Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

A candle burned…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Set to the background of Revolutionary Russia, this is a sweeping saga of doomed love. Separated from his family by war, Yuri Andreevich Zhivago is torn between his duty to his wife and family and his adoration of the lovely nurse Lara. Unfortunately, he seems to suffer from severe commitment issues alongside a healthy dose of narcissism but, fortunately, he’s such a wonderful, intelligent, incomparably talented poet and sensitive human being (we know this because he tells us himself) that all the people he abandons throughout his life still adore him – because they recognise his innate superiority to all other mortals. I think it was when Pasternak finally seemed to be trying to draw some kind of vague parallel between Yuri Andreevich and Christ that I really began to feel bilious.

I make it a general rule to try not to find out too much about authors because knowing about their lives tends to intrude on my feelings about their books. Unfortunately a couple of years ago I read The Zhivago Affair, an interesting (and recommended) book that tells the story of the publication of this book, and makes it clear that the parallels between Pasternak’s and Zhivago’s lives are so great that Yuri Andreevich can only really be seen as the author’s alter-ego. Pasternak himself moved his mistress in more or less next door to his wife and children and insisted on them all living in harmony, so he’s not up there on my list of favourite human beings. Therefore, I found Pasternak’s raptures over Zhivago’s character, intellect and poetic ability as nauseating as his justification of his adultery and treatment of his various women, all of whom simply adored him while recognising they really weren’t fit to shine his shoes.

….The night was filled with soft, mysterious sounds. Close by in the corridor, water was dripping from a washstand, measuredly, with pauses. There was whispering somewhere behind a window. Somewhere, where the kitchen garden began, beds of cucumber were being watered, water was being poured from one bucket into another, with a clink of the chain drawing it from the well.
….It smelled of all the flowers in the world at once, as if the earth had lain unconscious during the day and was now coming to consciousness through all these scents. And from the countess’s centuries-old garden, so littered with windfallen twigs and branches that it had become impassable, there drifted, as tall as the trees, enormous as the wall of a big house, the dusty, thickety fragrance of an old linden coming into bloom.
….Shouts came from the street beyond the fence to the right. A soldier on leave was acting up there, doors slammed, snippets of some song beat their wings.

Trying hard to put my antipathy to the author and main character to one side, there are some positives. Some of the descriptions of the freezing snow-covered landscape are excellent, as are the often poetic scenes of daily life in either city or country, and the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation serves them well. Pasternak assumes his readers will know the history of the period, so doesn’t tell it in any structured form. Instead, he gives sketches of various aspects of life – the breakdown of order in the cities, the drunkenness, brutality and hunger in the country, life as a forced conscript in the Red Army during the Civil War. In a sense, he uses Zhivago’s various women to illustrate or symbolise aspects of Russian society after the Revolution – those who emigrated, those who conformed as best they could to the new regime, those who were destroyed by it. There is an underlying, and largely underdeveloped, theme of individuality and art struggling to survive under first chaos and then growing state control of every corner of existence.

Zhivago and his lover, Lara

However, for me, the negatives outweigh the positives. The book is poorly structured, has no flow and relies far too heavily on increasingly ridiculous coincidences. There are parts where the author doesn’t bother to fictionalise at all, instead simply dumping factual information on the reader. The characterisation starts out fairly well but seems to fade as Pasternak becomes distracted, first by his vague and unsatisfactory forays into the political/historical aspects, and then by his increasing tendency to use Zhivago as a conduit to allow Pasternak himself to waffle on pretentiously about art and literature and indulge in a good deal of barely disguised self-adulation.

….Gordon and Dudorov belonged to a good professional circle. They spent their lives among good books, good thinkers, good composers, good, always, yesterday and today, good and only good music, and they did not know that the calamity of mediocre taste is worse than the calamity of tastelessness. . . .
….He could see clearly the springs of their pathos, the shakiness of their sympathy, the mechanism of their reasonings. However, he could not very well say to them: ‘Dear friends, oh, how hopelessly ordinary you and the circle you represent, and the brilliance and art of your favourite names and authorities, all are. The only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me.’ But how would it be if one could make such declarations to one’s friends! And so as not to distress them, Yuri Andreevich meekly listened to them.

