A guide to the classics: Doctor Zhivago
|August 2, 2011||Posted by Jess Kadow under guide to the classics|
For anyone who has been forced to delve deep into the depths of the Soviet Union’s past in order to complete an A-level exam, as I have, the name of the famous novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak will certainly be a familiar one. In a daring act against the state, Pasternak wrote this 600-page brick of a book, which criticises the regime and highlights the true suffering evident in the time of both the First World War and the sacred 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, in an attempt to shed some light on the truth of the past instead of swallowing the lies of the leaders. This fact was something that Khrushchev, leader of the USSR in 1957 when the book was finished, could not accept, despite his more liberal policies. Therefore, the novel itself was actually banned in the USSR until as late as 1984, despite its publishing in many other countries and the fact that Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. The history of this book alone was enough to attract me to it, promising an exciting, and no doubt shocking, storyline, complete with a chance to learn more about Russia and its transition period from Tsarist rule to Bolshevism, with an angle that would tell more of the human consequences than my old textbook.
In short, I expected a whirlwind of a novel packed with controversial views and heart-moving emotional moments, which would effectively convey the state of the country at that turbulent time. In this respect I was disappointed. The novel instead started off rather slowly, not helped by the fact that each character was alternately called by his surname; first name; nickname; and his first name and patronymic (an altered version of the name of their parent of the corresponding gender) in different combinations, making the character list at the front a necessary and frequent reference point, and the reading difficult.
I hoped that the actual plot would kick in after the background information was set up and the story following Yury Andreyevich Zhivago in his childhood years along with several other characters, whose relevance was not yet explained, was concluded. During this wait for the real plot to begin there were many beautifully written descriptions of surroundings and settings, as well as an interesting development in the story of a young girl named Lara, another whose relevance is not discovered more than half-way through the novel, because of the powerful way her emotions are revealed regarding her relationship with an older man, Komarovsky, and her feelings of being trapped and suppressed at such a young age. But this did not mean that the story was moving on, and instead it seemed to digress into incomprehensible discussion about the nature of art and what art is and what it means, then subsequently the nature of life and what life is and what it means, until I was utterly bored, confused and left feeling like it had all gone over my head. The original image of what the novel was about was slowly being replaced by one which was very different and altogether more philosophical than I could hope to understand.
The reader follows Yury through his childhood experiences; into his marriage to Tonya, a girl he had grown up with; in the midst of the First World War as a field doctor; fleeing from Moscow to the countryside in the search for food and a better life with his family; and the trouble he faces after this when the Revolution comes. Within his struggles he encounters another woman, Lara Antipova, and discovers he is torn between love for her and the simultaneous, but different, love for his wife. I felt this emotional turmoil should have been an object of great pain to Yury which should have occupied a good few pages and would add some emotional depth to a character that the reader is allowed very rarely to glimpse inside of. Instead, more time was spent on musing about the impending doom of the Civil War and the nature of Bolshevism and what Bolshevism is and what it means, resulting in a complete loss of emotion. Also, while this was interesting and did throw light on why the book was banned in the first place, I was expecting Yury or some of his close friends to be strict enemies of the Bolsheviks in order for it to have gained its place as being so controversial, but most of the characters in fact seemed surprisingly indifferent. This may have been more realistic in terms of how people felt at the time, but did not really make captivating reading, as I felt myself become indifferent towards him to mirror his lack of political stance.
In this way the story plodded on, seeming to miss out all events that would have made the novel more exciting to read. For instance, Yury is hit by a shell during the war and must recover in a field hospital. Instead of tracking his recovery and the pain he feels so that the reader connects with the character however, the narrative comments briefly on the injuries he sustained, then moves on to describing who else is in the hospital and quickly makes a time jump to when he is healthy again, therefore obliterating the chance of having some more dramatic and heartfelt writing. The entire novel does not miss out on all of these opportunities, but this happened on more than one occasion and it began to become infuriating.
The icing on the cake for me was the fact that by the end, partly because of the book’s length that you spend hours with the characters and therefore are forced into having some sort of meaningful relationship with them, I felt for Yury and despaired at his situation as he did, feeling sympathy and curious to know how he solved the predicament. But he seemed intent on throwing away his chances at happiness and love, making decisions that to me made little logical sense. So, with a character I didn’t understand, I struggled through the remaining pages and ended feeling a little depressed and utterly confused by the entire experience.
Doctor Zhivago is not a bad book. It is well written, as the English version still has some incredible passages in terms of expression and description despite the fact it has been translated. It portrays an accurate view of the time period encompassing human suffering and provides large numbers of anecdotes from various minor characters, which uphold this image of the harsh Soviet existence. It forces some element of compassion for the characters out of the reader, however vague and few the instances are whereby the narrative describes emotions and feelings. All in all, I just felt like there were too many loose ends and decisions left unexplained. I realised that for such a long book I should have felt more for the characters by the end, and understood them better than I did. In my opinion, this 600-page beast could have been condensed considerably if all the nonsense about art and the faffing about was cut short, and been drastically improved in terms of tension and drama if some more action had occupied those spaces instead. This novel lacked a little something – the ability to keep me hooked and interested about the end. Instead I trudged my way to the end with the hope that I could read something more interesting once I had finished the last page. In places it was as mechanical and without feeling as the Soviet regime itself. And no amount of beautiful description or historical background would detract from the fact that it felt like revision all over again.