Dr. Zhivago: Book Two

The Bolshevik by Kustodiev

I am a sucker for Russian novels, for snow and despair, and for tragic love stories. Anna (Karenina), Emma (Bovary), and now Larissa (Feodorovna), tell me how it didn’t work out for you, and I will feel sympathetic for your loss. I shouldn’t; it’s your own damn fault that you were married and chose to love another. But, I do. Because these things happen. In the midst of war, or the boredom of everyday lives, or utter isolation, it would be easy to be led astray. But how much harder to suffer the consequences.

Lara’s husband is fighting for freedom; after searching for him, assuming him dead, she is left alone to raise their daughter, Katenka. Yuri Zhivago was taken captive by the army to help the wounded. After he escapes, he is a fugitive. While living with Lara, they can neither return to their respective homes nor make a new one together. It is a hopeless situation, indicative to me of the hopelessness found in Russia during the October Revolution. Their joy together is brief and ultimately destined for despair.

“The closer this woman and her daughter became to him, the less he dared to think of them as family and the stricter was the control imposed on his thoughts by his duty to his own family and the pain of his broken faith…But the division in him was a sorrow and a torment, and he became accustomed to it only as one gets used to an unhealed and frequently reopened wound.” (p. 406)

But before that, their relationship is explained as this:

“Their love was great. Most people experience love without becoming aware of the extraordinary nature of this emotion. But to them–and this made them exceptional–the moments when passion visited their doomed human existence like a breath of eternity were moments of revelation, of continually new discoveries about themselves and life.” (p. 395)

How can it be both, a torment and a revelation? Perhaps in a similar way that the Bolsheviks are striving for their place in Russia…

A book of tremendous layers, political as well as social, it is always the story of Yuri and  Lara which most moves me. I can almost cry with her as

“she was shaken by her repressed sobs. She fought her tears as long as she could, but at times it was beyond her strength and they burst from her, pouring down her cheeks and onto her dress, her hands, and the coffin, to which she clung.

She neither spoke nor thought. Sequences of ideas, notions, insights, truths drifted and sailed freely through her mind, like clouds in the sky, as happened so often before during their nighttime conversations. It was such things that had brought them happiness and liberation in those days. A spontaneous mutual understanding, warm, instinctive, immediate.” (p. 501)

A mutual understanding which they were forced to forfeit because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Find more thoughts from Frances, Bookssnob, Marie, Jess, and Joan.

Dr. Zhivago: Book One

“In these days one longs so much to live honestly and productively! One wants so much to be part of the general inspiration! and then, amidst the joy that grips everyone, I meet your mysteriously mirthless gaze, wandering  no one knows where, in some far-off kingdom, in some far-off land. What wouldn’t I give for it not to be there, for it to be written on your face that you are pleased with your fate and need nothing from anyone. So that somebody close to you, your friend or husband (best if he were a military man), would take me by the hand and ask me not to worry about your lot and not to burden with you with my attention. And I would tear my hand free, swing, and…Ah, I’ve forgotten myself! Forgive me, please.” (p. 129)

Forget the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks and the aristocracy, the Ural Mountains and even the translations. What I love most about Dr. Zhivago is the love story. So slowly developing between Yuri and Larissa, their affair is tender and sweet, perhaps even more so for its backdrop of war.

I read Boris Pasternak’s novel several years ago, the cover of which I’ve pictured here. It was translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari, and lest I sound like I’m spitting in the eye of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, I loved it.
The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace translations by Peavear and Volokhonsky were outstanding. I read them both, and I enjoyed them both very much.
But somehow, their translation of Dr. Zhivago, to which the New York Review of Books declared “the English-speaking world is indebted” leaves me a bit surprised. There’s nothing wrong with it, of course. It just reads a bit like “bricks are falling out of one’s mouth” as a pastor I know described the American Standard translation of the Bible. It’s choppy somehow, and I had to read it very slowly so as not to get lost, while I practically breezed though the translation you see above. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.
In any case, I love Russian novels. I love Dr. Zhivago, no matter who’s bringing it to me. And I look forward to discussing it in further detail the next time it comes around, which will be for Book Two on November 30, 2010. Read-along hosted by the lovely Frances.

