Steven Godin's Reviews > Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
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it was amazing
bookshelves: russia-ukraine, classic-fiction, nobel-laureates, favourites, historical-fiction

Before getting to indulge in this Russian epic, I had to decide what translation to go for. For me, this was a big deal, whether to choose the more reader friendly version, or, a newer translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that sticks closer to Pasternak's original difficult text. I went for the latter simply because if this is how Pasternak wrote it, then I wanted to read it in the purest form. Even if it meant not sitting in the comfort zone for much of the time. Both Pevear and Volokhonsky have worked on much of Dostoyevsky's work, and received translation accolades in the process.

I scored this top marks yes, but one thing is certain. I will definitely have to read it again, for a broader and richer experience. I spent half the time thinking so hard about something that went before, and lost track somewhat with the present. There was just so much to take in, even though I read in huge chunks, without distractions, slowly and methodically, it still felt overwhelming. All the signs are there for one heck of a remarkable novel, but I couldn't help feel my hands were only brushing gently over a layer of snow, rather than thrust deeper into all that coldness.

The result though, after it's first outing, still remains a special one.

Doctor Zhivago opens in the first years of the century, spans the revolution, civil war and terror of the thirties, and ends with an epilogue in the mid-1940s. On a level far deeper than politics and with a strength and sterility that must remove all doubts, it persuades us that the yearning for freedom remains indestructible. Quietly and resolutely Pasternak speaks for the sanctity of human life, turning to those eternal questions which made the Russian novel so magnificent, and he seems to have made a lot of other world-renowned novels seem that little bit more trivial.

Pasternak spent ten years up to 1955 working on Doctor Zhivago, he considered it the work that justified not only his own life, but that of fellow Russians who had perished through decades of war. And one thing I can't yet decide on, is whether this is a love story set against the backdrop of war, or a war story set against the backdrop of love. Both play so heavily throughout, yet not one stands out beyond the other. It's little surprise to me that in 1958 rumours began circulating that Pasternak was a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize, which he rightly won. The Academy cited him for an important achievement, in the novel, his contemporary lyrical poetry, and the field of Russian traditions. His vision here is essentially defined by real presence, by the intense physical and emotional sensations of his main characters. Whilst these characters internally are some of the best I have ever come across, it's also worth noting just how important a role the landscape plays. His descriptions here are nothing short of spectacular. I still feel the chill, the snow, the wind, and the big thaw.

Pasternak captivates in his characters fallacy, in his world the inanimate nature constantly participates in the action, but there is no historical or psychological analysis in the narrative, no running commentary on the causes of events, or the motives behind the person. This was a masterstroke in creating a deep feeling of the chaos that surrounds them at every turn during the second half of the novel. There is a lot of random movement for no particular reason, chance encounters, sudden out nowhere disruptions, trams and trains coming to an abrupt halt, and the breakdown of communication between all those caught up in the upheavals of war. He portrays happenings as they happen, sometimes right in the middle of something else. And although this may not be music to ears of all, I can fully appreciate just what he set out to achieve, in keeping things as realistic as possible. When you think of civil war, revolutions, and political terror, how on earth can you expect things to run smoothly?

And that brings me on to the names, which took some getting use to. The principle characters all go by different names at different points. Sometimes their names would even change mid-sentence. For example, Zhivago ( Yuri Andreievich, Yura, or Yurochka). His wife Tonya (Antonia, Alexandrovna, or Tonechka) and his lover Lara (Larissa, Larochka, Antipova, Gromeko). There is also an extraordinary play with the names of minor characters, they are plausible, but often barely so. Some have oddly specific meaning. Some are so long that for the Russianless reader it has the ability to cause headaches. On places used, some like Moscow are obviously real, but out in the Urals fictional places exist. And there is a big difference in these worlds. One, more historically accurate, the other, almost takes on the feel of folklore. The novel moves around, one place to another and back again, creating a double sense of time, it never stands still. Even when people are just sitting, or in the arms of one another.

Once Pasternak reaches the revolutionary period, the novel becomes a kind of spiritual biography, still rich in social references but primarily the record of a mind struggling for survival. What now matters most is the personal fate of Zhivago and his relationships with two other characters, Lara, the woman who is to be the love of his life, and Strelnikov, a partisan leader who exemplifies all of the ruthless revolutionary will that Zhivago lacks. Zhivago's time as a family man and doctor are long gone, and thinking back to the novel's opening sections feels like it was read in another life. Even though it was only a few weeks ago. The huge scale of the story is simply exceptional.

