Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Difficult genius
I consider myself a voracious reader, and rarely am I intimidated by a challenging work of literature, but Doctor Zhivago may just be the most difficult work of fiction I’ve ever tackled. This monumental work of art makes Anna Karenina seem like light beach reading. Russian literature in general is a tough nut for outsiders to crack, and Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel is more impenetrable than most. For starters, it presupposes an encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history, for the lack of which I blame myself, not Pasternak. More than a few times I had to consult Wikipedia just to keep track of which war I was in. Even more frustrating, however, is the enormous cast of characters Pasternak employs to tell his epic story. My edition (from Everyman’s Library) has a list of characters in the front, with brief explanations of their relationships, but it covers probably less than a quarter of the people in the story. Compounding the confusion is the fact that each character has at least three names, and Pasternak uses them all interchangeably. Oftentimes characters would disappear from the narrative for hundreds of pages, and by the time they reappear they may have already been forgotten or been transformed into someone unrecognizable.

Despite the frustrations, this great book is definitely worth the effort. Pasternak, though primarily a poet, won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature largely on the strength of this novel. Though a sweeping epic that covers Russian history from the Russo-Japanese War through World War II, Pasternak never loses sight of the intricate details of individual human lives. For the most part, the narrative follows the life trajectory of its title character, a physician and poet who reluctantly undergoes the violent modernization of his mother country. Because of its brutally realistic depictions of life during wartime, I’m tempted to call this a naturalist novel, but its idealistic love story, cyclical plot elements, and lofty moral debates call to mind the romanticism of an earlier era. Nevertheless, this is a modernist novel of unorthodox structure and shifting perspectives, in which seemingly random occurrences of happenstance counteract any attempt at a heroic narrative.

Though Pasternak proves himself a novelist of rare talent and exceptional skill, he never lets you forget he is first and foremost a poet. At times he might give only the vaguest suggestion of what the characters are doing in the story, but he never misses the opportunity to describe the leaves of a tree or the clouds in the sky. His descriptive facility with language is impeccable, if the English translation is any indication. Passages of natural description are beautifully authentic, and through the relations and behavior of the characters Pasternak demonstrates a profound understanding of human psychology. Following the completion of the novel, the book ends with about 50 pages of poetry, ostensibly written by Yuri Zhivago himself. Though I’ve never been much of a poetry reader, Pasternak might just convert me. His haunting images left me wanting more.

The same can be said of the novel as a whole. Though it took me a good 150 pages to really get into this book, by the second half I was deeply involved emotionally and intellectually. In the end, Doctor Zhivago made me want to be a better reader. Had I known more about the Russian Revolution, I would have gotten more out of it. Beyond the history and politics, this book has some remarkable things to say about humanity, love, and fate. It is a rich literary tapestry that rewards on many levels, for those readers willing to commit to the long haul.
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