(Find thoughts which amplify mine about the new translation from the Guardian here. In a nutshell: “Volokhonsky-Pevear are ruled by the principle of literal fidelity, Hayward-Harari by the imperatives of clarity, elegance and euphony.”)

The Winter Classics Challenge Completed

On January 2, 2007, booklogged announced she was hosting the Winter Classics Challenge. In this delightful challenge, one chooses five Classics to complete in January and February. Luckily for me, I was home for all of December and January, and I was able to complete my five Classics before the end of this month. So, here they are in order of completion, the five Classics I read to meet this Challenge:


Dr. Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak was completed in 1956, smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1957, and first published in Russian in Milan at that time. It wasn’t until 1988 that it became published in the Soviet Union. Its 592 pages tell the story of The Russian Revolution of 1917, and the story of a man ((Zhivago) whose life is slowly destroyed by the violence of the revolution. It won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1958.

I loved this book because no one was left unscathed by the ravages of war; it seemed universally applicable to any culture. I also loved it for adding to my understanding of Russian history, for the beautiful setting in Winter, and for the portrayal of relationships. The movie, with Julie Christie and Omar Shariff, did not do this book justice in my opinion.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is set in between the period of 1775, at the beginning of the American Revolution, and 1789, at the storming of the Bastille in France. It tells the story of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, both of whom are in love with Lucie Manette. The story slowly, slowly builds to an astounding conclusion of sacrifice, while weaving in the characters of Lucie’s father and Madame DeFarge who is a female revolutionary with a grudge against the Darney family. The whole time I was reading it my father was saying, “Madame DeFarge, knitting, knitting, knitting…” and looking at me with raised eyebrows and a laugh. It’s opening line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” remains among the most famous lines in English literature.

This summer, I began working through the Pulitzer Prize winning novels, and California Teacher Guy recommended I read A Bell For Adano by John Hersey. It was first published in 1944, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. It tells the story of the town of Adano, in Sicily, whose 700 year old bell has been taken down and melted for ammunition by the Fascists. The Major who comes to this town, and transforms it into a democracy, is a character I will never forget. He has a heart, does not abide by the rules for rules’ sake, and empowers the people with his laughter, acceptance and courage. This has to be one of my favorite books of all time.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis was also recommended to me by a friend. (Interestingly, it’s author, Sinclair Lewis, worked at one time as a secretary for John Hersey in the 1930’s.) Sinclair Lewis was not an author I was familiar with, although he may be best known for his novel Babbit. Main Street was first published in 1920, and was Lewis’ first commercial success. It tells the story of small town America in the 20’s through the eyes of a young girl named Carol Kennicott. She comes to the town as a young bride, where she is quite distressed over its dullness. She attempts to transform it into an intellectually stimulating “city” with no success, running into a “wall of bigotry, hypocrisy and complacency” every where she turns. I was personally startled at what I perceived to be her selfishness, leaving her husband to go to Washington for a few years (which reminds me of Anne Tyler’s novel in which the woman is sick of her family and just leaves to begin a new life somewhere else. Who, with any character is able to do that?) and pretending to be more than she really is. Again, this novel is applicable to many places today. Only, I’m trying to get our Now Huge Town small again. But, that would be egotistical of me, wouldn’t it?

