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!


  1. Rachel, this is so beautifully written and I could not rest my head upon my pillow tonight without telling you so. How ambitious an undertaking for you to read Dr. Zhivago at such a busy time in your life (and how impressed I am that your read it first at 16). War and Peace did me in for reading Russian novels as a high school senior.

    Do I see the translators there on the cover? How well I remember the discussion that took place on your blog about translators when you wrote about Stone in a Landslide. I was actually thinking about that book as I read your review here. Such a short, concise book as compared to Dr. Zhivago, yet, both are about change and the human spirit, revolution and being taken as the reader to a place that is not comfortable, but, we follow along.

    Well done, Rachel. I look forward to part 2.


    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Penny! How lovely you are. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I am finding it actually quite nice to gently work my way through one big story than read several shorter ones, so it doesn’t FEEL like a big undertaking, even though it does require a good amount of concentration!

      I was obsessed with Russia in my teens, hence my reading of everything Russian…I genuinely loved it and it didn’t feel like a chore. I would spend hours just reading in the evenings and in the school holidays – how I wish I had that kind of time now!

      Yes, you do – they have a good billing for a change! What a great comparison you have made between those two books. Very true – I hadn’t thought of the similarities they share. The translation is proving to be a thorny issue with those of us joining in with the readathon and I look forward to posting my thoughts on it this week!

  2. Carolyn says:

    If you want romance and heartbreaking moments (with skating parties and trains in the snow), then you need Anna Karenina!

    Going to Russia sounds wonderful, that kind of mental imagery would really help. I’m sure I will read Doctor Zhivago at some point, maybe when it comes out in paperback, and I’ll keep your thoughts about it in mind. I thought it was a romance too, but whenever I look at it, I’m put off by all the politics. Maybe it will be a good Canadian winter book some year!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Carolyn, how I loved Anna Karenina! I am well due for as re-read on that front!

      Russia is an amazing country and one day I shall go back for more. I so enjoyed my brief time there.

      All Russian novels are about the romance of life as well as the romance between a man and a woman. The politics and the deep and meaningfulness of them is all part and parcel of the Russian mystical, romantic identity that makes their literature, history and culture so fascinating to me. I would recommend Doctor Zhivago, but only when you’re in the right mood and have some real leisure time to soak into it!

  3. I feel like giving you a round of applause for that wonderful review. You’ve clarified a thought I’ve had about why I enjoy the Russian novels I’ve read and that’s because it’s the importance of the ‘soul’ to them.
    Oh and you’ve been to Russia – it’s somewhere I would love to go – but yet again realise my dream of the country is through the eyes of the priviledged and not the majority.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh you are lovely Joan! (Even though I know that’s not your real name, it does suit you somehow!) Yes – Russian novels are the only ones that really tackle the big questions in life – it’s a very Russian trait!

      I LOVE Russia. It’s so, so beautiful. I went on a school trip and it was magnificent. I stumbled into an old church during a service and was transported back to the 19th cenury as I held a candle in the darkness and listened to the choir singing the most beautiful hymn…I’ll never forget it. You must go, though be warned, some basic Russian is 100% necessary!

  4. Jenny says:

    >>>>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.

    I felt just the same about this. There’s a passage where a bunch of major characters are all in the same place at the same time, and Pasternak comments on the fact that they’re all there at once and most of them don’t even know each other are nearby (or don’t realize how their lives have touched previously). It’s one of the few passages I remember distinctly from my first time reading this book, years ago.

    You know there’s a BBC version of this with Keira Knightley? YOUR FAVORITE.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Good! The coincidences are so ridiculous that I have just accepted them now. The person Yuri runs into on the battlefield? Oh, the boy from the courtyard in the first chapter. The man who helps them move into their house? Oh, the brother of the man they met on the train. Of course! You just have to go with it and I am quite enjoying letting go of my usual reading inhibitions.

      Hahahahahahahaha that made me laugh so much! You know me so well after just one day!