There is a section of some twenty pages towards the end that seem to me one of the greatest pieces of imaginative prose written in our time. It soars to a severe and tragic gravity, the likes of which haven't affected me this much before. What Begins as a portrait of Russia, would end as a love story told with the force and purity that's never to be forgotten. A book of truth, of courage, of wisdom, and of beauty, a stunning work of art, where one's final thought is nothing less than a feeling of deep respect for both novel and writer.

This version concludes with the 'poems of Yuri Zhivago', which polishes off perfectly the immensely felt novel that went before.
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Quotes Steven Liked

Boris Pasternak
“I love you wildly, insanely, infinitely.”
Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago


Reading Progress

January 5, 2018 – Shelved
January 5, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
January 5, 2018 – Shelved as: russia-ukraine
January 5, 2018 – Shelved as: classic-fiction
May 1, 2018 – Started Reading
May 1, 2018 – Shelved as: nobel-laureates
May 3, 2018 –
page 104
16.05% "On the ground by the forest road, spreading their legs in heavy boots, dusty and weary young soldiers lay on their stomachs or backs, their field shirts soaked with sweat on their chests and shoulder blades - the survivors of a greatly diminished detachment."
May 6, 2018 –
page 191
29.48% "It was still dark outside. In the windless air, the snow fell more thickly than the evening before. Big, shaggy flakes floated down lazily, and nearing the ground seem to tarry longer. There was not a soul in the street,"
May 6, 2018 –
page 191
29.48% "It was still dark outside. In the windless air, the snow fell more thickly than the evening before. Big, shaggy flakes floated down lazily, and nearing the ground seemed to tarry longer, as if hesitating whether to lie down or not."
May 9, 2018 –
page 271
41.82% "He loved Tonya to the point of adoration. The peace of her soul, her tranquillity, were deeper to him than anything else in the world. He stood staunchly for her honour, more than her own father. In defence of her wounded pride he would have torn the offender to pieces with his bare hands. And here, that offender was himself."
May 13, 2018 –
page 368
56.79% "In his recent delirium he had reproached heaven for it's indifference, but now heaven in all it's vastness had descended to his bed, and two big woman's arms, white to the shoulders, reached out to him. His vision went dark with joy and, as one falls into oblivion, he dropped into bottomless bliss."
May 16, 2018 – Finished Reading
May 19, 2018 – Shelved as: favourites
April 27, 2019 – Shelved as: historical-fiction

Comments Showing 1-32 of 32 (32 new)

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Julie Sigh.


Steven Godin Julie wrote: "Sigh."

Now now Julie, try to remain calm. Remember, nice deep breaths.


Gabrielle That's the translation I have at home... Must speed-track! Awesome review, Steven :)


message 4: by Julie (last edited May 16, 2018 05:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Julie Steven,
This is one of your best reviews, if not your best review ever. You were precise and descriptive and I could feel just the right amount of awe seeping through. You are so right, this is a long and complicated novel (the names, the names!), and any of us would probably need to read it 5-10 times to really feel we had “landed” on its true meaning. I feel like trying to explain my feelings about this book is similar to trying to explain to someone at breakfast a dream I had in the middle of the night. It’s nearly impossible to get it right.


Agnieszka Great and insightful review, Steven. Enjoyed reading your thoughts immensly and am grateful for possibility to revisit this novel through your words. I read it so long ago and unfortunately wasn't that impressed. So perhaps it's time for reread? I very much hope.


Julie Agnieszka,
To be honest, I read it for the first time in my late 30s, and I remember thinking, at the time, that I was still too young to properly grasp this book! Maybe it's just the elusive quality of the book, rather than the age of the reader. I think this one deserves several attempts.


message 7: by Agnieszka (last edited May 16, 2018 06:03AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Agnieszka Julie wrote: "Agnieszka,
To be honest, I read it for the first time in my late 30s, and I remember thinking, at the time, that I was still too young to properly grasp this book! Maybe it's just the elusive quali..."


Probably you’re right, Julie. Some books resonate with us from the very first sentence while others slowly grow on us with time. I think I was about twenty or something when I read it and do not know if it was a factor that I couldn’t grasp all its complexity. I’ve just read your appraisal and was reminded instantly how I felt confused at times either. Hopefully will find some time to reread it soon.


message 8: by Steven (last edited May 16, 2018 07:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steven Godin Gabrielle wrote: "That's the translation I have at home... Must speed-track! Awesome review, Steven :)"

That's good to hear Gabrielle. Look forward to your thoughts,
whenever that may be.


Annie i also really like pevear & volokhonsky's tolstoy translations, they're a v good team. didn't realize they'd translated this one too-- when i get around to reading this one, i'll have to keep my eye out for theirs


Steven Godin Julie wrote: "Steven,
This is one of your best reviews, if not your best review ever. You were precise and descriptive and I could feel just the right amount of awe seeping through. You are so right, this is a ..."