Finally, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky was first published in twelve monthly installments in 1866. Along with Tolstoy’s War and Peace it is considered one of the best known and most influential Russian novels of all time. It tells the story of Raskolnikov, who in many ways reminded me of my brother. Poor, destitute, and filled with little ability to make wise choices, Raskolnikov kills an old woman who is a pawnbroker for her money. Which he never, in fact, uses. Through the course of the novel, he gradually realizes the seriousness of his crime, and he develops a growing need to confess. Against this backdrop, we see him protect his sister from an awful suitor and potentially disastrous marriage. He also falls in love with a prostitute, who, in the end, provides his redemption. (I also counted this as the first of my Chunkster Challenge reads because of its 448 pages. I’m not sure if it’s quite fair to double up like that… )

In conclusion: Classics are my favorite genre. They contain lessons, and people of character which I sorely miss in contemporary fiction. Their length gives me enough time to be fully absorbed in the story, and it’s almost with dread that I finish the last page because I’m so immersed. I found Winter to be the perfect time to curl up with a classic, especially the Russian ones with their setting of snow. So, thank you, booklogged, for this exciting challenge which made me feel I’d really accomplished something during my weeks at home recovering from surgery.

Dr. Zhivago: The Perfect Winter Read

I love this book.

It’s the first time I’ve ever read it, finishing it a few days ago. To me, it has all the parts a novel needs to have to make it compelling: beautiful writing; historical/realistic setting; the characters’ inner anguish; unresolved love; something philosophical to ponder after one turns the last page.

Okay, it helps that I love winter. It helps that I love Russia. It helps that I love classic literature. But, truly, I recommend this book with all my heart.

Of course, don’t judge it by the movie you may have seen with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. That particular film only glosses over the top of this multi-faceted story. As Roger Ebert said, “So, yes, it’s soppy and manipulative and mushy. But that train looks real enough to ride.” Ebert may have sensed, as I do, that the movie not only skips over crucial revelations as to a character’s heart, it inaccurately portrays several of the scenes Pasternak wrote. The most glaring one to me, and I have only seen the movie once, many years ago, is this: Zhivago, near the end of the film, sees Lara walking down the sidewalk. In an effort to get to her, he suffers a heart attack trying to leave the train.

But this is not how the novel ends at all! He is indeed on the train. His heart, which has been weak all his life, pounds within him such that he feels he must escape. Once he is on the sidewalk, he collapses as his heart gives out. The woman he saw from the train is not Lara, it is an older woman from Moscow. Characters move in and out of the story, apparently randomly, precisely because this is the transient lifestyle the Russian people led during the Revolution.

The novel begins before the Russian Revolution, when we glimpse the drawing rooms, balls, and wealth of the upper class. Halfway through the novel, the Reds and Whites are fighting each other for power; who shall win, the poor working class or the elite upper class? Of course everyone’s life is now in chaos and loss. No one is spared hunger, poverty, or the search for survival.

These are the reasons I loved Dr. Zhivago:
1. To me, Pasternak writes of emotions common to all people. We know what it means to experience love, fear, loss, and courage which comes and goes.

2. I love the winter he depicts with ice, pink skies, sleighs, the rowan trees’ red berries, and one’s reflection in the window at night.

3. I love the simplicity of life in which there are no gadgets, no technology. Instead Lara is washing things by hand. People are sitting by the stove. Evenings contain conversation and story telling. Meals are comprised of meat and boiled potatoes, nothing artificial. Rooms are lit by candles.

4. Dr. Zhivago writes in the evenings. He stays up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning writing poems. Reflecting. Searching his inner heart for meaning and answers.

5. There is an unsolvable love affair. Zhivago and Lara love their spouses. Yet, they love each other more. What is to be done? They cannot abandon their families. They cannot be together. There is no answer. Zhivago must send her away, believing that he will come to her, or they will both be arrested. Their families, the politics of the times, or their wishes for the well-being of the other, ultimately keep them apart.

Pasternak describes Zhivago’s pain like this: “But the division in him was a sorrow and a torment, and he became accustomed to it only as one gets used to an unhealed and frequently reopened wound.” (p. 406)

It is easy for me to see why this novel won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, as well as why it was made into a movie with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in 1965. Kiera Knightly played Lara in a mini-series released in 2002. There is a broadway production planned for 2007. It is something I hope to see after becoming so entranced by the novel.