Tag: russia

Doctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris PasternakDoctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris Pasternak
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Source: Purchased: ebook

It has taken a few weeks to come back to finish the Doctor Zhivago discussion. I’d like to begin this post with a quote from the beginning of Book 2:

The train that had brought the Zhivago family to this place still stood on the back tracks of the station, screened by other trains, but there was a feeling that the connection with Moscow, which had stretched over the whole journey, had broken, had ended that morning.

So, we’ve left Moscow and travelled across Russia with the Zhivago family to begin again. Having read this book immediately prior to beginning my Great War read, I am struck by the narrow focus of Doctor Zhivago. It plays out across this grand stage of the Russian revolution, but at its heart, it is the story of one insignificant man. There is scarcely a mention of Lenin in the entire book. The great figures and battles of the revolution are absent – they are engaged in their great acts somewhere else, in the heart of Russia. This is a story of a revolution, and of a war, but it is the story of the minute impact of the war on one man. The reader is completely unaware that World War I is happening elsewhere on the great stage of history during this story. This makes the story feel almost claustrophobic, like we are Zhivago, living with bits and snatches of information but very little real understanding of what is going on out there. How is the war progressing? Who is winning? Who is losing? When will it end?

This is a really unique perspective, and one that I found thought-provoking. In wartime, communications aren’t always reliable, and the people in the middle of war often aren’t able to access legitimate, accurate information about what is actually going on – but this is difficult to convey in fiction. Doctor Zhivago effectively immersed me in the Russian revolution because it wasn’t written with a hindsight is 20/20 approach. Zhivago is conscripted into service (abducted, really) and spends month without a clue about his family, about how the war is going, about what has happened to Lara.

And I want to talk about Lara. The relationship between Yuri and Lara was problematic for me, and not just because they were both married. I am not a fan of cheaters, even if they are involved in an star-crossed, epic love story. It undermines their moral authority.

But I also struggled with Pasternak’s treatment of Lara, and the way that she was constantly tossed from male character to male character as though she was some sort of a toy that the manliest Russian man got to take home. I hated Komarovsky (and we’re supposed to hate him. He’s a rapist, notwithstanding his claim that he isn’t). Pasha was weak and pathetic until he turned into a monster because his wife made him feel inadequate. And Yuri chose a wife and chose a family and benefited from those choices, and it was really pretty crappy of him to abandon Tonya and his son because hot sex with the Russian earth mother.

Not to absolve Lara. She was allegedly friends with Tonya. I feel like the “romance” cheapened both of the characters. It’s self-indulgent to absolve oneself of the burden of infidelity by claiming that you have an all-consuming, irresistible passion for someone other than your spouse. Even in wartime. And Lara could have been a fantastic character – a bright and ambitious woman who pulled herself out of the most pernicious servitude by sheer force of will, she went to school, became first a teacher and then a nurse. That’s some pretty amazing stuff, but it gets lost in the narrative of Lara is so hot and sexy and men fall all over themselves to possess her.

One of the things that I unequivocally loved about the book, though, was Pasternak’s language. He is a poet, and some of the passages are achingly beautiful. A few examples:

Big stars like blue mica lamps hang in the forest among the branches. The whole sky is strewn with little stars like a summer meadow with chamomile.

Winter had long since come. It was freezing cold. Torn-up sounds and forms appeared with no evident connection from the frosty mist, stood, moved, vanished. Not the sun we are accustomed to on earth, but the crimson ball of some other substitute sun hung in the forest. From it, strainedly and slowly, as in a dream or a fairy tale, rays of amber yellow light, thick as honey, spread and on their way congealed in the air and froze to the trees.

The ashen softness of the expanses quickly sank into the lilac twilight, which was turning more and more purple. Their gray mist merged with the fine, lacy handwriting of the birches along the road, tenderly traced against the pale pink of the sky, suddenly grown shallow.

Ultimately, I enjoyed a lot of things about this book. It was frequently a tough read, though, and I feel that I would have enjoyed it more, and understood it better, if I had had more context for the Russian revolution while I was reading it. It is not an easy read, but is worth the trouble.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (Book 1)

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (Book 1)Doctor Zhivago (Book 1) by Boris Pasternak
Published by pantheon on 1957
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 513
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
three-half-stars

Synopsis from Goodreads:

"Boris Pasternak’s widely acclaimed novel comes gloriously to life in a magnificent new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the award-winning translators of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and to whom, The New York Review of Books declared, “the English-speaking world is indebted.”