Much appreciated Julie. never has a book left me so awestruck.
Even though, like you said, it's impossible to get a feel for everything the first time around.


Katia N "Once Pasternak reaches the revolutionary period, the novel becomes a kind of spiritual biography, still rich in social references but primarily the record of a mind struggling for survival." - It is so true. You totally reflected the spirit of this novel for me. And I've read it in Russian. Wonderful review!

Ps
How do you find the translation of the poems? Pasternak works so much with the rhyming and the music of the language, that i guess it would be very difficult to translate.


Steven Godin Agnieszka wrote: "Great and insightful review, Steven. Enjoyed reading your thoughts immensly and am grateful for possibility to revisit this novel through your words. I read it so long ago and unfortunately wasn't ..."

That's understandable Agnieszka, for some I can imagine it's just a struggle from the off. I believe only a Russian native can truly accept it for what it is on first reading, but I think age is also a factor. Had I attempted to read this 20 years ago, no doubts I would have never got through it.


message 13: by Sabine (new)

Sabine Excellent review!, it's added to my wish-list.


Steven Godin Sabine wrote: "Excellent review!, it's added to my wish-list."

Thanks, it's a worthy addition to any bookshelf.


Steven Godin Annie wrote: "i also really like pevear & volokhonsky's tolstoy translations, they're a v good team. didn't realize they'd translated this one too-- when i get around to reading this one, i'll have to keep my ey..."

Didn't realise they also translated Tolstoy. Definitely a pairing I will look out for again in the future.


message 16: by Steven (last edited May 16, 2018 08:44AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steven Godin Katia wrote: ""Once Pasternak reaches the revolutionary period, the novel becomes a kind of spiritual biography, still rich in social references but primarily the record of a mind struggling for survival." - It ..."

Wish I was a Russian for the day, the poems I admit were problematic, but they still resonate well with the novel in some way.


Jason Wonderfully written review, Steven. Very much a tragic love story on both large and intimate scale, your review brings me back to my reading of this same translation, and I too know that I will need to make a second pass before long.


Steven Godin Jason wrote: "Wonderfully written review, Steven. Very much a tragic love story on both large and intimate scale, your review brings me back to my reading of this same translation, and I too know that I will nee..."

Thanks Jason. Hope it works out even better second time around.


message 19: by Alice (new)

Alice Great review Steven. Vivid memories take me back to my time spent in the company of Zhivago. And all that snow!


Steven Godin Alice wrote: "Great review Steven. Vivid memories take me back to my time spent in the company of Zhivago. And all that snow!"

I am still recovering from frostbite.


message 21: by Tim (new)

Tim Fantastic review, Steven.


Steven Godin Tim wrote: "Fantastic review, Steven."

Thanks a lot Tim!


message 23: by Asha (new) - rated it 3 stars

Asha Seth Beautifully reviewed.


Steven Godin Asha wrote: "Beautifully reviewed."

Thanks, Asha


Violet wells Fabulous review, Steven. I haven't read this translation. Recently I read an article criticising the translation of the version I read and some of the examples included of passages badly translated, including the opening sentences, highlighted how Pasternak's writing style had been twisted out of shape. It became clear how large a responsibility the translator has sometimes in conveying the beauty of a work. It's awful to think at times we read an inferior version of a work because of a mediocre translation.


Steven Godin Violet wrote: "Fabulous review, Steven. I haven't read this translation. Recently I read an article criticising the translation of the version I read and some of the examples included of passages badly translated..."

Thanks, Violet, I read other reviews criticising both new and old translations before choosing. Some found this new one almost unreadable in places, but what they fail to understand is Pasternak wrote with a kind of experimental prose, this was his true vision and how the novel was intended. Why completely change huge sections just so it makes it easier on the eye?. the rhythm, tone, and poetic nature was lost.


message 27: by Ammara (new) - added it

Ammara Abid Excellent review. Adding in my to-read list.


Steven Godin Ammara wrote: "Excellent review. Adding in my to-read list."

Thanks, it's well worth adding Ammara.


message 29: by Alan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alan I started here, the first full novel I read in HS, after reading some sci fi in Jr HS, Citizen of the Galaxy, etc.


message 30: by Steven (last edited May 19, 2018 11:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steven Godin Alan wrote: "I started here, the first full novel I read in HS, after reading some sci fi in Jr HS, Citizen of the Galaxy, etc."

Wow!, what a great book to kick start your reading Alan. I must admit to dabbling in some sci-fi once upon a time, but it never really did anything for me, apart from 2001 which I liked.


message 31: by Kenny (new)

Kenny A brilliant review!


Steven Godin Kenny wrote: "A brilliant review!"

Much appreciated Kenny.


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