So you’re in the mood for a romantic novel, and you think to yourself: “I’ve never read Doctor Zhivago, isn’t that supposed to be one of the greatest romances of all time? I think I’ll give it a go.” Don’t. Stop. Put the book down. Pick up something else instead because Doctor Zhivago is not a romance. Yes, there’s a love story in there, but primarily this is a book about one man trying to survive during World War One, the Russian Revolution and the resulting Civil War. Consequently it isn’t at all heart-warming; at times the characters’ circumstances are relentlessly miserable, and there are at least two scenes which can only be described as gruesome. But is it worth reading? Actually, yes. And here are four reasons why:
This is a book that really made me think about the characters: how they were shaped by their past, and how their decisions affected their future. And Pasternak is not afraid to give his characters difficult issues to grapple with – even in peacetime. For example, at the start of the book, Lara (the heroine), who at the time is a teenager, is groomed for sex by a much older man. Not raped – it is a consensual relationship, but, as one of the other characters observes, the man is the puppet master. How that experience affects her, her decisions, and her relationships with other characters is something that echoes throughout the entire novel.
It made me think
This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that made me actually want to go back to University and study literature so I could debate what the more subtle aspects are all about. In particular, I’d love to listen to lectures on the theology in the book. For a novel written in the communist era, the number of times that Russian Orthodoxy is mentioned is incredible – not only is the novel peppered with references to churches, monasteries and religious celebrations, but characters discuss Christianity as well. In an interview with the Paris Review Pasternak said that he included “religious symbolism” to give the book “warmth”, but it feels like he was trying to do much more than that. I’d really like to hear what people who have studied Russian Literature make of it all.
I’d also like to find out more about the role of coincidence in the book. Pasternak has been accused of using coincidence as a clumsy plot device to keep the narrative moving, but I’m not sure that’s fair. Admittedly, it is odd that the hero (Yuri Zhivago) keeps finding himself coincidentally in the same parts of this vast country as several other main characters, but Zhivago also bumps into very minor characters again for no obvious plot-related reason. Towards the end, this string of coincidences start to give the book a slightly surreal element, but I can’t figure out why Pasternak chose to do this. After all, this is supposed to be a book firmly rooted in reality; a book written to tell the truth about the revolution and the civil war. I just can’t figure it out, and I’m still thinking about it.
The beautiful language
Boris Pasternak was first and foremost a poet, and even in translation, his writing is beautifully poetic. Take this description of Easter celebrations:
“Broken eggshells, pink and light blue with a white lining, littered the new grass round the tables. Pink and light blue were the shirts of the young men and the dresses of the girls. And pink clouds sailed in the blue sky, slowly and gracefully, as though the sky were moving with them.”
In some books, poetical descriptions of the surroundings can feel excessive, and I find myself wishing the editor had done a better job of cutting out all the waffle. But not with this book. In fact some of the descriptions were so wonderfully worded that I stopped to re-read them – just so I could appreciate them all the more.
It brings history alive
Better than any history book, the novel gives you a real feel for what the years during and after the Russian revolution must have been like. Within the pages you’ll find a struggle for life: from the basics of finding firewood, to heart-rending decisions about which choice will give your loved-ones the best chance of survival. There’s a sense too of powerlessness – in the midst of a civil war, the ability to live according to your own desires, conscious, and moral values is often taken away from you. Pasternak lived through the years he describes, and you can feel it. He knew what it was like to have choices taken away from him, and to see his loved ones suffer. In 1949 his pregnant mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, was arrested. She miscarried his child while in prison and was later sent to the Gulag. Pasternak may not be explicitly writing about that particular experience, but his grief, his helplessness, is there in the background, seeping into every page.
Not a romance, but definitely worth a read.
So in conclusion – do pick up the book, do read it, but read it when you’re in the mood for something gritty, something thought-provoking and something with a poetic soul. It might not be the ultimate fairy-tale romance, but it is one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.