Month: November 2010

On the Streets of Philadelphia

I spent a delightful four days in Philadelphia over the Thanksgiving long weekend, staying with my lovely American friend Katherine and her family. When I wasn’t eating colossal amounts of home cooked food or luxuriating in the double bed that was put at my disposal, I was exploring the environs of this fascinating little city and singing that  Bruce Springsteen song from the film Philadelphia in my head.

Philadelphia is like a compact version of Boston, with some lovely shops and restaurants, a cultural quarter, lots of historical buildings and museums, plenty of green space and a very relaxed, stress free atmosphere. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see a huge amount of it due to time constraints, and I was also reluctant to be outside in the cold too long as it actually was freezing and I may have forgotten my coat in my hurry to pack and leave the apartment on time to catch the train (don’t tell my mum!). However, I saw enough to know that I both like Philadelphia very much, and that I shall be coming back to see more in the summer when it is warmer, I have a better knowledge of colonial history in order to appreciate and understand the role the city has played over the centuries, and have a few dedicated days to explore at my leisure the lovely streets of red brick row houses and quaint museums.

What I did get to see was the Liberty Bell, which was a little bit of an anticlimax, especially as it turns out there is no evidence to support the common myth that the bell was rung to declare America’s independence from my dear homeland in 1776. Even so, it was very interesting to see this lump of cracked metal that has come to symbolise so much, and there was a good display of information relating to the women’s suffrage movement in America and how they cast their own Liberty Bell to highlight the hypocrisy of their situation in the 19th century. I also enjoyed looking around some of the small house museums, such as  Carpenter’s Hall and Physick House, all of which have very informative staff, excellently preserved interiors and lots of information for the interested visitor on their history. I was constantly irritated, however, by my lack of knowledge of American history, and found this quite a barrier in my ability to adequately contextualise what I was reading. I need to get cracking with my huge Howard Zinn volume, and then I will be quite the expert, ready to fire out facts on American history at any given opportunity!

There are plenty of pretty churchyards and graveyards too, which, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know I have a particular penchant for visiting. Unfortunately the stone commonly used to make the gravestones in this region and the damp climate has caused a lot of erosion and I had trouble making out most of the inscriptions, but the ground was carpeted in beautiful Autumn leaves and the churchyards were surrounded by red brick rowhouses, and the sun was setting, and it was all beautifully atmospheric. I also learned terrible facts about how Native Americans were treated by the colonial Americans and were given smallpox blankets to infect and kill off their population, freeing up their land for use. Some Native American smallpox victims are buried in the churchyard I visited, and I felt so sad for them and all they have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of people determined to wipe out their history, culture, language and land.

After this sadness we walked down to South Street, which, as my friend said, is like the East Village all crammed into one street. There are lots of colourful, graffiti covered buildings, interesting shops, tattoo parlours, and little cafes and restaurants, and I would definitely like to explore this neighbourhood more when I go back. We stopped at Jim’s for supposedly the best Philly Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, and I tried my very first one. It was OK; not the best thing I’ve ever eaten but not the worst, either. The guys serving us were absolutely on the floor when I opened my mouth and declared that they wanted me to read them a bedtime story with my bee-yoo-tiful accent, which I realised I could either take as a compliment or a frightening harbinger of doom; I preferred to take the first route and nodded and smiled before snatching my cheesesteak and running for the door!

All in all it was an absolutely wonderful trip and I thoroughly enjoyed my whistlestop tour. Next time I go I want to get to the Art Museum and run up the Rocky steps, look inside the churches, wander more around the South Street neighbourhood, and soak up more of the history of the beautiful streets that ooze colonial charm. One thing I got told about was the interesting fire insurance plaques on the row houses that date from the 18th century, and though I think I have captured a few in my photographs, I didn’t really stop to look that closely, so I’ll be excited to open my eyes a little wider and take in more of the details of this beautiful little city next time I’m in town.