The extracts from Yuri’s journal, where – in the midst of war, with people around him starving to death, with an abandoned pregnant wife and an increasingly neurotic mistress – he takes time out to do a bit of lit-crit of earlier Russian authors, feel like the ultimate self-indulgence. And to top it all off, Pasternak gradually begins to incorporate a kind of religious symbolism into the story, but again without enough depth or direction to make it work.

Pasternak and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, the inspiration for Lara

I admit I always struggle with Russian literature, partly, I think, because even good translations still leave them feeling clunky and partly because the Russian propensity for having a cast of thousands, each with four or five variations of their names, means I always find reading them a tedious slog. In this one, a character mentioned once hundreds of pages earlier will suddenly re-appear with no re-introduction, no reminder of who they are or what role they have played. If that happened in a modern novel, I’d criticise it as poor writing, so I reckon the same standards ought to apply to classics. My truthful feeling about this one is that it may have come to be seen as a classic not so much because of its quality, but because at the time of publication in the midst of the Cold War, its mildly unflattering portrayal of the communist regime, added to the romanticism of its having been smuggled out of Russia and printed in the West, may have fed into the Western intelligentsia’s support for artistic dissidents and led to it being lauded because of its very existence rather than judged on its literary merits.

In conclusion, then, a flawed work in terms of plot, structure and characterisation but with the saving graces of some fine descriptive writing and occasional insights into Russian society before, during and after the Revolution. I’d recommend it more in terms of its historical significance than its literary worth and, on that basis, I’m glad to have read it.

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59 thoughts on “Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

  1. A wonderfully argued review. I read this too long ago to remember, during my teens and twenties Russian phase. Other authors stayed with me from then. I suspect that film also provided indelible images so that book memory is film memory, in fact. Snow. Tears. Trains. Swelling music. Fur hats. Beautiful people looking soulful. Omar Sharif.Romance with a backdrop of revolution. I particularly like your Sum up on the Western response to it.

    • Thank you, m’dear! I intended to watch the film, which I’ve never seen(!), after I’d read the book, but I have such an antipathy to Zhivago now I’m almost certain I’d be harrumphing all the way through it. I think I’ll wait a few months. I’m pretty sure I’d have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t read the book about the book, but I’m also sure I’d still have had issues with it…

  2. I have to say that I completely, utterly disagree with your review! Taking your point that Zhivago is not a nice man, there is so much more to this book than macho posturing.
    What about the beautiful, beautiful poetic writing? The descriptions of snow and scenery, moments of heartbreak and loss? There are parts of this book that will stay with the reader forever.
    What about the graphic displays of a society in the throes of chaos where people have to chop up their furniture for warmth or dream about getting a scrap of lettuce because there are no fruit or vegetables anywhere in Moscow? You cannot read this book without looking at life with new eyes: it makes the panic over ‘best before’ dates in our modern world look absurd by comparison.
    I also can’t agree that the literary criticism in the midst of war is a self-indulgence. It’s a form of escapism, a way to deal with a world gone mad by distracting the mind from other worries.
    Whatever the flaws of his main character, this is a book for the ages and one of the few that I would say was honestly deserving of the Nobel Prize. To each their own, it seems!

    • Haha! Well, disagreement is what reading is all about! I did say that some of the descriptive writing is great, but sadly that’s not enough to make a novel. It’s not that I need characters to be likeable, but if the author’s trying to make them likeable – or in this case worthy of adulation – then hating them seems like a bit of a failure… though one could argue whether that failure is mostly the author’s or the reader’s. My bet is it’s the author’s. 😉 As for emotional bits – well, yes, there were some bits that brought a tear to my eye. Like the boy killed by the firing squad. Imagine my surprise, nay, stunned amazement, when Pasternak decided to bring him back to life a couple of hundred pages later…

      As for the descriptions of the hardships, yes, some of them are powerful, but having just read A People’s Tragedy, I actually spent a good part of my time, especially when Yuri was in the Red Army, thinking that Pasternak was barely mentioning the lack of food and starvation that was going on at that time. He seemed to come and go with it, happy to forget it whenever it suited the story. I found the factual descriptions in A People’s Tragedy much more harrowing and unforgettable than Pasternak’s, though perhaps I wouldn’t have felt that way had I not read them so close together.

