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Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
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Tightly closing eyelids.
Heights; and cloudy spheres.
Rivers. Waters. Boulders.
Centuries and years.

[From "Fairy Tale" in Doctor Zhivago, poem quoted in full below]

This sweeping romantic epic is set in Russia mostly during and after the 1917 (October) Revolution. The young physician/poet Yurii Zhivago works as an army doctor and is wounded during WWI. He meets Lara Antipova, who nurses him to health, and falls hopelessly in love. Lara will be his great love and mistress through the tumult and upheaval of the Revolution and most of the ensuing civil war between Red and White partisans.

Doctor Zhivago was first published in Italy in 1957. The following year, Boris Pasternak, an esteemed poet in Russia for years before writing this novel, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Soviet gov’t forced him to decline it by jailing his long-time companion Olga Ivinskaya. Pasternak died in 1960 at age 70.

It was not until 1987 that the Soviet Union allowed the novel’s publication in the U.S.S.R. Ironically, Pasternak did not intend that the novel condemn revolution or make a statement on politics. Rather, he portrayed the brutality with which a revolution’s ideals may be pursued at the expense of preserving other ideals, spiritual or personal or artistic, in a time of such violent upheaval.

Doctor Zhivago returns from WWI, after the October Revolution, and finds that disease and riots have ruined Moscow. He flees with wife Tonia and their child to the Urals. In the small village in which they settle, Zhivago again meets Lara and is again magnetized by her beauty and inflamed by his passions. The feelings are mutual. Lara is the wife of a revolutionary named Pasha who she has not seen in years.

Zhivago is soon taken by a group of Red partisans and forced to serve as their doctor during guerrilla warfare in Siberia against White partisans.

Upon return, he finds that his family has returned to Moscow. He lives with Lara, his soul mate, in an abandoned farmhouse for a period of brief bliss. That is, until all is upset by the tempestuous events surrounding the return of Lara's husband, now infamously known as Strelnikov (meaning "The Shooter"), a detested and dreaded commander for the Reds. The lovers must part. [any more would be a spoiler].

Twenty-five of Zhivago's poems make up the novel's final chapter. Pasternak meant the poetry to be an essential component since Zhivago sees his poems, not as a pastime or vocation, but as a vital part of his identity, supplying spirituality when none seemed possible in all the violent turmoil and restlessness of the years during and after the October Revolution. He wrote nearly all of these for Lara. My favorite is the heart-breaker below (yes, I'm a romantic).

Once, in times forgotten,
In a fairy place,
Through the steppe, a rider
Made his way apace.

While he sped to battle,
Nearing from the dim
Distance, a dark forest
Rose ahead of him.

Something kept repeating,
Seemed his heart to graze:
Tighten up the saddle,
Fear the watering-place!

But he did not listen;
Heeding but his will,
At full speed he bounded
Up the wooded hill;

Rode into a valley,
Turning from the mound,
Galloped through a meadow,
Skirted higher ground

Reached a gloomy hollow,
Found a trail to trace
Down the woodland pathway
To the watering-place.

Deaf to voice of warning,
And without remorse,
Down the slope the rider
Led his thirsty horse.


Where the stream grew shallow,
Winding through the glen,
Eerie flames lit up the
Entrance to a den.

Through thick clouds of crimson
Smoke above the spring
An uncanny calling
Made the forest ring.

And the rider started,
And with peering eye
Urged his horse in answer
To the haunting cry.

Then he saw the dragon,
And he gripped his lance,
And his horse stood breathless,
Fearing to advance.

Thrice around a maiden
Was the serpent wound;
Fire-breathing nostrils
Cast a glare around.

And the dragon's body
Moved his scaly neck,
At her shoulder snaking
Whiplike forth and back.

By that country's custom
Was a captive fair
To the forest monster
Given once a year.

Thus the neighbouring people
From a peril grave
Tried their own existence
And their homes to save.

Now the dragon hugged his
Victim in alarm,
And the coils grew tighter
Round her throat and arm.

Skyward looked the horseman
With imploring glance,
And for the impending
Fight he couched his lance.


Tightly closing eyelids.
Heights; and cloudy spheres.
Rivers. Waters. Boulders.
Centuries and years.

Helmetless, the wounded
Lies, his life at stake.
With his hooves the charger
Tramples down the snake.

On the sand, together--
Dragon, steed, and lance;
In a swoon the rider,
Maiden--in a trance.

Blue the sky; soft breezes
Tender noon caress.
Who is she? A lady?
Peasant girl? Princess?

Now in joyous wonder
Cannot cease to weep;
Now again abandoned
To unending sleep.

Now, his strength returning,
Opens up his eyes;
Now anew the wounded
Limp and listless lies.

But their hearts are beating.
Waves surge up, die down;
Carry them, and waken,
And in slumber drown.

Tightly closing eyelids.
Heights; and cloudy spheres.
Rivers. Waters. Boulders.
Centuries and years.

*Translation by Lydia Slater, conveying the metre of the original.
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Reading Progress

December 9, 2015 – Started Reading
December 9, 2015 – Shelved
December 13, 2016 –
page 426
December 14, 2016 –
page 473
January 28, 2017 –
page 548
January 28, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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Julie Perry, it’s the poetry from this novel that has stayed with me for years. Such an essential and unique part of the story. Thanks for sharing the love.

Nancy Another book you remind me that I should reread. I read it after the movie came out, when I was a teen.

Robin I also mean to re-read this book. I read it many years ago and was non-plussed but I'm not sure I gave it the chance it deserved. Lovely review.

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