Russian Reading Finale: ‘Doctor Zhivago’, oh dear.

bookshelf_bannerI’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.

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‘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.

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Probably the film is now more famous than the source novel, but I still haven’t seen it … I do plan to, as soon as I get hold of a copy.

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19 Responses to Russian Reading Finale: ‘Doctor Zhivago’, oh dear.

  1. roughghosts says:

    I have not read this but I am afraid I have heard your sentiments echoed more than once. I know my mother was a huge fan of the movie. This may be one of those rare circumstances where the movie is actually better than the book!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Sorry you didn’t enjoy Zhivago. I did, describing it as being “about Russia and its revolution, and the human characters who play out their lives during the tale are there to represent the different aspects of life at the time.” My review is here if you’d like a read : https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/the-book-is-always-better/

    I felt the coincidences you mention were meant to reflect a Russian belief in fate and destiny – but who knows! 😀

    • Thank you so much for the link. I do like the argument you make for the novel being almost mythic (which explains the coincidences) and also a portrait of a country in turmoil and confict (which explains the episodic narrative that also annoyed me). It makes much more sense as a novel of trauma than the romantic/realist epic I was expecting – thank you for the more positive perspective!

      • kaggsysbookishramblings says:

        Well, the joy of being readers is that we’ll all respond differently to a text! But I do think the book was more about the country than the people, and our expectations of it are rather moulded by the image of the film.

      • In my defence, I still haven’t seen the film – but your point does stand, because I know the poster and the film’s reputation, and I’m sure these have given me specific expectations of the book itself!

  3. Sorry this didn’t work so well for you. I’m hoping to read Dr. Zhivago maybe in 2016, and now I’m intrigued and slightly scared at the same time. I’m wondering… which translation did you read?

    • I read the 1958 Hayward and Harari translation. The reason I didn’t mention it in the review is that my issues with the novel are absolutely not about the language but about the plot, structure and characterisation. No translation is going to make me happy about the number of crazy coincidences in the story (though Karen’s review may help me change my mind…)

  4. Interesting review – I’ve not read the book but I sometimes feel like I’m the only person who didn’t like the film (visually stunning but the central romance left me cold) so I suspect the novel definitely won’t be for me!

  5. FictionFan says:

    I haven’t read the novel, but I did read a kind of autobiography of Pasternak combined with the story of the publication of Zhivago, and when I reviewed it several people commented on the similarities between the book and Pasternak’s own life. Sadly I came away from it really disliking and despising Pasternak, which made me fairly confident I’d dislike Zhivago too – especially since I’m not a fan of the Russian style in general. And I must say your criticisms of it do tend to confirm the similarities…

    Here’s my review – https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/16/the-zhivago-affair-the-kremlin-the-cia-and-the-battle-over-a-forbidden-book-by-peter-finn-and-petra-couvee/

    • Oooh, thank you for reminding me of this book. It’s been on my radar for a while and is currently being re-run on the BBC’s Book of the Week http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b048jflr
      I really didn’t like either the character of Zhivago or the omniscient narrator – there are some sections of the book full of criticisims of Zhivago’s friends and it all felt rather mean spiritied. I know that there is a big difference between a real person and their literary creations so even alter-egos should be treated as entirely fictional; still, the novel did not endear me to Pasternak at all!

  6. Stefanie says:

    You know it’s kind of funny, of all the books you’ve read, this one is probably the most “popular” best-sellerish one and you end up not liking it much. I’ve not read it but I have seen the movie and confess that the movie left me wondering what the heck all the fuss was about. 🙂

    • I know! And I find it frustrating because I don’t want to be that pretentious person who recommends Krzhizhanovsky over DZ but I’m afraid it’s happened despite my best efforts…

  7. Reblogged this on ckbooksblog and commented:
    See, I’m not the only person who is critical of novels that seemingly many other love. I haven’t read “Doctor Zhivago” and from this post, it won’t be on my list anytime soon.

  8. Geoff W says:

    Congrats! I’m definitely one of those people that “survived” the Russians. I think a lot of Doctor Zhivago‘s fame comes from the movie adaptation that everyone loved.

    • I’ve had so many hits and so few misses with my Russian reading, it was just such a shame to end with this! Still, all the more reason to let the project spill over into the new year 🙂

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