      Oh dear! I’m afraid I concluded it was yet another example of the Nobel being given for political reasons rather than literary merit. I felt if he’d wanted to distract himself he could have done it by hopping on a train to Moscow to find out if his wife and children were alive… haha! I fear we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one…

      • Interestingly, I saw a documentary about Dr Z a few years ago where they explained that part of the book’s popularity in the West was due to it providing a rare glimpse behind the iron curtain, and the revolution years in particular. Today, we know so much more and that has to reduce the fascination somewhat.

        • Yes, I think that’s very true. In fact, even while I was reading it, I wondered if I’d have felt differently if I hadn’t been reading so much factual history of the revolution recently – I might have found some of the scenes more shocking, whereas I actually felt he was underplaying the horrors, if anything.

  3. I have a copy of this that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for two years and that I was considering taking to a charity shop–I think that I might do just that! I find it very difficult to get past a profoundly unlikeable/unsympathetic main character in any novel, so I’ll maybe give this one a pass.

    More generally, I agree that sometimes books which have been banned/produced in unusual circumstances sometimes take on a mystique that they don’t really warrant. (I felt like this about Brave New World, although I know that not everyone agrees with me on that).

    • Well, I’d be being hypocritical if I tried to talk you into reading it, but in fairness I should say I rarely get along with Russian literature, so my bias might be getting in the way!

      Yes, I absolutely agree. I re-read Animal Farm a few months ago and really found it quite underwhelming, and I don’t have the courage to re-read Brave New World because I suspect I’d feel the same about it, though I loved them both as a young teenager. I also think classics sometimes take on a bandwagon effect – people assume they must be great because of their status, so maybe assume that if they don’t enjoy one, it must be their ‘fault’ as a reader…

  4. I’m glad you read this, rather than me, and I’m also glad my book got more smiley faces than a Nobel Prize winner 🙂 The macho posturing would have put me right off, but it did remind me of an occasion a few weeks ago where a chap – in all complete seriousness – said to me, ‘If you play your cards right, you could be my third ex-wife’. Zhivago is alive and well and living in Kings Cross!

    • Hahahaha! The thing is, I think the Nobel, and many other of these prizes, forget that the point of reading is supposed to be primarily to entertain! If they do something else too, then great, but if they make you want to throw the book at the wall, then I can’t see how they merit the full smiley array… 😉 Oh dear! I really hoped that kind of guy would have gone extinct by now – what on earth is evolution playing at!!

      • Somebody told me that Will Self got very frustrated because, although he won lots of literary awards, his books didn’t actually sell and nobody read them. I’m not a huge fan of Mr Self personally but he is a clever chap and I do feel for him a bit – the best bit about being a writer is when people read and enjoy your work! Although I’m sure there are plenty whose egos are far happier with the awards than the readership…
        I couldn’t believe it! You will be unsursprised to hear that I turned down this tempting offer…

        • I tried one of his books once and couldn’t get past the first few pages – too pretentious for words! And kinda smugly clever, if you know what I mean. Whereas Salman Rushdie, in the one book of his I’ve read, is stupendously clever, but managed to make me feel awed rather than patronised. Yeah, I think some of them write specifically for awards rather than readers – JM Coetzee springs to mind, and Ian McEwan in his later books.

          Hahaha! Well, thank goodness – we don’t want that type of man to get opportunities to breed… 😉

          • Rushdie is BRILLIANT! You’re right, so clever but never once patronising. He carries you along with him. I read a review of Self’s latest book and he seems to be attempting some sort of Joyce emulation. Bugger that for a game of soldiers, I’m not going near anything even remotely Joycean for a good while after last summer’s Finnegans Wake!

            • I have Rushdie’s new one (which reminds me – I have Horowitz’s new one too!!) so I’m hoping I’ll love it too – haven’t yet gone back to tackle some of his controversial ones though. Ugh! Joyce was bad enough without people emulating him!!

            • *swoons at the mention of Horowitz* I am so jealous! Of the Rushdie one, too, but mainly our dear darling Anthony! I just know it’s going to be the best book of the year. You do realise I’m going to be asking you pretty much every day – have you read it yet? What’s happening? Is it wonderful? Tell me everything!!! I totally understand if you stop talking to me 🙂 🙂

            • Haha – the big read is scheduled for mid-August since the book’s due out on the 24th. But if I keep abandoning books at the rate I’m doing right now, it could be sooner… 😀

            • I hope there will be reviews of the abandoned books… you know how much I like it when a book doesn’t meet your high standards 😀
              Throw all those books to one side! You know the Horowitz is the only one that matters!!

