Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak
English translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari
(Random House, 1958)
I first read Doctor Zhivago a dozen or so years ago, and have watched the movie at least five or six times since then, but that didn�t stop me from picking up the book recently and reading it again. It�s great. I heartily recommend it. Through the eyes of his lead character, Boris Pasternak creates a vivid picture of life before, during, and immediately after the Russian Revolution. His prose is graceful, and the ideal means for expressing Yuri Andreievich Zhivago�s poetic vision and outlook. In Pasternak�s hands, whimsical, powerful Nature becomes a feast for the senses that personifies Zhivago and helps explain how he can love more than one woman in more than one way and be immensely happy, even as he is tormented by guilt and self-contradiction:

. . . The night was full of quiet, mysterious sounds. Next to him, inside the passage, water dripped from the washbasin regularly and slowly. Somewhere outside the window people were whispering. Somewhere in the vegetable patch they were watering cucumber beds, clanking the chain of the well as they drew water and poured it from pail to pail.

All the flowers smelled at once; it was as if the earth, unconscious all day long, were now waking to their fragrance. And from the Countess�s centuries-old garden, so littered with fallen branches that it was impenetrable, the dusty aroma of old linden trees coming into bloom drifted in a huge wave as tall as a house.

Noises came from the street beyond the fence on the right � snatches of a song, a drunken soldier, doors banging.

An enormous crimson moon rose behind the crows� nests in the Countess�s garden. At first it was the color of the new brick mill in Zybushino, then it turned yellow like the water tower at Biriuchi.

And just under the window, the smell of new-mown hay, as perfumed as jasmine tea, mixed with that of belladonna. Below there a cow was tethered; she had been brought from a distant village, she had walked all day, she was tired and homesick for the herd and would not yet accept food from her new mistress. . . .

. . . Everything was growing and fermenting, growing, rising with the magic yeast of life. The joy of living, like a gentle wind, swept in a broad surge indiscriminately through fields and towns, through walls and fences, through wood and flesh. Not to be overwhelmed by this tidal wave, Yuri Andreievich went out into the square to listen to the speeches. . . .

Zhivago believed in the Revolution. But he also knew it would be meaningless unless there was a revolution within people themselves: in the way they thought, in the way they looked at life, and in how they saw themselves in relation to others. He found the constant barrage of edicts and threats issued by those struggling for power in various places throughout the country childish. Many of the same people who had helped bring about the Revolution had forgotten what they were fighting for. They turned against each other, and against the masses who had suffered through starvation, atrocity, and war. Zhivago resented talk of lofty ideals when it was uttered by shallow-minded people living empty lives. At the same time, he saw beauty in everything. He saw it in death and disease, in nature, and in people�s battered desire for creativity and order.

The last several years of Zhivago�s life were just as amazing as those he spent surviving the Revolution. Their relative tameness was a natural outcome of the oppressive post-Revolutionary atmosphere, as well as the physical and mental exhaustion brought on by the suffering he had endured. His eccentric life in Moscow, where he stood out in appearance and thought, bore testimony to man�s hunger for meaning and purpose. While those around him were content to spout currently acceptable and government-mandated phrases about life, history, and politics, he went on living and speaking as before. Separated by fate from his wife, Tonia, and their son and daughter, and from his true love and spiritual soul mate, Lara, he �married� a third woman in Moscow with whom he had two more children. When he was feeling well enough, he wrote and published his thoughts on medical, philosophical, and literary subjects. Despite living an underground sort of existence, his work and name, especially as a poet, became widely known. When he died of heart failure, mourners crowded the room where his body lay surrounded with flowers. Instinctively, they knew what they had lost.

Doctor Zhivago brought Boris Pasternak the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but the novel was banned in the Soviet Union and the author had to decline the honor. Once the book reached the West, it was quickly translated into over a dozen languages. Pasternak died in 1960 and was �rehabilitated� by the government in 1987, eventually leading to publication of the novel.

There are dozens of websites where you can read about Boris Pasternak�s life and career, and where you can read about what his novel might or might not have meant in terms of politics. Personally, I recommend the book for its history, humanity, and beautiful language. I also recommend it as a reminder of how small we really are in the overall scheme of things, and of how large we can be in the face of overwhelming circumstances and events.

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