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Yes, splendid and thoughtful.
    Like you, I spend the first few chapters of most Russian novels trying to work out who all the people actually are…
    First came to Zhivago via the Julie Christie movie then read the book, then saw the recent movie.
    The whole experience totally haunting and astounding.
    I have never been to Russia which seems a very daunting experience.
    I hope you are enjoying New York!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Elizabeth! Nice to see you again!

      I know, it’s a nightmare, isn’t it? All those nicknames and patronymics – I spend a lot of time muttering them under my breath!
      Russia is such a beautiful country. It is a bit overwhelming and very disconcerting to be surrounded by a language you can’t even decipher but exhilirating nonetheless. I long to go back!
      I am Elizabeth, very much so, thank you!

  6. David Nolan says:

    Super review. The TV version that Jenny mentioned was actually made for commercial television, rather than the BBC (if you’ll both forgive me a moment of pedantry). I quite liked it, but I seem to recall that it was not very well reviewed – not least by mum who preferred the Omar Sharrif movie.

    I’ve been trying to re-read War and Peace but I think I am on the brink of giving up. It definitely isn’t a comfortable read: it’s physically too big and the text is too small.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you David!! Nice to see you again too, hope you are well.

      I couldn’t stand the one Jenny mentions mainly because I have an aversion to Ms Knightley and I thought she was far too young to play Lara, but the Omar Sharif version I do very much like.

      War and Peace felt like a slog to me as well. I much preferred Anna Karenina, which was beautiful and swept me away. I also read that in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation which read much more lyrically than this one, which does make me think the translation issues we’ve all been having may be due to Pasternak’s use of the Russian language rather than an error on the part of the translators.

  7. Darlene says:

    This is an admirable venture, Rachel! Not a book that I can see myself picking up anytime soon but one that should probably be read to round out anyone’s reading experience. Pass the pickled herring….

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Darlene! It takes some concentration but I am really enjoying it – it’s perfect for these darkening evenings and misty days! One day the urge might take you, I hope, and you will want to pick it up and immerse yourself in the land of Mother Russia!

  8. Rachel, I’m so impressed that you have found the time to read this. You describe it so magnificently that I almost want to delve into it again. I said “almost”.This is one of the very few books that I started and didn’t finish. I read part of it when I was very young and didn’t finish. I know I would finish it this time, but I get so involved with a book that I’m not sure that I’m ready to invest the time. I’m looking forward to part two.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Janet! It’s definitely a book you need to have the time and headspace to immerse yourself into, and I can understand people who give up on it – it’s not the easiest book in the world to read, especially as it’s translated.

      Hopefully by the end I will be able to give such a glowing report that you will feel inspired to give it another go!

  9. jane says:

    Oh Rachel I enjoyed reading your review FAR more than Dr Z. I have not posted any thoughts yet as I can’t even finish the first chapter, I’ve been kidnapped by Somerset Maugham in the meantime now as I just had to read something I loved. This book is doing my head in, a phrase which always make me laugh as my old school housemistress used to bellow at us on a regular basis, but really could not be more applicable. It is such a labour. I don’t hate the book, and can see why it’s a classic, but I find it really arduous to read, and I have to bribe myself with crumpets to get myself to finish a chapter. And even that does not work, it just isnt worth it!! I really wish I loved it, and there are certainly things I love about it.

    Yes, you are so right, it is a feast for the imagination and the passages depicting the landscape, the weather, and the general atmosphere are absolutely wonderful. I am scrawling down things about mushroom rain, halfwit clouds, morning frosts that give you a view of life, and winter’s swoon – what phrases! But the people are not capturing my heart. I have to say that my favourite character so far is the man who comes to fix the stove, he’s the most minor of minor characters – absolutely hopeless at fixing the stove but they like him anyway because he’s such an interesting, philosophical chap. That did make me laugh and it was one of the only real insight I have found thus far into real but wavering, fickle but fascinating human nature. I had thought I might love Lara but I’ve gone rather off the boil, maybe she’s a bit of a wet blanket, I am not yet sure. Yuri I have terrible sympathy for – I’ve not yet finished the first part so I’m not even sure what might come next, but my heart rather broke for him when he came home after all that time to find his house all different and his son, a real person. Tragic. And yet I somehow still can’t really *feel* for him.