97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman

I visited the Tenement Museum a few weeks ago, and was intrigued by the stories I heard of life in New York’s Lower East Side during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now a vibrant and very trendy district, filled with expensive pre war apartments, boutique shops, art galleries and delicious eateries, from the 1850s until the mid 20th century, this area was jam packed with ramshackle houses and tenement buildings, and housed the majority of New York’s colossal immigrant population. In tiny three room apartments, many with just one window to the outside world, generations of families who had come to America from a myriad of European countries for the chance of a better life in the legendary ‘Land of Opportunity’ lived on top of one another, often desperately poor and struggling to survive in a country that was alien to them.

The Tenement Museum recreates the living environments of these immigrants, using a remarkable surviving Tenement of the 19th century, 97 Orchard Street, as its canvas. Several apartments have been furnished and decorated to represent different time periods and countries of origin of immigrants, and others have been left in the distressed state the building was found in during the 1970s. These untouched rooms are truly remarkable; layers of paint and wallpaper are peeled back, showing how each successive family chose to decorate their rooms; some put up floral paper, others dark, others light, others stripes, others patterned. It was an amazing sight to see. Sagging cupboards, sooty fireplaces, worn floorboards and etched names in woodwork showed exactly how well used these rooms were by successive generations, who moved on from these cramped, dark and inconvenient apartments as soon as they could afford something better. With a ‘dark room’ for sleeping (ie. no window, and no natural light or air from anywhere), a kitchen, again with no window, and a parlour, which possessed the only window out onto the street, the combined total space of which would easily fit into my apartment’s living room, each apartment usually housed at least six people. The dark, damp atmosphere, hot, stale air and cramped quarters were a fact of life for the immigrants who were forced to live here. What shocked me the most was that 97 Orchard Street was actually one of the nicest tenement buildings available at the time it was built, despite there being no indoor plumbing, one window per apartment and a backbreaking walk, several times a day, up three or four flights of stairs for most families as they lugged water up from the back yard to their apartments.


The stories of these families were often heartbreaking; work was scarce for many unqualified, linguistically challenged immigrants, forcing many of them to live on practically nothing. Children died frequently from contaminated milk, water and diseases easily contracted from the often knee high dirt and excrement gathered on the sidewalks. For the women, life was a constant struggle to keep the dust and dirt at bay, families fed, and children safely brought into the world, and the average life expectancy for these women in the most deprived districts of the Lower East Side in the 19th century was only around 35. Many husbands left their families, frustrated at not being able to provide for them. The ‘Land of Opportunity’ was, in reality, a land of struggle, poverty, despair and homesickness for many, and the only thing that kept these immigrants going was the kindness of their neighbours and the close ties forged between immigrants from the same countries and regions, who tended to stick together in their own distinct areas.

This link to their home countries was most strongly pronounced through the food the immigrants ate, and it is this facet of life in New York that Jane Ziegelman so vividly and fascinatingly explores in her book. Charting the stories of five families; the Irish Moores, the Glockners from Germany, the German-Jewish Gumpertz’s, the Russian-Jewish Rogarshevksys, and the Italian Baldizzis, Ziegelman explores the changing face of the Lower East Side as new waves of immigrants from varying regions appeared in the city, and brought their culinary traditions with them. In a strange city with often no family or friends to count upon, immigrants longed for a taste of home to comfort and sustain them. Backbreaking labour and cramped living conditions made life miserable for many, and the joy of a good meal like mother used to make could brighten a day and bring a smile to a weary face.

