First published in Italy in 1957 amid international controversy, Doctor Zhivago is the story of the life and loves of a poet-physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Taking his family from Moscow to what he hopes will be shelter in the Ural Mountains, Yuri Zhivago finds himself instead embroiled in the battle between the White Army and the Bolshevik Reds of the Russian civil war. Set against this backdrop of cruelty and strife is Zhivago's love for the tender and beautiful Lara, the very embodiment of the pain and chaos of those cataclysmic times.
Ostensibly the story of Yuri Zhivago and Larissa (Lara) Antipova, this a sweeping tale of the early stages of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath shot through with a doomed love story. Zhivago is a physician and a poet (his poetry follows the text of the novel). He is of the priviledged class but initially feels great sympathy with the proletariot. He volunteers to serve in WWI and it is while working as a medic there that he first meets Lara although he had glimpsed her once before in Moscow. Lara, born to wealth, lived through financial struggles with her mother after her father's death and suffered a Lolita-like relationship with the older man who posed as her mother's benefactor. As these two, both already married to others, continue to find each other after the war, through the revolution and then during the hardships and paranoia afterwards, they grow ever closer and eventually unable to resist any longer, fall into an all-consuming affair. But Yuri and Lara's love story is only a minor thread when compared to the sweeping and all-encompassing story of Russia's changes of the time, politically and socially.
The tenor of the Revolution changes in the course of the novel, as do Yuri's feelings about it and its potential. There are long and complicated musings on the philosophical ideology underpinning the Communist Party as versus those underpinning the White Party. Detailed and extensive descriptions of the Russian-Soviet countryside abound as well, with the weather sweeping through it frequently reflecting the desperation and despair accompanying the new regime's policies. It is no surprise, given the criticisms and even just the ambivalences toward the Revolution spelled out in the character of Yuri Zhivago that this was not allowed to be published in Russia and that there was subsequently a "request" by the government that Pasternak not accept the Nobel Prize.
For many unfamiliar with (or not avidly interested in) the details of the Russian Revolution, the story of Yuri and Lara is not enough to counterbalance the heavy political commentary. Even though I do have a decent working knowledge of the time, I found it tedious. Yuri and Lara as characters were flat and uninspired. The number of secondary and incidental characters was enormous and there was far too much information about each of them, especially when their background or views were not necessary to the plot in any way shape or form and their appearance in the tale was as fleeting as possible. Excessive is the word that springs to mind when I think of the novel as a whole, followed closely by boring. As much as I wanted to thrill to it as I did to Tolstoy's works so many years ago, I just couldn't. It's hard for me to say whether the translation had anything to do with the dry, unappealing nature of the novel for me but I don't plan to pick up another version to find out. Quite a disappointment.
The novel is undeniably important as a commentary on the social and political struggles of early 20th century in Russia. It should be read (though maybe first re-translated and professionally edited). If you choose to read it, wipe the movie out of your mind. The plot is substantially different, the characters are much less heroic (disgusting and pathetic in fact), and the novel oozes a theme of bleak pre-ordained fate-- not a love story at all.
The novel opens with the suicide of Zhivago's father just before the Russian Revolution when Zhivago is still a young boy. Pasternak reveals early on that the novel will be about truth and sacrifice; about one man's beliefs and how he lives with his choices.
As the story develops, the reader is pulled into the life of Zhivago, who matures into a young man, loses his wealth, marries his childhood sweetheart, becomes embroiled in the fast accelerating revolution and finds Lara, his true love. The overriding theme of the novel is the importance of the individual vs. the rules of the state and the terror inflicted on the masses in the name of a political ideal.
Pasternak writes prose like the poet he was - painting the chaos of the times on wide brush strokes of beautiful description.
Throughout the novel, the idea of fate - of being swept along with the tide of the times - is often repeated. Characters re-emerge in unusual ways, seemingly by coincidence - and yet we are left with the idea that some things cannot be chance and nothing is coincidental. The characters seem to be victims of the Soviet ideology.
Most people think of Doctor Zhivago as a love story. The love between Lara and Yurii spins throughout the novel, and reminds the reader again about the power of the individual even during tumult and upheaval. But, calling Doctor Zhivago merely a love story would be undervaluing its bigger messages. The novel is full of wonderful passages and beautiful prose; and defines a generation of Russians during a cataclysmic time in history.
Certainly a classic and one which will stand the test of time - Doctor Zhivago is a must read for anyone who strives to better understand the Russian Revolution and who has a love of great literature.
This time around (maybe after reading other books of the period) Pasternak's dialogues didn't sound as natural as before, and in general, quoting another reviewer, it was not as "profound" as I would expect Nobel Prize writing to be. Probably at the time of its controversial publication (abroad at first, rather than in its home country) in the middle of the Cold War it was on that level, though. Lara Prescott's book hints at the reason. All in all, after 10 years from the last reading, I went down a notch in the book's appreciation, and now I give it only 4 stars.
