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Can anyone steer me in the direction of a critical review that would shed some light on it's brilliance?
NPR's Weekend Edition did a spot on Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago recently:
I have a lot of resources on the book and Pasternak but nothing I can make readily available, if you know what I mean. The original 1958 NY Times book review of the novel might be worth a look, if you can find it on the web.
Although I have not read the book in the last 15 or so years, it bears reading multiple times...
I love Pasternak's poetry too; although I wonder if it's not due for some new translation.
Doctor Zhivago is a wonderful, complex, and moving novel, but not at all what I imagined from my impressions of the movie, which I've only seen in parts and never in full. I more or less expected a traditional epic love story set against war-torn Russia, but I found instead a very modern portrait of a world falling apart and people struggling to survive -- both in general and in Russia in particular, from just before the 1905 revolution through the first world war, the two 1917 revolutions, the civil war, Stalin's early years and, in the epilogue, up to the turning point of the second world war. Through not only the protagonist and his circle, but also secondary and even incidental characters, Pasternak portrays the chaos, randomness, coincidence, hypocrisy, hunger, opportunism, and suffering of these times, with occasional glimpses of love, art, honor, nobility, and human decency.
The edition I read is the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky; in his informative introduction, Pevear notes that Pasternak was trying, as Tolstoy had, to capture the feeling of life as it is lived, and I believe he does so, with the episodic nature of the novel, the multitude of characters, the digressions from the "plot" and the protagonists, and the broad encompassing vision of the soul-destroying effects of war, power, and ideology.
Many themes and images run through the novel, but I was most struck by three. First, and again like Tolstoy and many other Russian writers I've read, Pasternak has a beautiful feeling for nature, from the red berries of the rowan tree to the way snow falls, the behavior of wolves, and a horse neighing because she senses another horse is nearby. The vast, harsh, and stunning expanse of Russia is another character in this novel. Second, trains play a big role, and are often not running: several characters trek huge distances through barren or forested land and one of the most striking images in the book is of dozens of trains buried under the snow, a reality nobody is supposed to acknowledge. Third, there is a religious theme, with frequent references to aspects of Russian Orthodox services and prayers (which I would not have recognized without the helpful end notes), a continuing and cyclical presence throughout the devastation of historical "progress." Along with this, several of the characters who are believed to be dead subsequently reappear, sometimes the same, sometimes dramatically changed.
I have written at length, but I feel I've only scratched the surface of Doctor Zhivago, without any discussion of the characters or the story. It is an amazingly rich and provocative experience.
Unfortunately, I can't remember the names of the two translators involved (it was only after that experience that I started paying attention to translators' names!) but if you're really struggling you might try finding a different translation.
Pevear's introduction addresses some of the difficulties that Western readers (and even Russian readers) had when the book first came out. This is a very different sort of book from the classic 19th century Russian novels novels. Pasternak was a poet, and I think that shows to great effect in this novel. It isn't just the attention to natural details, but the whole logic and approach of the work. This isn't a book where plot advancements or character developments are in the forefront. Frankly, I read this book with much the same mentality as when I approach a poem, paying close attention to images, descriptions, patterns, rhythms.
I remember Gogol insisting that his Dead Souls was a poem rather than novel, but it's Zhivago that strikes me as such.
(I hope this group isn't fading into extinction -- I love having exchanges about Russian literature!)
One of the things I love about Russian literature is the way that people experience and interpret pivotal historical events -- a prime example being Turgenev's works especially Fathers and Sons -- so that element of Pasternak does entice me...
Fitting to me that >18 sparemethecensor: mentions Turgenev as I've never actually been the biggest fan of his either.
(*waits for the backlash*)
By the way, let me warn you against the Russian TV movie, which I thought had to be better than the famous movie version, being Russian and all. I've watched the first two episodes so far, and it's terrible -- all sorts of made-up stuff, dumb humor that has nothing to do with the book, it's a disgrace to the memory of Pasternak.
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