First published in Italy in 1957 amid international controversy—the novel was banned in the Soviet Union until 1988, and Pasternak declined the Nobel Prize a year later under intense pressure from Soviet authorities—Doctor Zhivago is the story of the life and loves of a poet-physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Taking his family from Moscow to what he hopes will be shelter in the Ural Mountains, Zhivago finds himself instead embroiled in the battle between the Whites and the Reds. Set against this backdrop of cruelty and strife is Zhivago’s love for the tender and beautiful Lara: pursued, found, and lost again, Lara is the very embodiment of the pain and chaos of those cataclysmic times.

Stunningly rendered in the spirit of Pasternak’s original—resurrecting his style, rhythms, voicings, and tone—and including an introduction, textual annotations, and a translators’ note, this edition of Doctor Zhivago is destined to become the definitive English translation of our time."

Doctor Zhivago is a complex novel that begins in 1905, when the title character, Yuri, is ten years old. The first scene involves with the funeral of his mother. This event means that he will be raised as an orphan, as his father is, at first, absent, and later, has committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train.

Thus, in disorder and amidst perpetual riddles, Yura spent his childhood, often in the hands of strangers, who changed all the time. He became used to these changes, and in this situation of eternal incoherence his father’s absence did not surprise him.

The first part of Doctor Zhivago deals primarily with the events leading up to the October Revolution, and the flight of Yuri’s family from Moscow. The events related to Yuri are intertwined with the second narrative focus, which concerns Larissa (Lara). Both Yuri and Lara are fatherless, living in a time of great instability. They are the two minor players on the great stage of Russia, and the Russian revolution, and Pasternak uses them to demonstrate the effects of the revolution on relatively ordinary young people.

Doctor Zhivago is a quintessentially Russian novel – and is a novel in which Russia herself is a character. Pasternak himself is a poet, and he wields words with precision and beauty. Much of the novel focuses the attention of the reader on minute details to show the beauty that he is trying to convey, like this description of a traditional Russian Christmas:

The frosted-over windows of houses, lit from inside, resembled precious caskets of laminated smoky topaz. Behind them glowed Moscow’s Christmas life, candles burned on trees, guests crowded, and clowning mummers played at hide-and-seek and pass-the-ring. It suddenly occurred to Yura that Blok was the manifestation of Christmas in all domains of Russian life, in the daily life of the northern city and in the new literature, under the starry sky of the contemporary street and around the lighted Christmas tree in a drawing room of the present century. It occurred to him that no article about Blok was needed, but one needed simply to portray a Russian adoration of the Magi, like the Dutch masters, with frost, wolves, and a dark fir forest.

or to depict a character with delicacy and care, like this description of Tonya, Yuri’s wife:

Yura stood absentmindedly in the middle of the ballroom and looked at Tonya, who was dancing with someone he did not know. Gliding past Yura, Tonya tossed aside the small train of her too-long satin dress with a movement of her foot and, splashing it like a fish, disappeared into the crowd of dancers. She was very excited. During the break, when they sat in the dining room, Tonya refused tea and quenched her thirst with mandarines, which she peeled in great number from their fragrant, easily separated skins. She kept taking from behind her sash or from her little sleeve a cambric handkerchief, tiny as a fruit tree blossom, and wiping the trickles of sweat at the edges of her lips and between her sticky fingers. Laughing and not interrupting the animated conversation, she mechanically tucked it back behind her sash or the frills of her bodice.

The lives of Yuri and Lara are intertwined, like the twin strands of DNA, Sometimes separated, sometimes twisted together. They see one another as if at a distance several times when they are young, Yuri constantly aware of her. She is involved, Lolita-like, in a frankly abusive relationship with a much older man, the lawyer Komarovsky, and he exploits her until, unable to cope with the pressure and humiliation of her sexual subjugation, she tries to shoot Komarovsky.

Yuri becomes a doctor, and marries Tonya. Lara becomes a nurse, and marries Pasha Antipov. The revolution sweeps them up and tosses them like so much flotsam:

Just think what a time it is now! And you and I are living in these days! Only once in eternity do such unprecedented things happen. Think: the roof over the whole of Russia has been torn off, and we and all the people find ourselves under the open sky. And there’s nobody to spy on us. Freedom! Real, not just in words and demands, but fallen from the sky, beyond all expectation. Freedom by inadvertence, by misunderstanding. “And how perplexedly enormous everyone is! Have you noticed? As if each of them is crushed by himself, by the revelation of his own heroic might.

Doctor Zhivago relies extensively on coincidence – characters run into one another constantly, which, because given the size of Russia, seems unlikely. But Pasternak is moving his characters around like chess pieces because he has something he wants to say and he needs them in places together at various times to be able to say it.

