a slight feeling of smugness is the most I’ve got out of the experience.
‘Doctor Zhivago’ was a humbling and frustrating read. Frustrating for reasons that I’ll get into below, humbling because it moved me closer to the ranks of those who claim they ‘don’t get’ or ‘don’t like’ the most famous Russian literature. I can no longer look on with aloof pity as such claims are made; frankly, I can honestly say that I’ve been there too.
It was all so promising, set against the backdrop of the revolution, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ brings love and romance to a traditionally macho period of history. Pasternak seems to be drawing on the Russian literary tradition and landscape as Yuri Zhivago and the adored Lara try to live out their intellectual and emotional ideals in the midst of the turmoil. The epic scope is shown explicitly through the use of geography as characters frequently pack their bags and travel across the vast country. Now I love epic novels, but it’s hard to keep faith when such a vast landscape is continually undermined by the extremely odd use of coincidence (as soon as people arrive anywhere, they discover all of the other characters have already got there and are living across town). I’m aware that the use of a somewhat limited cast is a traditional feature of Golden Age Russian novels. In the past, however, it’s made sense to me. Tolstoy was writing about the aristocratic elite. Such people would frequent the same areas, live to the same routine, and only ever visit certain prescribed regions of any town. Of course Count Rostov is going to bump into his friends everywhere he goes, they probably only ever walk down about three streets, the rest of the city of Moscow existing only on the periphery of their lives. It’s much less plausible that the son of a failed land-owner is going to repeatedly encounter the daughter of an impoverished dressmaker while a civil war rages around them.
Pasternak uses coincidences like a genre trope, they don’t appear to be significant in themselves but they keep on occurring and succeed in making even the most tragic events seem, sadly, rather silly. There’s the Anna Karenina-style train suicide near the start. This takes place within sight of an estate that young Zhivago is visiting; he’s just been thinking about his estranged father. Then we learn that, on the train, another young boy is meditating on the sudden tragic death of the mysterious man who befriended him during the journey. As a side note, this man has a lawyer who is definitely evil. Turns out the man is Zhivago senior, the boy is Yuri’s friend and the lawyer will seduce Zhivago’s future lover. Surely one of these coincidences would have been enough! It started to feel like some kind of test, was it supposed to be funny, in the stlye of Wilde’s farces or spoofs of gothic novels? I can’t say Yuri Zhivago ever seemed that traumatised by the experience, which is great for him, but did leave me wondering why it had to happen at all and how the book was served by beginning with such an odd set-piece.
Frankly, I found much of the novel disconcerting. It’s long, very long, and yet left me feeling like I was missing out on so much of the narrative that I’d been expecting. Take the following passage:
‘Together with the other local ladies, Lara had been giving a hand at the military ward attached to the town hospital. But now she trained seriously and qualified as a nurse, got permission to be absent from her school for six months and, leaving the house in Marfutka’s care, took [her daughter] Katya to Moscow… Convinced of the futility of trying to get news of [her husband] Pasha in any other way, Lara had decided to go and look for him where he had been heard of last. With this in mind she got a job as a nurse on a hospital train going through the town of Liski to Mezo-Laborch, on the Hungarian border.’
What? Surely that is the plot of a full length novel, not a two paragraph throw-away! How can training as a nurse just be passed over in one sentence? Is getting a leave of absense from any job really this easy? (Lets forget this is revolutionary Russia, presumably even collapsing corrupt bureaucracies don’t just permit state-employed workers to wander off on romantic quests?) Of course, while I was gibbering in frustration, it was clear I was missing the point. The reason Lara needs to make the journey is because guess where Zhivago is going to end up working as a doctor … and there I was thinking life was complicated.
If ‘Doctor Zhivago’ is to work, as it clearly does for so many readers, it needs to be a powerful book about a revolution, a moving love story, or both at the same time. The revolutionary aspects of the book passed me by because, as shown above, the characters are pretty much able to organise their lives as they wish nearly all the time. When things get really bad, mysterious strangers appear in order to hand out money and food. Once I’d realised that the driving force of the novel is romantic rather than political there were new problems, because I simply did not engage with the protagonists. Their scruples, their struggles and the hardships they face in marrying their childhood sweethearts, living with adoring spouses, being set free by said spouses to engage in in blissful infidelity and so on, also failed to move me.
There we are, I’ve finished my year of Russian reading and it has taught me that not every book is a winner and that I was overly-aspirational in my ambition to use my blog to spread joy rather than as a dumping ground for rants. I really did want to enjoy ‘Zhivago’ though. Please, if anyone out there has enjoyed reading it, do get in touch; I would love to have my mind changed about the Nobel-winning classic.