From bagels to spaghetti, pizza to doughnuts, and pretzels to pickles, immigrants changed the way America ate. As wave after wave of Italians, Germans, Russians, Irish and Jews arrived in New York, places to buy and eat their native foods sprung up across the Lower East Side, massively diversifying the cuisine on offer in the city. Used to chops and oysters, New Yorkers were amazed at the variety of the food the immigrants brought with them, spiced with flavours totally unknown and untasted, and completely delicious. It’s hard to imagine now a New York without pizza or bagels, but without the immigrant population, this would never have happened. Being able to procure and produce their culinary favourites was an essential factor in the immigrants’ quality of life, and Ziegelman perfectly and wonderfully describes the joy a Gefilte fish could bring to a Sabbath celebrating Jew, or the sustenance and comfort a fresh baked loaf of bread provided for an Italian labourer. Food was the chief expenditure and a rare source of pleasure in a difficult life for immigrants, and the ingenuity and diversity of the women who cooked within tiny apartments and those who opened restaurants and stalls to sell their wares and improve their prospects astounded me.

As a new immigrant myself, I can definitely understand this correlation between food and comfort. I have only been in America for three months, but already I miss English food. Finding a sandwich in this city, for example, is incredibly difficult. I can easily buy a panini, or a quesidilla, or a burrito, or a pressata, or a wrap, or a bagel, but a nice tuna and mayonnaise sandwich with cucumber and soft white bread that hasn’t had half a bag of sugar added to it? Impossible. A roast dinner, with bisto gravy, yorkshire pudding and my mum’s delicious roast potatoes? Not a chance. Things I took for granted at home have now become indulgent, wonderfully comforting pleasures; the hobnobs and teabags my sister sent me could be caviar and foie gras as far as I’m concerned; I’ve never so enjoyed a sit down and a cup of tea as I did last week when this parcel from heaven arrived! As much as I am loving my time in New York, having that little taste of home available to me gives me a sense of security like no other. I never knew how much food could transport me back to my little corner of England, and comfort me at moments of homesickness. I can well imagine with what joy the families Jane Ziegelman tells the stories of devoured their evening meals lovingly prepared by the women of the house, as each bite would take them back to the land and the people they loved, now so far away.

This book is an intriguing take on the history of New York and its immigrant population, and one I never thought to much look into before. It includes some lovely recipes as well, so that you can recreate the food immigrants would have eaten in your own kitchen. I’m not sure about some of them, but the dollar stretching soups might very well come in handy for me now I am a poor intern! What really brought this book to life for me though was my visit to the Tenement Museum. This is a real hidden gem and a museum you must visit if you are coming to the city. The recreated apartments tell the stories of the families in Ziegelman’s book, though the only annoying thing about the museum is that each apartment is a different tour, and you have to pay $20 for each one (I only saw one apartment, the Moore’s). Not a cheap day out! However, their website is fantastic, and you can experience it all quite well through the excellent information and photographs available online.


Lost in Over Translation?! Doctor Zhivago deconstructed

Oh my dear, sensible parents! Why did I allow you to dissuade me from studying Russian at university?! Then I would have been able to read Doctor Zhivago in the language it was intended to be read, and I wouldn’t have a backache from lugging around two huge hardcover copies of Doctor Zhivago in two variant translations!

I have posted previously on my feelings about translations, and reading Doctor Zhivago has only amplified my sense of unease about reading them. I have done some ‘close work’ as my A Level French teacher used to call it, at comparing and contrasting the two texts of Doctor Zhivago in English, and the differences, though minor, substantially affect the syntax, tone and general readability of the novel. I’ll give you an example.

Manya Harari and Max Hayward translation:

‘Larisa Feodorovna had realized how unhappy he felt and had no wish to upset him with painful scenes. She tried to hear him out as calmly as she could. They were talking in one of the empty front rooms. Tears were running down her cheeks, but she was no more aware of them than the stone statues on the house across the road were of the rain running down their faces. She kept saying softly: “Do as you think best, don’t worry about me. I’ll get over it.” ‘

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation:

‘ Larissa Fyodorovna had not wanted to upset Yuri Andreevich with painful scenes. She understood how much he was suffering even without that. She tried to listen to his news as calmly as possible. Their talk took place in the empty room of the former owners, unused by Larissa Fyodorovna, which gave onto the Kupecheskaya. Unfelt, unbeknownst to her, tears flowed down Lara’s cheeks, like the rainwater that now poured down the faces of the stone statues opposite, on the house with figures. Sincerely, without affected magnanimity, she repeated quietly: “Do what’s better for you, don’t think about me. I’ll get over it all.” ‘

