Friday, April 3, 2015

Door Stop: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

While Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago isn't as big of a novel as some of my other choices over 500 pages long (Atlas Shrugged, War and Peace, and Don Quixote are the ones that immediately come to mind), it is still a door stop, and a Russian one at that. But I managed to make it through and put together a post about it for today.

The Situation: The book opens in 1903 in Imperial Russia, and Yurii Zhivago is attending the funeral of his mother. His father had long abandoned him, but the narrator soon tells of the man's suicide by train after having squandered all of his money. Zhivago is taken in by his mother's brother, Nikolai Nikolaevich, who eventually moves him to Moscow to live with the Gromeko's, who have children of their own. It is under the Gromeko's roof that Zhivago will end up meeting the two most important women in his life, Tonia and Lara. Tonia is Alexander and Ana Gromeko's daughter, and she and Zhivago essentially grow up together. On her deathbed, Ana declares the two betrothed to one another before she finally passes away. Meanwhile, Lara lives with her mother and is tormented by a scandalous affair with an older man, Komarovsky. It is while Zhivago witnesses a scene between Lara and Komarovsky that he becomes infatuated with her.

The Problem: Eventually, Zhivago marries Tonia, while Lara marries her boyfriend Pasha. However, none of this stops him from loving her. Their paths cross when Zhivago is working as a doctor in a military hospital in another town, and Lara shows up in that same town looking for her husband and begins working as a nurse. They become good friends, but nothing more, and eventually Zhivago returns to Tonia. But their paths cross again when Zhivago and his wife flee to the Ural Mountains due to the hostilities during the October Revolution and subsequent Russian Civil War, where he spots Lara while visiting the local library and follows her home. It is during one of his many visits back to her apartment that they end up beginning an official affair. This complication will end up being overshadowed by the events of the Russian Civil War, as Zhivago's skills as a doctor are highly sought after, diverting whatever plans he had for living his own life. Loving just one woman will prove to be a luxury, much less trying to love two.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in early 20th century Russia. The novel starts in 1903 with the funeral of Zhivago's mother, and ends after his death, continuing into World War II. For pretty much the entire novel, there is some sort of fighting going on whether it be a war or a revolution. Much of what Zhivago decides to do with his life and where he decides to live is contingent upon what is going on in Russia politically. The fighting doesn't initially introduce him to Lara, but he does end up reuniting with her several times over the course of his life because of it and how he must navigate around it. Zhivago, much like Pasternak, was the consummate individual and realized that the revolution would not allow him to be the individual he wanted to be. And because of the novel's individual stance, the Russian government refused to publish it, so Pasternak had it published abroad. The US government actually saw the novel as great propaganda to be used against the Soviets both because of its political stance, and the fact that the Russians were so adamant to not have it in print. 

My Verdict: While I think that overall the novel made for a great story, I had a very hard time seeing it as a romantic story or a moving biography like so many other people seem to do. Part of that may be my inability to have any sympathy or feeling for the actual character of Dr. Zhivago. I couldn't quite fully believe his supposed devotion to his wife Tonia, while he was so willing and eager to visit Lara and carry on his affair with her. And while he seemed to be a decent doctor, I still felt he was lacking as a man. And perhaps Zhivago is supposed to be a product of the conflict and turmoil that was going on in Russia at the time. But even so, when the man was able to be with his wife, he willingly chose to visit another woman, who was also married to someone else. As for it being a touching biography, I couldn't see much about Zhivago's life that would merit someone making a point in writing a biography about him.

Favorite Moment: When Zhivago is first discovering the library in the town of Yuriatin. The scene reminded me of the feelings I get when going through a library for the first time.

Favorite Character: I actually can't seem to choose a favorite character for this novel. I am tempted to choose Tonia, Zhivago's wife, but she honestly isn't in that much of the book compared to some of the other characters.

Recommended Reading: I you wish to read more Russian literature that includes stories or romance and heartbreak, then I recommend Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It is a lot longer, but not as long as War and Peace, which would also be a good choice.    

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