Now that I have that out of the way, Mr. Pasternak's novel is very much a love story but rather than between man and woman, it is between a man and his country. Mr. Pasternak's love for Russia is evident in the care he takes with the scenery and developing the characters in such a way that the reader truly understands what it means to be Russian. His pastoral descriptions are breath-taking and make one want to move to Siberia. His dialogue is pure poetry.
There is so much that occurs in this novel that it is difficult to summarize them into one short assessment. Dr. Zhivago's life is truly tragic and mirrors pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. From the loss of his mother at a young age to the loss of his beloved Lara, Yuri faces world wars, civil war, imprisonment by revolutionaries, and so much more. Lara, too, faces her own trials and tribulations throughout the novel. In fact, the best description is that each major character faces his or her own personal revolution. Interspersed with the tragic details are details about life in revolutionary Russia.
Speaking of revolutionary Russia, as an American, the descriptions of life in the early stages of the U.S.S.R. is fascinating. Mr. Pasternak gives the reader a glimpse of a world that the Western world has vilified and which the Russian culture has kept secret from outsiders. It is an amazing study of culture and history, written by a man who truly does love his country. I feel privileged to have been able to get a glimpse of this mysterious world. In addition, it has helped me understand a bit more about the Cold War and the machinations behind it.
Make no mistake, this is an extremely challenging read. However, if you stick with it, you will be rewarded with a better understanding of Soviet Russia, the Russian culture, and with some of the most beautiful passages I have ever had the pleasure of reading. This isn't for the faint of heart, and I'll admit that I had to do some side research to make sure that I understood the history behind the story. In spite of that, I am extremely glad that I read this novel and would recommend it to others who are interested in Russian history.
Granted, I expected to have trouble with this book. I have a pretty shaky grasp of Russian history. It wasn't taught in my grade schools, and I didn't pursue it in college. My 9th grade English teacher taught us Animal Farm as an Aesop's-Fable-type story about the importance of knowing your place. I expected to get lost in some of the "who's fighting who when and ostensibly why" details of this novel, which stretches from the early 1900s through World War II--a pretty active time in Russia. And I did.
But I kept reading (rather, listening; I got it on CD for my commute). I read without an undeniable amount of eye rolling until chapter 13, "Opposite the House of Sculptures." And then it lost me; I turned. Glancing through other reviews on Goodreads, I'm not the only one who turned at this point. It's a ginormous chapter in which two characters who are supposed to have the most pure, passionate love ever known to existence speak to each other in impersonal monologues, explaining their feelings and large sections of the plot that the reader has already witnessed.
The chapter probably shouldn't feel so ridiculously long and boring and forehead-slappingly unbelievable. The reader is supposed to understand the intense passion that these two feel for each other. The problem, obviously, is that we don't. And this was the point in the book when I realized that there wasn't going to be any further character development. The characters were fully formed, but they were wooden. The only other explanation for their reactions, emotions, and absences we'd get would be delivered in monologue--either by themselves or the narrator.
I felt and understood this great love exactly once: [spoilers ahead!] Yuri is headed home to confess his affair with Lara to his pregnant wife, Tonia. On the way, he convinces himself that he really didn't end things right with Lara and should probably go back and talk to her again. (Eye rolling, because you want him to be better--this poet/philosopher/physician--but it's realistic.) He's so overjoyed at the prospect of seeing Lara again, even if it's just to break up with her. But then, on the way, when the reader is anticipating a beautiful love scene, he gets kidnapped by partisans. And marches around the woods with them for about 2 years. And then, when he finally escapes, he goes to Lara's house first so that they can give speeches at each other for hours. "Ugh." [spoilers over]
After that turn in chapter 13, Doctor Zhivago wasn't able to win me back. The coincidences get ludicrous. Reading this, you'd think there are only about four houses in Russia, because everyone keeps appearing at the same places. They walk straight across Siberia and end up at the same house. Really.
(All of that said, Pasternak comes up with some of the more beautiful nature descriptions I've ever read. His scene descriptions are the strongest part of the novel. And the relationship between Lara and Komarovsky in part 1 is, oddly, the most believable and human relationship in the book.)
Once I finished the book, I read the Wikipedia page and a few other online resources. Maybe, I thought, I missed something. Maybe each of these characters is a metaphor for some aspect of Russian culture or history that is lost on me in my ignorance. Maybe that would explain they way they all interact with each other, fade and reappear, go to their fates. But no. At least, I didn't find an interpretation that supported that theory.
So, the question remains: Why is this Nobel-winning novel such a drag? Maybe it's because it's written in a style that modern (American) readers aren't familiar enough with--like trying to watch Lawrence Olivier act and wondering how anyone could ever have stood him for a whole movie. It's not very old (smuggled out of Russia and published in Italy in 1958), but it's a bit old, and it's Russian. Or maybe the reason for its popularity and critical success during the Soviet era had a lot more to do with what it said about the Soviets and less about its plot and characterization. Are the readers or the book to blame?
I don't have enough information to answer the question. But if you're a student of Russian history, I encourage you to read Doctor Zhivago and tell me what you think. Let's talk about it. Because it's very possible I just missed something obvious, and you have something to teach me.
"And making an exception only for his parents, he gradually became contempuous of all grownups who had made this mess and were unable to clear it up. He as sure that when he was big he would straighten it all out."