As you can see, the new translation far expands on the old one, adding extra detail and explanations, that, while I’m sure are more faithful to the Russian, are not particularly necessary, don’t roll off the tongue as well, and sound odd to English speaking ears. I have no knowledge of the Russian language apart from being able to say my name and that I’d like some vodka, please, but it seems to me that in their faithfulness to Pasternak’s Russian, Volokhonsky and Pevear have created a text that, while magnificently atmospheric, comes across as awkward, over detailed, and clunky, because they have not rendered the Russian sentence structure and syntax into a natural, English sounding one. The dialogue is cold, formal and strange to English ears. Harari and Hayward’s ‘I’ll get over it’ sounds much more natural than Volokhonsky and Pevear’s ‘I’ll get over it all’. This might be what the Russian literally says, but English speakers would not express that phrase in that way. ‘Unfelt, unbeknownst’ also feels unnecessary; if she doesn’t feel them, then she obviously doesn’t know they are there. Using both words makes the sentence clunky, and distracts from the sadness of the scene. This is the same with the over-the-top explanation of where the room is and where the statues are – we don’t need to know. It’s not important. Harari and Hayward understand this, and that’s why they omit it. Their six sentences have a lot more gravitas than Volokhonsky and Pevear’s nine.

When I was translating in French class at school, our teacher always told us to translate literally first, then take the sense of the words and translate the intention of them into English. So, something like ‘Le dernier week-end, J’ai alle au piscine’ (which is probably totally incorrect, it’s been a long time), would literally be (if we’re being painfully literal), ‘the last weekend, I went to the swimming pool’. In natural English, we would say, ‘I went swimming last weekend’. Taking out the ‘pool’ and changing the sentence structure doesn’t detract from the essential meaning, and is natural for the English speaker to read and understand. The clean and straighforward Harari and Hayward translation does this perfectly, and while in places the descriptions are not as atmospheric as Volokhonsky and Pevear’s, on the whole, I find it a much more pleasant and powerful reading experience.

In the new translation, I feel like I am tripping over words and have to read sentences several times to make sense of them, as the structure is not natural. The conversations between the characters sound like a foreign language, even though I’m reading them in English. While a lot of the passages are beautiful, especially those describing the natural world, the use of flowery words and phrases that in natural English, even in the period Zhivago is writing about, are just not used, makes the translation feel stilted and convoluted. I don’t really understand why this is so different from their previous translations, as Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina is wonderful, and doesn’t have these problems at all. I suspect that Boris Pasternak’s own use of Russian was rather idiosyncratic, which has made translating him a bit of a nightmare. I can understand that Pevear and Volokhonsky want to be as faithful to the original text as possible, but part of the translator’s duty is also to make a text sound natural and comprehensible to the native speaker of the language they are translating into, and this is what they have failed to do on this occasion.

Another example of how the translation has been over faithful is in the use of Russian idioms, such as ‘spit on the rugs’ and so forth; they make no sense to an English ear. I have no idea what that means. It sounds very Russian, but I don’t see the point of having it there if it’s not used in English, as all meaning is lost. Surely it would be better for the translator to translate this idiom into a comparable one in English? I know a lot of French idioms have no direct translation in English, but the sense of them can be translated into something similar, to give a general idea. I know this is not being ‘faithful’ to the original language, but I think it’s more important to be faithful to the general sense and meaning of a text than to the actual language itself. I might be alone in this, but I would far rather understand the spirit and heart of an author’s work than have to puzzle out strange sounding phrases, that, while beautiful, have no points of comparison in my own language.

