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.