Book I ends with all four of the primary characters leaving Moscow, with the Zhivago’s in a very long train ride to Yuriatin, the location of Tonya’s old family estate. Lara is already in Yuriatin, and Pasha has left her to become a participant in the Revolution.

A note on the translation: I read the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation. I am assured by friends who are more knowledgeable about translations that this is not the best translation to read, that the Hayward translation is preferable. I did notice that the experience of reading Doctor Zhivago was curiously distant, almost arms-length, and I wonder if that is because of the translation.

Further discussion of Book II will go up tomorrow.

three-half-stars

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Parts 3 through 8

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Parts 3 through 8Anna Karenina (Parts 3-8) by Leo Tolstoy
Published by Penguin Classics on 1877
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 817
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads

The must-have Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of one of the greatest Russian novels ever written, soon to be a film adapted by Tom Stoppard and starring Kiera Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, and Emily Watson

Described by William Faulkner as the best novel ever written and by Fyodor Dostoevsky as “flawless,” Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society. Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel's seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.

While previous versions have softened the robust, and sometimes shocking, quality of Tolstoy's writing, Pevear and Volokhonsky have produced a translation true to his powerful voice. This authoritative edition, which received the PEN Translation Prize and was an Oprah Book Club™ selection, also includes an illuminating introduction and explanatory notes. Beautiful, vigorous, and eminently readable, this Anna Karenina will be the definitive text for fans of the film and generations to come.

I had intended to be done with Anna Karenina by November 15. In the time honored fashion of an +800 page classic, that just didn’t happen. My plan to see the movie also didn’t happen. I probably end up catching it on DVD down the road a bit.

But Anna Karenina. This book is exceedingly frustrating to read. It is well-written, certainly, and I found the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation to be quite readable. The content itself, however, is filled with unlikeable, entitled characters who display few positive character traits. They are idle aristocrats whose lives are filled with an endless round of parties and other diversions, but who seem to actually contribute little of substance to the community. The title character, Anna Karenina herself, becomes less appealing throughout the entire book until, by the end of the book, I regret to say if she didn’t actually throw herself in front of the train, someone might desire to push her (this would’ve been a very different, and probably much more exciting resolution) in front of it. She completely lost me when, not content with diverting the attention of every eligible man within a ten mile radius, she decides to try to make the married husband of an acquaintance become her champion.

There was really only one character that I actually liked: Levin, the Russian landowner whose responsibilities for serf and wife and son weigh heavily upon his soul, and who takes a more scientific and creative approach to the process of growing food. Even Levin, when he spends time in the city, becomes somewhat corrupted by the indolent and extravagant lifestyle that the aristocrats are living. In Levin, it is possible to see the seeds of a more productive, less stagnant, Russian ruling class. Levin is seen by many critics as being semi-autobiographical, which may explain the reason that he is a more sympathetic and appealing character than many of the other characters.

I wanted to feel sorry for Anna Karenina, but she was such a victim of her own bad choices that I just couldn’t, and her ultimate decision to take her life, rather than being poignant or desperate, really came off like the unthinking tantrum of a toddler who holds her breath until she passes out. Her last thoughts are focused on how her suicide will make her lover, Vronsky, sorry that he treated her so badly. And Vronsky, again, seems so shallow and so sadly codependent with the emotional vampire that Anna Karenina ends up being that he, too, seems basically bereft of redeeming qualities.

The comparison of the two relationships – Levin and Kitty versus Anna and Vronsky – was very well-done.

Personally, I enjoyed Tolstoy’s meditations on Russian farming, and nature, and religion significantly more than I enjoyed the psychological destruction of Anna and the two men who were involved with her.

A few quotes that I enjoyed:

Tolstoy on economics:

He knew that he had to hire workers as cheaply as possible, but that he should not put them in bondage by paying them in advance at a cheaper rate than they were worth, though it was very profitable.

Tolstoy on dealing with infidelity:

All that was going to befall her and their son, towards whom his feelings had changed just as it had towards her, ceased to concern him. The only thing that concerned him now was the question of how to shake off in the best, most decent, most convenient for him, and therefore most just way, the mud she had spattered on him in her fall, and to continue on his path of active, honest and useful life.

Tolstoy on love:

When the princess came in five minutes later, she found them perfectly reconciled. Kitty had not only assured him that she loved him, but in answering his question about what she could love him for, had even explained to him what for. She had told him that she loved him because she thoroughly understood him, that she knew what he must love and that all he loved, all of it, was good.

Tolstoy on life:

I’ll get angry in the same with with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray — but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!

Tolstoy is a master writer, and I am certainly not sorry that I read Anna Karenina. Even as bleak as parts of it were, I enjoyed it.