I think Im going to stick with the old translation from now on. The new one doesn’t make me care for the characters at all, because their dialogue is not emotive or revealing about them as people, as largely, it makes them sound like pompous thesaurus eating madmen who use fifty words when five will do. I can’t stand it any longer! I don’t care if Hayward and Harari’s translation misses description out and shaves over some of the nuances of Pasternak’s text; it makes far more sense to me to feel engaged with a novel the way the author wanted you to, than struggle along wondering what the goodness he was on about, because half of his meaning has been lost in over-translation.

Pasternak’s niece is of the same opinion as me, though I wouldn’t be as damning as she is of Pevear and Volokhonsky. It’s not that bad, it’s just not as good as I think it could have been.

A Day of Book Related Fun

On this past sunny Saturday in November (the doom laden stories of thigh high snow drifts and frozen eyelashes that everyone I meet has been anxious to assure me are commonplace during New York winters are yet to come true – it’s still positively balmy here!) I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting Jenny of the always intelligent and frequently hilarious Jenny’s Books. Jenny is a recent arrival in the Big Apple, like me. However, unlike me, she is actually American and comes from the South, though she was quick to dispel my stereotypical beliefs of life in this region, namely that in the part of Louisiana she’s from, they don’t talk like Forrest Gump, or spend all day sitting on their porches drinking sweet tea and chewing tobacco. Mea Culpa! Not only is Jenny just as funny and clever and adorable as she appears through her writing, she’s also exactly a day younger than me, which was a rather spooky coincidence, and loves most of the things I do. So, in short, Jenny and I got on like a house on fire, and had a thoroughly wonderful day.

We met at the Morgan Library, which you may remember me mentioning is a rare example of a Brownstone mansion of the Old New York style, situated on 36th st and Madison Avenue. Now, with one of those ubiquitous all glass extensions that architects seem obsessed with tacking onto old buildings, it is a real gem of a Museum, showcasing not only J. Pierpont Morgan’s magnificent former residence, including his impressive library and collection of rare books and prints, but also a fascinating and unusual selection of literary and artistic rotating exhibitions that are housed in the new extension. Jenny and I were both mesmerised by the intricate decoration inside, along with the walls and walls of beautifully bound books, stunning reclaimed medieval stained glass, fake mosaic ceilings and general splendour that surrounded us in the stately rooms of the mansion. From its drab brown exterior, you’d never guess what treasures it hides inside.

When we could stop excitedly whispering to each other, Jenny and I gasped over truly breathtaking illuminated manuscripts, priceless documents (such as an original Declaration of Independence) and scribbled first drafts of famous novels, marvelling at how this collection came to be amassed and displayed in such a beautiful and opulent space. We then moved on to the exhibition spaces, where currently a huge collection of Mark Twain manuscripts, letters and photographs are being displayed, as well as Roy Lichenstein drawings, Degas sketches, and the fascinating photographs taken by J.P.Morgan’s daughter Anne while she was working for the American Friends of France during WWI. It’s the perfect Museum for a bibliophile, and I especially appreciated the exhibition of Anne Morgan’s photographs, which demonstrated the role played by upper class women of the period in the relief effort in rural invaded France. One photograph in particular wonderfully illustrated the incongruousness of the situation; attractive, long skirted, beautifully coiffed girls with grease up to their elbows, fixing their cars, laughing away merrily. Though they still looked like nice girls from Fifth Avenue mansions and Swiss Finishing Schools, their ability to roll up their sleeves, pack up and move half way across the world to war torn Europe, learn a completely new set of skills, mix with an entirely alien set of people, and laugh while doing it, was wonderful to contemplate. If you’re in the vicinity, I’d encourage you to visit the library for this exhibition alone.