On the human condition:
"And it is this that makes the whole of life so terrifying. Does it crush you by thunder and lightning? No, by oblique glances and whispered calumny. It is all treachery and ambiguity. Any single thread is as fragile as a cobweb, but just try to pull yourself out of the net, you only become more entangled.
And the strong are dominated by the weak and the ignoble."
"Oh, how one wishes sometimes to escape from the meaningless dullness of human eloquence, from all those sublime phrases, to take refuge in nature, apparently so inarticulate, or in the wordlessness of long, grinding labor, of sound sleep, of true music, or of a human understanding rendered speechless by emotion!"
"This was real life, meaningful existence, the actual goal of all quests, this was what art aimed at - homecoming, return to one's family, to oneself, to true existence."
"For centuries the mass of the people have lived impossible lives. Take any history textbook. Whatever it was called - feudalism and serfdom or capitalism and industrial workers, it was unnatural and unjust. This has been known for a long time, and the world has been preparing for an upheaval that would bring enlightenment to the people and put everything in its proper place."
On living in "interesting" times, and revolution:
"During the revolution it will seem to you, as it seemed to us at the front, that life has stopped, that there is nothing personal left, that there is nothing going on in the world except killing and dying. If we live long enough to read the chronicles and memoirs of this period, we shall realize that in these five or ten years we have experienced more than other people do in a century."
"The war had killed off the flower of Russia's manhood, now there was nothing but rotten, good-for-nothing rubbish left."
"I think a little philosophy should be added to life and art by way of seasoning, but to make it one's specialty seems to me as strange as eating nothing but horseradish."
On the body:
"Feel your bones. It's the bones that matter, the soft part doesn't matter at all, the soft parts mend in God's good time, and, as the saying goes, they're only for pleasure anyway."
If you've seen the original movie (I just ordered the DVD from the PBS version), then you've only got a part of the story behind Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago. In 519 pages of text (there are also "Zhivago's Poems" at the end), the reader is taken from the excesses of the Czarist regime through WWI and finally to the opening salvos of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and beyond.
While definitely a commentary on the state of affairs in Russia under two brutal regimes (the Czarist regime under Nicholas II and then the Soviets, the novel also conveys several other themes, such as survival at the cost of shedding old forms -- for example, the rise of modernity (not meaning "modern" in the sense of the here and now but doing away with the old to usher in a new era without the old forms binding people to the past) and what it meant in terms of human civilization under the socialists; and art and its relationship to personal expression when the outlet for personal expression is limited and often even circumscribed. So it does go well beyond the love story of Yurii and Lara that is well known from the movie.
I won't do a synopsis here because for the most part the story is so well known, but I will say that the book is quite good and well worth the time you'd invest into 500+ pages of a novel. There were places that I thought the author's musings could have either been left out or shortened, but all in all, it is a great novel and a good read. I would definitely recommend it.
"Your health is bound to be affected if, day by day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune."
While I was prepared for the somewhat dense prose that can be expected from Russian writers of the period, the virtual avalanche of Russian names almost did me in. It was only my familiarity with the story that allowed me to follow the events preceding Zhivago’s arrival in Yuriatin. By this time, the characters had become familiar, in all of their various names and diminutives.
As I mentioned, the writing can be dense at times, and as Pasternak was considered a more accomplished poet than novelist, somewhat florid. Nevertheless, the writing can be captivating and the imagery, when taken in conjunction with images from the motion picture, is, at times, spellbinding.
The story, Russia in a state of political and economic chaos during the period surrounding WWI and the Bolshevik revolution, is informative and educational. Only viewing the events through the trials and tribulations of individuals can the challenges of the period be fully appreciated.
If you are familiar with other works by Russian writers of the period and are comfortable with their style, you will likely enjoy this work. If you read it simply because you enjoyed the movie, you might not give it high marks.
It's easy to be put off by the large number of characters, most of whom are introduced in the first one hundred pages or so. It becomes clear as the story moves on that most characters are introduced for colour and scene.
Don't skip the poems! Pasternak is one of the most important poets of 20th century Russia. About the movie. The movie starring Omar Sharrif is a gorgeous work, and a must see; however, the book is quite different. Story elements are different, for one, plus the book has a mystical quality and more rumination concerning faith of various forms. Do not feel that if you see the movie, reading the book would be superfluous. Both are marvelous, but quite different.
My review on what I did manage to read:
Yura is a young Russian boy whose parents are aristocrats. The book opens with his mother's funeral and is followed immediately by his father's suicide. That pretty much sets the tone of the book. It is what I think of as typically Russian - lots of characters, lots of drama and passion, some religion and politics thrown in for good measure, and lots of unhappy people. In the 100 pages I read, there was 1 suicide, 2 attempts, 1 murder attempt, and 2 or 3 other deaths. These people seriously need some Prozac. And every single person who is on the page needs to be named, no way of telling who will be important later, unless of course you cheat and check on Sparknotes. I can't understand why this was ever classified as a romance.
Too much, just way too much. Not for me at all, certainly not right now, but probably not ever.