            • Sadly, only one of them inspired me to write a mean comment on Goodreads which may make it into the blog some day. The other two were just blah… 😉

              I am sorely tempted!

    • Haha – well, I certainly won’t be trying to talk you into it! Yes, the music is great – don’t know if I could cope with the film though, given how much I dislike Yuri… maybe in a few months…

    • Haha – yes, I’ve never really mastered that art of writing neutral reviews, have I? 😉 It’s like therapy though – gotta get it out of my system…

  5. Thanks for your thoughts on this, FictionFan. I confess I don’t care for Zhivago’s character, either. At all. But I do think you’re right about Pasternak’s descriptions. And it is interesting to see how he portrayed those times. It was very hard for me to warm to this one (I mean the book), though. But I did notice you managed to fit Omar in there very nicely… 😉

    • I don’t mind an unlikeable charcater if he’s supposed to be unlikeable, but the problem is that we’re supposed to think Zhivago is wonderful, just as all his women do… ugh! Still a worthwhile read though, for the descriptions and insights, but sometimes that’s not enough to make a wholly successful novel, for me, at least. Haha! I was looking forward to watching Omar, but I have such an antipathy to Zhivago now I’ll have to wait for a few months/years… 😉

  6. Nicely reviewed. I read this book many years ago and remember feeling confused about the characters. There were too many of them. I had to go back and forth to refresh my memory about the cast as well as the period/setting. However, I thought the book was well-written (translated). It grabbed my attention.

    • Thank you! I always find myself confused with all the charcaters and names in Russian literature – it’s a lot of the reason why I rarely enjoy them. This edition doesn’t have a list of characters, either, which I felt was a serious omission. I ended up having to resort to Google from time to time to remind myself of who someone was. But yes, some of the descriptive writing is great.

  7. This book has been sitting on my shelf for years and years gathering dust. Maybe time to dust it off and sell it to the used book store.

    • Well, I’d be being hypocritical if I tried to persuade you to read it, but in fairness I have to say I rarely enjoy Russian literature – the style just doesn’t seem to work for me somehow. Maybe you should read some of the more glowing reviews before you banish it from your home… 😉

  8. Interesting review. I read this in my teens when the whole “smuggled out of Russia/samizdat” furore was at its height, and as you know I was never big on romances, with the result that my abiding memory of the book was the politics, not the people, which is almost the definitive “fail” for a supposedly character-driven book. I never thought it was a patch on the real Russian greats – Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, etc., and I always preferred to get my history straight, rather than fictionalised.

    • I think it suffered for me for a variety of reasons – my dislike for Pasternak the man, but also the fact that I’ve been reading so much great factual history that that aspect didn’t work so well for me as it might otherwise have done. I haven’t read much Russian literature because I rarely enjoy it, but certainly this wasn’t anywhere close to the Tolstoys I’ve read. One day I may try Dostoevsky… but not today!

  9. I’ve long meant to read this, but your review gives me pause. It definitely sounds a bit self-indulgent. I just put a book down by H.G. Wells for that very same flaw – using the character to articulate the author’s pet theories. And the idea that everyone loves him despite constantly abandoning them sounds hard to stomach.

    Thanks for the warning and great review! 🙂

    • Thank you! Ha! I feel kinda guilty about putting everyone off the book though – inexplicably, loads of people seem to love it! But I really couldn’t get excited about the love affair because I disliked Zhivago so much and wasn’t much keener on Lara. Maybe the film is better… 😉

      • The film wasn’t too bad, though everyone still seemed awfully understanding of Zhivago. But Omar Sharif gave him a non-narcissistic, somewhat absent-minded, dreamy gentleness that made him slightly more appealing. Though I’ve read that the movie is not that close to the book…which might be a good thing. 🙂

        • Ha! Yes, for once it sounds like the film might be better than the book. It certainly looks beautiful, both Omar and the scenery. Maybe in a few months, when I’ve recovered from the book…

  10. Wow. I saw the movie, but never read the book. And your review inspires me to continue ignoring the book. Ugh! Don’t blame yourself though. Pasternak’s attitude is the culprit.