Once we’d annoyed everyone fully with our constant talking and giggling, we left the Library and went off in search of food. My favourite place for brunch is called Whym, and so I took Jenny here promising her a very good meal, though we did stop off at F.A.O. Schwartz to marvel at the gigantic stuffed animals on the way. Neither of us were disappointed when we finally got to eat; Whym’s chicken pot pie is to die for! After stuffing ourselves to the point of bursting, we headed off to the Strand on 14th street, a good 40 blocks away. On the way we swung by the Flea Market in Hell’s Kitchen, where I was nearly persuaded to buy a beautiful 1930’s quilt top I didn’t need and couldn’t afford, and Jenny and I thumbed our way through some very interesting 1920’s books on Sex Magnetism. We eventually arrived at the Strand and proceeded to encourage each other to buy books we could very well have done without, and so I left with a beautiful first edition of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl and a rather grubbier first edition of Ford Madox Ford’s The Last Post, which I now realise is the fourth in a quartet, and as such, was a rather pointless purchase, as I haven’t read the others. Oh well! Even so, I got change for $10, so not exactly a bank breaker. Jenny bought a fascinating looking book about the Raj that I fully intend on stealing from her when she’s finished it, so I was of course very forceful in my encouragement when she wavered over buying it!

So, another lovely day in Manhattan was passed, and by the end of it I had a lovely new friend, a full stomach, a greater knowledge of WWI relief efforts and a bag of nice new books. I can’t ask for much more than that out of a Saturday, now, can I?!

Doctor Zhivago, Part One

I have been, I admit, frightened to read epic classics since starting this blog, for fear of not being able to write about them with any depth or meaningful insight. I was fine churning out 3,000 word essays on the big cheeses of English Literature during university, but condensing these thoughts and impressions into a blog post often feels insurmountable. When Frances mentioned the Doctor Zhivago readalong with the new translation, part of me wanted to hold back from reading what I was sure would be a difficult book to write about, but then I realised how ridiculous this was, and began to get excited about re-reading one of the books that defined my late adolescence.

A rather earnest teenager, who was far more into books than boys, I began the Russian classics at 16. They fed my turbulent, romantic soul and made me feel wonderfully literary and intelligent and mature. Sadly I have forgotten the details of most of what I read then, as I raced my way through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Pushkin and Gogol and everything else I could get my hands on at the library without pausing to take stock of their content. Doctor Zhivago, though, has long stayed with me. I think this is because I read it shortly after going to Russia, and experiencing the beautiful bleakness of its landscape and the almost magical, fairytale architecture of its golden onion domes and riverside pastel palaces, falling into dignified ruins. The very first image painted in Doctor Zhivago is of snow and barrenness and mysticism and this condensed, vivid picture of the spirit of Russia and its people is what captured my heart from the minute I opened the book. Subsequent viewings of the film have engraved the legend of this romantic story, set across the sweeping mass of rural Russia during the most turbulent time in modern history onto my heart, and so it was with trepidation that I opened the pages of this new translation, fearful of whether it would live up to the memories I had created of my first reading.

Well, at the half-way point, I have to say, it’s been a very different experience to the one I was expecting. There has been no romance, no tinkling sleigh bell rides, no momentous and heartbreaking moments. As with every Russian novel I’ve ever read, the first few chapters were marked by my complete inability to remember anyone’s name, and frequent flicking back and forth between the pages to ascertain who was who and what relation they had to the other characters. There was also a lot of confusing activity and seemingly random incidents and characters introduced, all of which left me reeling and wondering where the story I remembered was. However, gradually, as I worked my way into the tale Pasternak weaves, I began to understand more of what this book was his attempt to achieve, and though I could easily list its many flaws, which in a conventional novel, would be its downfall (such as the terribly clunky dialogue, which I don’t think is a translation issue), it somehow manages to rise above them all to produce an effect so engrossing and so powerful that I have struggled to put it down.