    I think part of this might be the fact that I don’t know a great deal of Russian history – I used to know this lot off pat but I can’t tell my Mensheviks from my Bolsheviks any more, and it’s all rather a muddle, so I don’t really feel I properly understand what is going on. And I have not seen the film so have no great romantic visions of this novel to drive me on and provide a bit of visual context. But yes, what a time, what a world. I’m actually wishing the book was drawing me more into it though – when I read a Tale of Two Cities, I had a similar feeling of the awesomeness of the backdrop, and I actually felt as if I had it right behind me. Revolution, yikes! Not so here. Lucky you actually having been to Russia though – two friends of mine actually read this novel whilst on the trans-siberian express this summer, and they both loved it. I suspect that setting might perk it up a bit for me too!

    I am ever so impressed that you were reading this at 16! I seem to recall at that age I was glued to the pages of Marie Claire and the NME, oh dear. I suspect the Russian classics were a rather wiser investment of your time than the hours I spent yearning for expensive lipstick and a bass-playing boyfriend… cringe!

    1. jane says:

      Whoops, not first chapter,I meant I haven’t quite finished the first half, I’m not THAT hopeless (!).

    2. bookssnob says:

      Jane! What a wonderful comment! I know exactly what you mean about it being a rough slog. There are moments of such beautiful description of the natural world (mushroom rain caught my attention too), but then there are also endless reams of strange and nonsensical conversation between minor characters whose origins I can never remember. It is frustrating as much as it is lovely and it’s a very interesting reading experience as a result.

      It’s flaw is in, as you say, the lack of feeling you have as a reader for the characters. Yuri never comes alive for me and neither does Lara. The person I like the most at the moment is Tonya because she seems to have some real spirit about her. Yuri is a bit of a whiner and Lara is just there. She hasn’t been fleshed out yet. We’re told how wonderful she is but there’s no real evidence in her personality of her warmth or her loveliness. Perhaps this will come.

      I love Russia and I love its history so I think that is in part why I can keep going through this and enjoying it despite its flaws. Russia is an amazing country to visit and I do recommend you going- I’ve been on the Trans Siberian railway and it is an experience I will remember all my life.

      HA! I kind of missed the boat on the usual teenage obsessions I think. Though I did read Sugar magazine!

  10. Heather Bond says:

    Great review, as always, Rachel. Have you read the Guardian article linked in the current Persephone Fortnightly Letter? I mention it in relation to your comment about the clunky dialogue. Seems it may be a problem with this translation. I’m looking forward to your final impressions.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Heather! Yes I have, after you mentioned it – very interesting! I am going to be comparing the new and old versions to see what I think!

  11. Frances says:

    Rachel, I wish I was enjoying Doctor Zhivago half as much as I just enjoyed this gorgeous post. Both analytical and personal, the post strikes some very important points including the emphasis upon individualism. This novel’s main story strikes me as something very much about individual characters that could be lifted and put into another setting, another time successfully. And while my reading experience has not been nearly as rewarding as yours, your enthusiasm is prompting me to finish with a more open mind to the possibilities.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Frances! How lovely of you! I’m sorry you’re not enjoying Doctor Zhivago that much but I think it will get better. This is a sort of timeless book, yes, in that it’s about the soul and the human condition – the characters don’t sound that dissimilar from modern day people with modern day problems which I hadn’t thought of before you mentioned it. Good – I’m sure it will be a much more rewarding experience by the end! It better be!

  12. Bellezza says:

    I agree with you about how this novel is not contrived, that Yuri and Lara are brought together by fate. And how tragic it is, like all love affairs which are doomed, that they cannot be together as they so long to be. (Oops, is that a spoiler? Sorry!)