    • Haha! I won’t try to talk you into it, that’s for sure! Thank you – I do feel he’d have been vastly improved by attending some self-awareness classes… 😉

  11. Excellent review, well thought out and argued. Haven’t read this one, but agree some Russian lit is a bit tedious, specially always having to check the names on the character list! Anna Karenina was like that. Spoiler: Anna doesn’t feature as much as you would expect, and editing is something Russians don’t seem to believe in. I remember doing a review saying in part that it didn’t do much for me. I think I was in a minority of one on Instagram over that! I do like Dostoyevsky and Chekhov though.

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I find I spend way too much time trying to remember who people are – it definitely seems to be a feature of a lot of Russian literature. Ha! It’s so long since I read Anna Karenina I don’t remember much about it, but a couple of years ago I listened to a dramatised version that had been done for BBC Radio. It was about three and a half hours long, and I swear Anna spent at least three of them sobbing, wailing and shrieking – I have never been so glad to hear a train arrive in my life! 😉 Someday I will try Dostoevsky – he sounds the most appealing of the Russian writers to me…

  12. A brilliant review as always FF – The line about Pasternak not being your favourite person made me smile.

    I read this many moons ago and it’s one of those books I remember where and what was going on in my life at the time – probably because it took so long and to work out which character was which – but to be honest the book itself is now fairly shadowy but having worked out it was more than a quarter of a century ago when I was younger and more easily impressed, maybe that’s not surprising.

    • Ha! It’s horrifying when you suddenly realise how long it is since you read a book! I do think I’d have enjoyed this much more when I was younger, and also if I hadn’t known anything about Pasternak – disliking him so much as a man definitely coloured how I felt about Zhivago. Still, it’s another one ticked off the list… 😉

  13. Awesome review! Haha, I can totally see from your words why Pasternak is not your favorite human being! While not being my kind of books, I loved reading your impressions about it and I must say that I recall from my Russian classes that all the names in the books were so confusing for me!

    • Thank you! Haha! Yes, I really took a dislike to Pasternak, so poor old Zhivago didn’t stand much chance of winning me over… 😉 I do find the Russian habit of using zillions of different names for the same character deeply confusing – I wonder if Russians do too, or if somehow they’re able to keep track of them all better.

  14. I love reading an intelligent person’s criticisms of a novel deemed a classic. My own occasional lack of self-confidence leads me down the yellow brick road of doubt into You’re Just An Idiot city. I was surprised you liked Moby Dick, for example, as I cannot stand Melville’s writing (though I’ve tried it several times), but your reasons were well-thought out, and the same applies here.

    • Well, thank you very much! 😀 I was always opinionated but I think it’s an age thing that makes me confident enough to be so forthright about classics these days – it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking we must be missing something. But it’s just like current books – they won’t all appeal to everyone and it’s kinda pointless pretending to be wowed by them when we’re not. But no, no, no! I hated Moby Dick! You must be thinking of somebody else’s review – I had a lot of fun slating it… 😉

  15. An interesting review. I have thought about reading this book at various points in the past, but something fairly intangible has always held me back. Given your comments about the parallels between Pasternak and Pastrenak, I think it might be best if I give this one a miss! It’s frustrating, isn’t it? We always expect the classics to be such stellar reads, sure fire hits we can rely on.

    • Thanks, Jacqui! Well, I wouldn’t try to talk you into reading it, for sure, but loads of people love it – my feelings about Pasternak the man definitely affected how I felt about Zhivago. Yes, sometimes it can be hard to see why a classic is a classic, but then it’s just like current books – no book ever appeals to everyone, I suppose. At least there’s always Dickens… 😉

  16. Your opening paragraph did make me laugh, FF! I’ve never been tempted to read this as I found the film beautiful but tedious and uninvolving. Your excellent review makes me think I may well have the same problem with the novel…

    • Somehow the sarcasm just escaped onto the screen despite my best efforts to restrain it! 😉 I was going to watch the film after I read the book, but honestly I’ve developed such a dislike of Zhivago now I can’t imagine how even Omar could make it watchable. Maybe one day, when the scars have healed…

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