What has struck me the most so far is the sense of the value of the individual soul in the face of massive, historical, cataclysmic events. Reading about war and revolution and politics is often a very impersonal experience, with people becoming mere statistics and case studies rather than thinking, loving, emotional human beings with ambitions and dreams and fears, swept up in something they have no power to control. In Doctor Zhivago, the sense of bewilderment the characters have, their understanding of their living through such a historically significant time, their struggle to retain a sense of normality, and their fears for the future, are marvellously realised and struck me powerfully. Pasternak writes about a heartless, soulless, ideological regime that cannot see beyond its ideals to the people it is imposing these ideals on. The individual; his soul, his desires, his feelings, his beliefs, has ceased to be of importance or significance.

This is a world where you can be separated from your family, herded together with a group of strangers, and sent off to work in Siberia for an indeterminate time period, all just because you walked into the wrong room at the local magistrate’s office. This is a world where shots ring out on residential streets and bustling cities become deserted, dangerous wastelands over night, because of a civil war that pits former neighbours and friends against one another. This is a world where everything you have worked for suddenly becomes valueless, and you are completely and utterly powerless to stop the rug of the life you have woven for yourself from being pulled from under your feet. This is a world where every anchor that used to hold your existence firmly in its place has been cast adrift, and nothing is recognisable any more. This is a world where fear and suspicion reign supreme, where confusion, disorder and danger are normal, where there are no certainties, and tomorrow may not come. In the midst of this turmoil and dehumanisation of society, how do you preserve your individuality, your soul, your morals, your beliefs? How do you hope, when all reason to is gone?

Zhivago’s ability to take joy in the natural world, in manual labour, in his wife, and child, in his work and his poetry and his belief in the good latent inside all of us, flies in the face of the Soviet machine and exemplifies the superior power of the human soul and its thirst for beauty and love and hope, even when all of these elements have disappeared from everyday life. The revolution cannot rob men of their souls, and it cannot erase humanity. On their long train journey out of Moscow to Varykino, thousands of miles out into the countryside, Yuri and his family are absorbed into a community of similarly bewildered and displaced people, struggling to get home, equally opposed to the forces of evil and inhumanity that are sweeping their country and bringing destruction to all they touch. They sit up late talking to one another, sharing stories and food and comfort and warmth, and this small microcosm of Mother Russia and the simplicity and goodness of its people demonstrates Pasternak’s belief in the indestructibility of the human heart, and of the essential purity of his homeland.

Doctor Zhivago is a feast for the imagination. Pasternak describes the deserted streets of Moscow, the grotesqueness of the battlefields, and the mystical quality of the Russian countryside in a way that made me feel like I was there, amongst it all. I could hear the footsteps ringing as Yuri hurried across the frozen, silent streets of the city; I could hear the screams of the mortally wounded soldiers that Yuri and Lara were nursing; I could smell the sweet, damp air of the countryside and hear the whispers of railway passengers as their train hurtled through the vastness of the night.

This is not a novel where conversation matters, where clever plot devices matter, where construction and flow and all the normal things that make a novel work matter. What I would dismiss in any other novel as contrived doesn’t appear so within the pages of Doctor Zhivago. The unlikely coincidences that keep drawing Yuri and Lara together, for instance, do not seem unlikely, somehow; they are fate, something supernatural, which works in the context of this disorderly and fragmented world the characters are living in. In fact, the unconventional, disjointed and almost awkward style of the novel reflects the action it describes, and I do wonder whether, rather than being a sign of poor writing, this effect was intended by Pasternak all along. It is not a comfortable book to read, literally – and I think that is exactly his point.

Though it is not what I expected, or wanted, so far, I do think that, in its own way, it is a masterpiece.  At the half way point now, I am hurtling along with its breakneck pace, breathlessly excited for what will happen next.

More later in the week…

‘This unprecedented thing, this miracle of history, this revelation comes bang in the very thick of the ongoing everydayness, with no heed to its course. It begins not from the beginning but from the middle, without choosing the dates beforehand, on the first weekday to come along, at the very peak of tramways plying the city. That’s real genius. Only what is greatest can be so inappropriate and untimely.’

ps. My eternal thanks go to the publishers, who kindly sent this impoverished intern the beautiful American hardcover edition. What generosity!