Monday, December 30, 2013

1958: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

The Author:

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) was born into a wealthy assimilated Jewish family in Moscow.  His father was a painter and art professor and his mother was a pianist.  Leo Tolstoy was a close friend of the Pasternak family and his family became part of the Tolstoyan movement.*   Pasternak went to college to study music in Moscow, but in 1910 began taking studies in philosophy at the University of Marburg, in Germany.

Pasternak returned to Russia at the outbreak of World War One. In 1914, he also published his first collection of poetry, Twin in the Clouds.  Pasternak remained in Russia through the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War.  In 1922, as the Civil War ended and the USSR was formed, Pasternak published his collection of poems titled, My Sister, Life, which earned him massive acclaim.  In 1922, Pasternak married Evgeniia Lourie with whom he had a son.  They divorced in 1931. He married Zinaida Neigauz in 1934.

Over the decades following the Civil War, the Soviet Union began to institute stricter censorship and harsher punishments.  In 1934, one of his friends and colleagues, Osip Mandelstam, was abducted by the secret police.  More of his friends were taken in the Great Purge of 1937.  Pasternak believed he and his wife would be taken also, after he refused to sign a statement supporting the death penalty for those swept up in the purge, a statement which was signed by most of the Union of Soviet Writers.  

In 1946, Pasternak began his affair with Olga Ivinskaya, a single mother working for the literary magazine, Novy Mir.  By all accounts, Ivinskaya was Pasternak's muse and their relationship was incredibly important to both of them.  In 1949, Ivinskaya was arrested by the KGB and sent to the gulags for five years.    

In 1956, Pasternak finished Doctor Zhivago, but no Russian printing house was willing to publish it.  An Italian publishing agent in Russia managed to arrange an Italian translation which he brought back with him to Italy, where it was published in 1957.  The book was banned in the USSR, and a smear campaign against Doctor Zhivago and Boris Pasternak was launched by the Soviet press.  In 1958, the Nobel Committee awarded Pasternak the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he declined, fearing harsh reprisal from the Soviet government.  This inspired the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoon by Bill Mauldin:

"I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?"

Pasternak remained in Russia.  He announced plans to write a trilogy of plays, but died of lung cancer before the first was completed.

The Book:   

Length: 563 pages
Subject/Genre: Post-Revolutionary Russia/Historical fiction

What can I say about Doctor Zhivago that hasn't been said before?  The old paperback I picked up boasts on its cover that it's "One of the great novels of the century."  Which, along with some books on this list (e.g. The Grapes of Wrath, All Quiet on the Western Front), makes it a bit difficult for me to review.  But I'll try.  

If you're not familiar with the story, it follows Yurii Zhivago, the titular doctor.  Beginning around the Revolution of 1905, then skipping around up to the October Revolution in 1917, we see Zhivago's growth into adulthood as well as a parallel focus on Lara Guishar.  Zhivago is orphaned at a young age and sent to live with the Gromekos, a wealthy couple whose daughter, Antonina (aka Tonia), Yurii eventually marries.  Lara is the daughter of a widowed French émigré.  Her mother owns a dress shop which is abandoned in the revolution.  As a teenager, Lara has an ongoing affair with her mother's beau.  All in all, there are about half a dozen characters who show up frequently throughout the novel, fighting with or against each other as circumstances determine.      

One of the great things about this book, and one part of what makes the story so compelling, is the perpetual grey area the characters inhabit.  The novel is extremely political, as one would expect from the subject matter.  But Pasternak manages to capture the complexity of the situation, politically and morally.  When a violently oppressive system is overthrown, and a massive power struggle consumes a large nation, when dozens of competing factions vie for political and military supremacy, morality becomes obfuscated.  Zhivago is a rich Moscow intellectual, who supported the overthrow of the Tsar and had great hopes for a socialist state, yet the very fact that he is a rich intellectual from the capital makes him an enemy to many of the people he ideologically supports.      

But beyond the politics, there is a beautiful story about a man trying to survive a troubling and dangerous era.  I don't want to give away too much of the story, but suffice it to say that Pasternak succeeds in creating a character as multi-faceted and complex as his times.  

I want to include a particularly fantastic passage here, which has nothing to do with the review, except that I wanted to share it.  It's a bit long, so feel free to skip it if you want.  Yurii Zhivago, speaking of death:

"'You want to know my opinion as a scientist? Perhaps some other time? No? Right now? Well, as you wish.  But it's difficult like that, all of a sudden.' And there and then he delivered a whole impromptu lecture, astonished that he could do it.

"Resurrection.  In the crude from in which it is preached to console the weak, it is alien to me.  I have always understood Christ's words about the living and the dead in a different sense.  Where could you find room for the hordes of people accumulated over thousands of years? The universe isn't big enough for them; God, the good, and meaningful purpose would be crowded out.  They'd be crushed by these throngs of greedy merely for the animal life.      

"But all the time, life, one, immense, identical throughout its innumerable combinations abd transformations, fills the universe and is continually reborn.  You are anxious whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you rose from the dead when you were born and you didn't notice it.    

"Will you feel pain? Do the tissues feel their disintegration? In other words, what will happen to your consciousness?  But what is consciousness?  Let's see.  A conscious attempt to fall asleep is sure to produce insomnia, to try to be conscious of one's own digestion is a sure way to upset the stomach.  Consciousness is a poison when we apply it to ourselves.  Consciousness is a light directed outward, it lights up the way ahead of us so that we don't stumble.  It's like the headlights on a locomotive--turn them inward and you'd have a crash.    

"So what will happen to your consciousness?  Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else's.  Well, what are you?  There's the point.  Let's try to find out.  What is it about you that you have always known as yourself?  What are you conscious of in yourself?  Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels?   No.  However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity--in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people.  And now listen carefully.  You in others--this is your soul.  This is what you are.  This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life--your soul, your immortality, your life in others.  And what now? You have always been in others and you will always remain in others.  And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory?  This will be you--the you that enters the future and becomes a part of it."

Doctor Zhivago has a famous film adaptation.  The 1965 film version directed by David Lean and starring Omar Sharif (Lawrence of Arabia) was a giant financial success, remaining the eighth highest grossing film ever, after adjusting for inflation.

While this is certainly an excellent novel, I'm not sure I'd recommend it to everybody.  If you're looking for a light read, or have no interest in the politics and ideology of Revolutionary-era Russia, you probably won't enjoy it.  It's a very dense book (which is pretty characteristic of Russian lit) and requires at least a bit of knowledge of that time period (e.g., if you don't know the difference between the Reds, Greens, and Whites, you may end up confused), but this is nothing ten minutes on wikipedia can't help you out with.  

The Bestsellers of 1958:
1. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
2. Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
4. Around the World with Auntie Mame by Partick Dennis
5. From the Terrace by John O'Hara
6. Eloise at Christmastime by Kay Thompson
7. Ice Palace by Edna Ferber
8. The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton
9. The Enemy Camp by Jerome Weidman
10. Victorine by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Also published in 1958:
Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart
Truman Capote - Breakfast at Tiffany's
Ian Fleming - Dr. No
Jack Kerouac - The Dharma Bums

Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago. 1958. Trans. Max Hayward, Manya Harari, and Bernard 
          Guerney. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981. Print.


  1. FYI, this post isn't linked to from the "100 years, 94 books" entry. I follow from there, and I was worried you had stopped posting.

    By the way, Thanks so much for these. I've added three books outside my normal range to my to-read list based on your posts. I always enjoy reading them!

  2. Thanks! Things have been a bit hectic and I completely forgot to update the list page. I'm glad to hear you're enjoying the blog.