    1. bellezza says:

      I just finished reading your beautifully said comment on my blog, and I wanted to stop by again to say thanks for taking the time to leave such a well-thought out response. (Can we delete my previous comment now, short and brief as it is? 🙂

      The issue of the translation is indeed an interesting one. When I wrote my post I thought to myself, “Surely I’m the only one for whom this is troublesome.” It’s been a relief to know that I’m not alone!

      As you said, if we enjoyed it so much in year prior, why are we not having that same joy now? Even though Pasternak may be more cumbersome to translate than Tolstoy, I still appreciate the previous edition for its smoothness and clarity.

      Looking forward to more wonderful discussions with you, B.

      1. bookssnob says:

        Hi again! Don’t be silly! Your other post is just as insightful as this one!

        You are welcome – I am so enjoying having a group of people to discuss this with. Reading a huge classic like Dr Z is a bit of a daunting task when doing it all alone!

        I have just taken the old translation out of the library and was reading them both in tandem this morning. There is definitely a large stylistic difference and the old one is much cleaner, as you say. However, there is more of a lyricism that the newer one brings to the text so I am reluctant to say that one is ‘bad’ and the other ‘good’ – it’s not as easy as that.

        It is interesting how we’re all struggling and finding it different to what we expected – where had our distorted view of the book come from? Are our expectations unrealistic, and to blame for our not enjoying it as much as we thought? Much to ponder!

    2. bookssnob says:

      Oh the tragedy of it all, Bellezza! As I am getting further in, the powerlessness of the characters is starting to become more of a theme and I am feeling so frustrated FOR them that they are not free to do as they wish. So sad! Not a spoiler at all – I’ve read it before!

  13. Danielle says:

    I’m back to reading (and hope to soon finish) Anna Karenina. I agree that there is a certain amount of orientation in starting a novel like this–they keep changing the names–shortening them, using both names–it takes some getting used to! I tried to read this a long time ago, but the timing wasn’t right and I just couldn’t get into it. I’ll have to try again someday. Lovely post.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Anna Karenina. Such a beautiful book! I prefer it to Doctor Zhivago I think. I would not have said that before I started reading it again, but now I AM rereading, I am starting to wonder why I loved it so much the first time I read it. It must have coincided with my state of mind perfectly and this time perhaps the fit is ‘off’.

      The names in Russian novels are the worst parts – they are so confusing and I wish more publishers put character lists in the front of their books to help us out!

      Glad you enjoyed the post and I hope one day Dr Z strikes your fancy at the right time.

  14. K.O. says:

    Wow, what a wonderful review! I’ve been looking at a lot of different book review blogs on Dr. Zhivago to cite for my high school research paper and this is one of the best review blogs I’ve come across.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you K.O! I’m glad I could be of use and I hope you enjoyed your own reading of Dr Zhivago! 🙂

  15. G.G. says:

    I made an attempt to go to Russia as part of an Alumni Association trip back in 1971 or so. Everything was all set and then a letter arrived about a “problem”…the Russians decided they did not want Americans visiting at that time. Does anyone know what was going on in Russia in the early 1970’s that this type of thing could happen?

  16. Love says:

    How many of you are aware that the part of Lara was originally offered to Jane Fonda? I personally would have preferred that…she would have brought the passion, life, and charisma that a woman of that stature required…not to mention (in my opinion) a prettier face than Julie’s (well defined mouth)….just saying.

  17. Roger Cowell says:

    Hmm. It is quite a relief, after nearly two years trying to read and enjoy the ‘new’ translation of Dr. Zhivago, to discover that I am not alone in preferring the earlier version. I may go back to the Hayward/Harari translation and savour its lyrical clarity, which drew me in, after the David Lean film captivated me as a bookish 16 year old in small-town New Zealand.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes – you’re certainly not, Roger! The Hayward/Harari translation isn’t perfect but it’s certainly my preferred version!

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