Anna Karenina, parts 1 & 2

Anna Karenina, parts 1 & 2Anna Karenina (Parts 1 & 2) by Leo Tolstoy
Published by Penguin Classics on 1877
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 817
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads

The must-have Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of one of the greatest Russian novels ever written, soon to be a film adapted by Tom Stoppard and starring Kiera Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, and Emily Watson

Described by William Faulkner as the best novel ever written and by Fyodor Dostoevsky as “flawless,” Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society. Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel's seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.

While previous versions have softened the robust, and sometimes shocking, quality of Tolstoy's writing, Pevear and Volokhonsky have produced a translation true to his powerful voice. This authoritative edition, which received the PEN Translation Prize and was an Oprah Book Club™ selection, also includes an illuminating introduction and explanatory notes. Beautiful, vigorous, and eminently readable, this Anna Karenina will be the definitive text for fans of the film and generations to come.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is subtitled “A Novel In Eight Parts.” I am reading the Deluxe Penguin Edition, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky.

A brief note on translations: when reading a book that has been translated into English, choosing a translation can be absolutely critical to the enjoyment of the book. A poorly translated edition can ruin the reading experience. When I decided to read Anna Karenina, I did some research on translations. Generally, in the case of classic literature, the best translations are not available as free kindle versions.

The translation that is available for free is typically the Garnett translation. The reviews that I read reflect that this is not the best translation of Tolstoy’s masterwork – readers often complain that Garnett has taken a book written by a Russian novelist and somehow trransformed it into a book that sounds like it was written by a British Victorian author

Having said that, I have really enjoyed parts 1 & 2 of Anna Karenina. These two sections focus on two female characters: Anna herself, and Kitty. Anna is married to Alexei, a prominent figure in St. Petersburg society. Kitty is an unmarried girl living in Moscow. Both of these characters end up involved with the unmarried Vronsky.

Anna is portrayed at the beginning of the book as a a young, married matron who is beyond reproach. She is popular in society, and is quite pretty and vivacious. Kitty, on the other hand, is on the hunt for a husband

This book is full of glittering despair. The role of women in Tsarist Russian society is primarily decorative, and feels arid and unfulfilling. Anna is tirelessly pursued by Vronsky, in spite of the fact that it is her character, not his, that is going to suffer if the relationship develops into an affair. There is a sense of futility in Anna’s behavior.

There were some quotes I really liked:

“That which for almost a year had constituted the one exclusive desire of Vronsky’s life, replacing all former desires; that which for Anna had been an impossible, horrible, but all the more enchanting dream of happiness – this desire had been satisfied. Pale, his lower jaw trembling, he stood over her and pleaded with her to be calm, himself not knowing why or how.”

This is how Tolstoy tells the reader that the affair has been consummated. It is impossible not to read a certain amount of despairing foreshadowing in this passage. The simultaneously occurring events where Vronsky essentially rides his mare to her death and has to put her down during the race, which occurs during the time that Anna becomes pregnant and tells her husband that she has been unfaithful, feels, as well, like a parallel to this relationship that is destined to end badly. Vronsky makes a careless mistake in jumping the horse and the horse is lost and must be euthanized because of his lack of attention to it’s welfare.

I just finished the section where Anna tells Alexei that she has been unfaithful, her desperation palpable:

“No, you are not mistaken,” she said slowly, looking desperately into his cold face. “You are not mistaken. I was and could not help being in despair. I listen to you and think about him. I love him, I am his mistress, I cannot stand you, I’m afraid of you, I hate you . . . “Do what you like with me.”

So, does Vronsky love Anna, or is she merely a toy, to be discarded as broken?

One final note – I’m not having nearly as much trouble with the Russian names as I expected.

In which I plan a trip to Russia in November

Not for reals Russia, because I’m guessing that it is very cold in Russia during the month of November. No, I’m planning a fictional trip to Russia during November. I’m going to read at least 4 books set in Russia.

So far, the plan is to select from:

Because the movie with Keira Knightley as the tragic Anna is scheduled for release in November. I’m not so sure about that casting decision – Knightley is quite hit and miss, and I didn’t think she was very good as Elizabeth Bennett. I am already about 150 pages in to this book.

Because I’ve seen the movie. And I need to read the book.

Because I love gigantic, overwhelming, chunky tomes of historical fiction.

Because it is about Siberia, it is non-fiction, and it looks fascinating.

The Jewel of St. Petersburg

Because the cover is pretty. I know, I’m shallow. Sue me.

Because I am fascinated by Tsarist Russia.

So, there you go. My trip to Russia commences November 1, 2012. Now how about you? Any great books set in Russia/Soviet Union/former Soviet Union countries that you highly recommend? And why?

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