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!